1950s, Drama, Epic, Religious

Ben-Hur (1959)

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Director: William Wyler

By Roderick Heath

Ben-Hur is still amongst the most dramatically nuanced, intricately constructed, and sheerly entertaining of the old-school blockbuster epics. The film’s reputation for at-all-costs size and bludgeoning bluster has always somewhat obscured what a damn well-put-together piece of moviemaking it is. It was a career highlight for William Wyler, who, after decades of refining his cinematic technique, applied his integrity and care in drawing out realism in his acting and approach to mise-en-scène to the most unlikely genre and came up trumps. The pressure was on Wyler, as MGM spared no expense on the risky production to save itself from bankruptcy; he likened the experience to working as one of the film’s galley slaves. Nonetheless, with its great cost and even greater profit, Ben-Hur represented the high-water mark of Hollywood’s efforts to combat the encroachment of television, both in terms of popular appeal, production craft, and confidence in the act of total cinematic creation. Within a decade, filmmaking looked and sounded completely different.

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Ben-Hur was chosen as a project by MGM executives and brought to fruition by producer Sam Zimbalist, who died during filming, because of the great success they’d had more than 30 years before with Fred Niblo’s entertaining, if comparatively cartoonish silent version, a production that had been hellishly protracted and fatal for several crew members. Wyler’s film is often considered together with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) for obvious reasons: both are religious-themed sagas, both star Charlton Heston, and both feature Martha Scott as his on-screen mother. Actually, the films are quite different. DeMille’s film is spectacle in the purest sense, achieved in his cheerfully two-dimensional, almost ritualised style; Ben-Hur attempts to be intimate and artful in balancing out the grander elements, and employs naïf touches more carefully throughout. DeMille based his visual style on academic historical painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whilst Ben-Hur’s production designers and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees obviously went to school on Renaissance Italian painters like Caravaggio and Michelangelo, whose Sistine Chapel panel “The Creation of Adam” provides the iconic backdrop for the credits.

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Ben-Hur was, of course, based on the novel by Lew Wallace, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, and the narrative sustains a counterpoint of the life of Jesus and its hero, a fictional Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), commencing and finishing explicitly with Gospel scenes. But at the heart of Ben-Hur is a Dumas-esque tale of betrayal and revenge. The pretitle sequence, a visually striking Nativity scene, hits exactly the right momentous note, with the standard picture-book images of the Magi gathering along with sundry locals to look upon the holy family. A shepherd blows his horn to announce something incredulously wonderful in the most nondescript of forms, ringing out with curious eeriness as the Star of Bethlehem fades, leaving us momentarily with the remote, rugged landscape of ancient Judea before Miklos Rosza’s grandiose horns blare out a thrilling fanfare. And yet a stand-out quality of the film is that the first hour is chiefly a series of carefully wrought, complex, interpersonal scenes that build the drama in a mosaic of phrases and gestures.

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Messala (Boyd), appointed as military governor of Judea where his father had once served, returns to the land where he grew up, full of swaggering pride in gaining his appointment and overjoyed to see his youthful chum Judah again. “Close in every way!” Judah states happily when the two men bond over a little javelin target practice. But the differences enforced by time, nationality, and personal philosophy keep revealing themselves, in their first meeting and again when Messala visits Judah’s home, greeted like family by Judah’s mother Miriam (Scott) and especially his besotted sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell, Wyler’s sister-in-law), becoming evident in such throwaway yet charged moments as when Messala realises he’s committed a faux pas in recounting tales of glorious Roman slaughters to Judah’s family—citizens of a conquered nation.

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But the break doesn’t fully manifest until Messala presses Judah to give him the names of Judean patriots who dislike Roman hegemony; their rift suddenly defines itself in religious, personal, cultural, and political terms. When Tirzah accidentally knocks a tile from the roof of their house, causing the new governor to be injured, Messala grasps the opportunity to further his career and punish his former friend by having Judah, Miriam, Tirzah, and Judah’s slave accountant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) imprisoned. Judah spends the next four years chained to the oar of a Roman war galley.

