Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross --- The MoS Review Week continues with a film whose reputation for sheer Bigness has never been equalled. Ben-Hur’s size makes for lofty expectations, which MGM was happy to encourage: as the studio faced financial ruin in the late 50s, it made a major gamble on the film that would command the highest budget a film had ever had. Today, such blockbuster gambles are the ethos of the major film studios, who straightjacket themselves and their audiences to story formulas calculated by their fiscal success, but at the time Ben-Hur was an unprecedented event. The studio’s first choice was King Vidor, who had just directed the 1956 adaptation of War and Peace, but he refused. They next turned to William Wyler, whose reputation as a bankable director of large scale productions and critical clout made him a natural alternative. Wyler, having just finished directing the western epic The Big Country with Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, would reach the zenith of production scale with this film. Three years later, he bailed on preproduction of The Sound of Music for the much smaller The Collector; he had nothing left to prove. As the tagline for Monty Python and the Holy Grail observed in 1975, historical cinema in following decades “makes Ben-Hur look like an epic.” Ben-Hur’s size is absolutely essential to its story, which centers on a wealthy Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) of Jerusalem. His boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to Jerusalem after a long absence as the leader of the city’s Roman occupation. After a joyous reunion, Messala reveals his intent to crush the local Jewish rebellion, and demands that Judah inform on those who count Rome as an enemy. Judah, who opposes both violent rebellion and the occupation, refuses, and so Messala frames him for a crime of rebellion, imprisons his sister and mother, and condemns him to near-certain death as a rower in Roman galley ships. Judah, who begins the story as a pacifist, vows to return to Jerusalem someday to take vengeance against Messala. Much of what remains takes the form of a revenge saga, wherein Judah finds his way back to status and Jerusalem both by cunning and by providence (more on the latter later). That drive for vengeance fuels much of the film’s middle third, rather than the character drama of the former and latter parts. Thankfully, for much of the center stretch the story keeps its human bearings by means of Jack Hawkins, but after he departs the picture, there is an unrewarding sequence when Judah returns to his home in Jerusalem and finds his love interest and former slave Esther waiting for him. The problem is that the love scenes between Judah Ben-Hur and Esther (Haya Harareet) provide virtually nothing of substance to the story or characters. Esther, a completely stock type, does not suffice an emblem of Judah’s former life; that role is better filled by his imprisoned family. Nor does she suffice as an ambassador of time’s passage in Judea; her loyal increasingly decrepit father achieves that with greater poignancy and personality, qualities absent from the stock type that Harareet was saddled with. Admittedly, Judah’s mother and sister are little better, but the script does not place them in scenes that require great complexity of character. Thankfully, Harareet makes a commendable go at her limited material, and is represented by the most gorgeous theme of the musical score. The whole of Miklós Rózsa’s music for Ben-Hur is worthy of adulation, full of emotional and intelligently orchestrated themes and performed with masterful tonal control. Astounding moments abound, from the wrenching violin melody of the love theme (that high note!) to the awe-inspiring synchronization of the galley sequences. Even in its weakest moments (particularly those love scenes), Ben-Hur is always mesmeric at least in part, and that part is very often Rózsa’s score. Rózsa went on to score three more biblical epics, King of Kings, El Cid, and Sodom and Gomorrah, efforts that nearly equal his work on Ben-Hur. As I said, the score rescues some of Ben-Hur’s less successful scenes, but when those scenes are succeeding, and the sometimes-patchy script is working near the level of the production’s other elements, the film packs a tremendous whallop. This is most true of scenes involving Jesus Christ, who, despite his minimal screen time, is the second most important character after Judah. The Christ story is where Ben-Hur derives most of its narrative power; starting with a wordless prologue depicting the Nativity, Christ is mentioned at several points, and in a few key scenes his story intersects with Judah’s. These scenes, which make a conspicuous point to conceal Jesus’s face, are the most emotionally affecting in the picture, putting up the embittered and hopeless Ben-Hur against the charity and peace of Christ. In these moments, Heston is better than I have ever seen him elsewhere, using his face to convey his inner conflict with staggering detail, and without the sheer size of Judah's story behind that fate, those moments wouldn't carry the same impact. Of all the film’s explicitly Christian sequences, the best is the most Christian of them all. The crucifixion sequence is a marvell of reverent filmmaking; it is perhaps a testament to both the film’s failings and successes that the root of that scene’s power is not the healing miracle that occurs, but the dramatic weight of the crucifixion; the ideas embodied by Christ are rendered so vivid that one cannot help but be moved by the closeups of flowing water that cap off the climax. Wyler directs that Christ scene with visual abandon, but provides excellent work throughout the film, using the gigantic 2.76:1 aspect ratio of the MGM Camera 65 process to create lovely horizontal compositions. Wyler displays a subtle but exacting hand in both the blocking and performances of his actors, never allowing the grandeur of the sets and other period ornamentation to distract from the human focal points. But the chariot race, the best and most famous of all of Ben-Hur was not directed by Wyler. It was the work of veteran second-unit action directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, whose camera placement and control over the stunts and choreography is a work of utmost technical proficiency and artistry. The intensity is furthered by the soundtrack, which punctuates the constant thundering of the horses with the higher tones of the roaring crowd, and the editing by John D. Dunning and Ralph E. Winters, which is marvellous throughout the picture, but never moreso than the pulsing energy and incredible spatial clarity on offer in the race. Had Ben-Hur nothing more to offer than this nine-minute sequence, its nearly four hours of running time would have proven worthy of cinematic history; that its moments of sepectacle are matched by moments of intelligence and inspiration make it worthy of enjoyment as a whole.


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