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One of the assistant directors on this film was 30-year-old Sergio Leone. I’ve always suspected the influence of Wyler’s technique on his—that way both men had of constructing quiet, rhythmic, slow-burn sequences full of small but eventually revelatory details. It’s particularly evident in a scene like the one on which the ship Judah is serving is taken over by the new admiral, Quintus Arias (Jack Hawkins), who, fascinated by Judah’s still-fiery hate and determination, tests him and all the other slaves by making them row at increasingly high speeds, trying to shake the impenetrably hard stare Judah keeps fixed on him. It’s a galvanising scene that possesses undercurrents of emotional, physical, and sexual power. Judah is subsequently herded up to Arias’ cabin and offered a chance to become a gladiator, his near-nakedness and the disparity of power between the two men full of potent homoerotic overtone. Although rebuffed, Arias is still intrigued enough to make sure Judah is left unchained during the subsequent, thunderous battle with Macedonian pirates.

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Another strong aspect of Ben-Hur is the level of physical grit and gore it allows to seep into the usually cardboard epic genre, and the sea battle offers great examples—a man so desperate to get a chain off his ankle he rubs the flesh off his leg, another man with a severed arm sporting a stump of bone, and half-a-dozen rowers crushed by the great ram of an enemy ship puncturing the hull. Whilst the model work of the ships shows its age, the editing and staging of the whole sequence is impeccable cinema. Judah, having saved Quintus from the ship and stopped him from committing suicide when he thinks the battle lost, gains his freedom thanks to the amusingly dotty-seeming Tiberias (George Relph), and becomes Arias’ adopted son and a champion chariot driver.

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Judah finally returns to Judea to meet in swift succession one of the Magi, Balthazar (old Scots stalwart and compulsory epic star Finlay Currie), who’s searching for the holy child he saw born, and his host, Sheikh Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). Before you can say “dramatic device,” the Sheikh offers Judah the chance to race his four white Arabian steeds against Messala’s champion blacks at the great circus in Jerusalem, an offer Judah initially turns down. When he finally gets home, he finds his house being cared for by Simonides’ daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who was supposed to have been married, but instead has settled for caring for her father, who emerged crippled from the prison where Miriam and Tirzah remain. Judah confronts Messala and demands he get them out, but when they are extracted from the black hole they’ve been kept in for five years, they’re found to have contracted leprosy. Returning to the house of Hur at night, they beg Esther to keep their illness secret, so she tells Judah they died in jail, prompting him to finally seek out revenge on Messala on the circus track.

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Ben-Hur is melodrama, no question, but the film aims unabashedly to transcend into myth, a form always distinguished by a simultaneous cosmic and microcosmic sweep. Wyler pays close attention to totems and symbols with important emblems recurring throughout. Horses, from the pale horse Judah offers Messala at the start to the Manichaeistic duel of their white and black steeds in the chariot race, are emblems of good and evil. Water—the water that Jesus gives to Judah at the moment of crisis, and that Judah tries to give back at the end, the cleansing rain that falls at the end—is the sustenance of faith. Rings—the ring of slavery Judah removes from Esther at the outset to keep as an emblem of chastity, and the ring of Arias—are the bonds of family and loyalty. The crossbeams at which Judah and Messala aim their javelins clearly anticipate the crucifix, and the spear they both throw in friendship Judah soon enough takes up and aims at his betraying friend. The structure of the drama sustains the weight of the metaphysical mythology, particularly in building first to the good-versus-evil climax of the chariot race and then the more subtle miracle that erases suffering.

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A majority of the screenplay was famously rewritten by Gore Vidal, but credited only to initial author Karl Tunberg, and Vidal’s contributions are usually only mentioned in terms of his playful gay subtext. But Vidal’s fingerprints are all over other aspects of the script, particularly in the portrayal of militaristic imperialism, which reflects a lot of Vidal’s meditations on the patrician America with which he was familiar, and the pointed portrayal of Judah’s refusal to name names to Messala: Judah is destroyed by blacklisting. “Patriots?” Messala repeatedly sneers when refusing to countenance the idea Judah offers that men who dislike the system aren’t necessarily dangerous or wrong. It’s also hard to miss the political wish-fulfillment of Jewish Judah and Arab Ilderim joining forces to combat a common enemy. Ilderim even pins a Star of David to Judah’s cloak to “shine out for your people and mine” before the race, and the conclusion is altered from the book (where Judah became a Roman aiding the Christians in getting a foothold there) for a true homecoming.

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Whilst the story is officially New Testament, the plot is closer to Job, and the characterisations of Judah and Messala stand in effectively for a battle of creeds as well as more personal motives; Judah eventually channels his hate for Messala into a general disdain for Rome, which he feels twisted his friend up with evil values. Wyler’s deep-focus, widescreen compositions, always a hallmark of his style, are used throughout for grand dramatic purposes, as when Judah hides behind a stone whilst Esther gives food to Miriam and Tirzah—the landscape and composition of the shot communicating the jagged pain he’s in. The moment when Judah and his family retreat under a hail of stones by people hysterical at the proximity of lepers, whilst the blind man to whom they just gave a coin sadly drops that sullied money onto the ground, offers wild disparities of provoked emotion encompassed within the same shot.

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I love the gothic vibe that infuses the film at several junctures, particularly the creepy scene when Miriam and Tirzah encounter Esther in the courtyard of the house of Hur, swathed in concealing robes like living ghosts with Hammer horror leaves swirling desolately in the winds; Judah later describes their state as like “living in a grave!” The conclusion is similarly lushly stylised, as Wyler cleverly has the miracle of their healing revealed in strobing flashes of lightning, the Hurs contorting in pain and the world consumed by momentary furious darkness, as a flailing storm plunges and washes Jesus’ spilt blood down to mingle with the earth. This works better than the Sunday school visions of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount and the passion play affectations of his end, but the overt contrast between the patient, tactile realism of the rest of the film and the mystic visions of Jesus does place the juxtaposition of the sacred, profane, and merely earthly with fervent effect.

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Of course, the chariot race is the film’s great set piece, and that sequence, directed from start to finish by Andrew Marton and realised thanks to the skills of Yakima Canutt and his team of stunt artists, is still an effortless contender for the greatest action sequence in cinema history. That’s largely because it’s a carefully composed movie in and of itself, with fluent logic of detail, from the wicked spikes that jut from Messala’s chariot and Judah removing his helmet to make sure his enemy can see his face, to the climax of the race when Messala gives into his most debased impulses and makes the mistake of trying to beat Judah—he starts whipping him—rather than his chariot. The widescreen compositions are particularly great in absorbing the landscape of wildly working horses and wheels, the hysterical tumble of events as chariots crash, men are killed, and Judah himself is nearly vaulted head over heels when his vehicle has to jump a crashed opponent’s. The decision to leave music out of the scene is particularly admirable, opting for the urgent thrum of hooves and the roars of the crowd, building to the inevitable comeuppance of Messala, stamped into a bloody mess and lolling broken in the sand, sudden shame and regret stamped on Judah’s face.

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The old line “should’ve ended at the chariot race” has never really rung true for me, though, because Ben-Hur still manages to go to an interesting place after this; the simple effect of the race’s concussive, satisfying violence gives way to a portrayal of the inability of such vengeance to heal hurt. Messala’s so desperate to keep hurting Judah even after death that he delivers an evil piece of news rather than let surgeons try to save his life, and his malignancy, as Esther somewhat too pointedly states, seems to take Judah over. Judah rejects Pontius Pilate’s (Frank Thring Jr.) offer of protection as a gnawing, increasingly inhuman passion for violent cleansing consumes him. As the religious vignettes move in, meaningful lines like “In his pain, this look of peace!” get a bit much, but it’s still notable to me how carefully Wyler builds the rhythm of the film toward the final miracle. He also manages, unlike so many screen depictions of the Crucifixion, to communicate a proper metaphoric sense of what the event signifies by concentrating not merely on horror, but also on consequence; the healing of Miriam and Tirzah is in itself symbolic of moral and emotional renewal. Wyler, who was Jewish, wanted to make a film that appealed to all faiths in portraying faith itself as an ennobling ideal rather than a mere sectarian triumph. Even a godless heathen like me likes the point.

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Ben-Hur cleaned up at the 1959 Oscars, taking home 11 statuettes, including one for Heston. It might not be Heston’s best performance—he’s arguably better, for instance, in El Cid—as he tends to hit some of his dramatic moments too hard, too early, but it’s still admirable how he prevents the mass of the production from crushing him. He acts like a man with a weight on his shoulders, his great bearish frame buckling under the impact of suffering, constantly wishing to bring his innate physical and psychological strength to bear, but hampered by his own better sense and will. Boyd, on the other hand, is beautifully, perversely malicious as Messala: I especially love the mordant precision with which he pronounces the lone word “Return?” in mocking Judah’s promise of revenge. Neither man was a subtle actor, but the job of keeping their bristling bombast in balanced counterpoint is nicely fulfilled by Harareet, the only actual Palestinian in the film. The more I watch the film, the more I admire her performance in a problematic role. Griffith, as Ilderim, gives the kind of hammy, scene-stealing performance that’s easy to love, and Hawkins is as fine as he ever was. No, Ben-Hur’s not perfect—I’d really like to know who does Jesus’ hair—and yet it still stands effortlessly tall.

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