Monday, June 09, 2008

Ben-Hur (1959)

When Charlton Heston passed away, I really wanted to watch this movie on the big screen, having only seen it on TV, and thankfully, the American Cinematheque obliged this last Friday.

On the big screen, Ben-Hur is certainly an impressive film, with those thousands of extras, lavish costumes, spectacular set pieces, and cameos from the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus himself. In addition, Charlton Heston gives a performance that's truly worthy of his Best Actor Academy Award, fierce yet sensitive at the same time. Stephen Boyd, as Messala, and Jack Hawkins, as the Roman patrician who befriends Ben-Hur, both give terrific performances as well.

All that said, one of the most famous reviews of this movie (from Dwight MacDonald) compared it to 'watching a freight train go by' which has more than a little truth. It lumbers along carefully, methodically, unsurprisingly. Even though Boyd and Hawkins deliver strong work, the film's other Academy Award for acting went to Hugh Griffith as the comic-relief Arab character, who today feels dated and silly. Haya Harareet, as Ben -Hur's love interest, is pretty but her scenes with Heston are stiff and by-the-numbers.

The real spark in the movie is that between Ben-Hur and Messala, especially in the movie's early scenes when the two men greet each other warmly, like long-lost friends. Gore Vidal, who worked on the film as an uncredited script doctor, tells a story of suggesting a homoerotic subtext to director William Wyler; that the two characters had been lovers years before and that their scenes should be played accordingly, with a certain passion turning to jealousy and envy, to more strongly motivate the film's narrative of betrayal. According to Vidal, Wyler suggested this to Stephen Boyd but not to Heston. Heston denied Vidal's influence on the finished film and knowledge of any such subtext, but when you're watching it there's definitely an energy between the two actors that goes beyond the mere reacquaintance of two men who used to be friends.

Above it all, this is a film about a wronged Jew being tempted by revenge who just happens to be hanging around at the time of Jesus's crucifixion, who winds up converting to the infant religion of Christianity after witnessing the passion on the cross. It doesn't hurt that the whole deal is accompanied by a miracle in which Ben-Hur's mother and sister are cured of their leprosy - indeed, Ben-Hur ends up getting pretty much everything he wants by the end of the film, his family reunited, wealth, fame, and a beautiful wife. If everybody received a deal like that, the work of the early Christian missionaries would be a lot easier.

All in all, it's something of a mixed bag for me, a stiff, slightly dated, thoroughly self-important film that nonetheless succeeds as a piece of monumental Hollywood entertainment, more worthwhile for its thrill-ride aspects (the naval battle, the chariot race, the valley of the lepers - things that we now consider Spielbergian) than for any special wisdom or enlightenment.



Anonymous said...

Heston and Boyd are great but you're right, most of the other actors are either too stiff or somewhat cartoony and dated. For sheer spectacle, though, this is a tough film to beat. The chariot race was sort of the D-Day sequence of its day.

Alexander Coleman said...

Whoops... That was me.

Interesting story about Wyler telling Boyd to play up the homoerotic angle while not letting Heston in on it. That makes the Boyd character's hurtful perspective make more sense, with unrequited love.

Craig Kennedy said...

I hadn't heard the Vidal/Wyler anecdote before. Interesting.

Sidenote: Did you go into this screening expecting 70mm and were you disappointed you didn't get it?
I ask because a certain crabby Hollywood blogger said he felt ripped off when in fact nothing in the American Cinematheque materials said anything about it being a 70mm print and in fact they'd just recently concluded a 70mm retro which would've been a fine time to show Ben Hur if they had access to a print.

Jeff McMahon said...

Of course not, Craig, because there was no reason for any reasonable, sane person to think such a thing. I was happy just to see the movie on something bigger than a TV screen, and since they were probably trying to get it to screen ASAP after Heston died, I don't think the Egyptian was trying to be choosy. I don't remember seeing this movie in their annual/semiannual 70mm series, which usually includes stuff like Playtime, Apocalypse Now, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. But I'm glad to know I'm not missing much by never visiting HE anymore.

Re: homoeroticism, it makes sense, Messala is the more forceful and active character in the movie's first act so there was really no need for Heston to have that extra layer of subtext in his head, which would have probably annoyed him anyway.

Craig Kennedy said...

See, you're a rational person and not a human assfinger. You're also smart enough not to bitch and moan about a bad choice when you were given all the information you needed to make that choice.

The American Cinematheque showed a 70mm print of Ben Hur in 2000 that they had to go all the way to Australia to get. At the time they said it was the only screenable print in existence.

The film's original elements have since been restored and they were used to make the recent DVD release, but that doesn't mean that new prints were struck or that thos prints are available for screenings.

What bugged me about his comments was the presumption that the American Cinematheque had somehow dropped the ball or pulled one over on an unsuspecting audience when in fact they're one of the things that make me happy I live in Los Angeles.

These are film lovers who would do the best they could to present the film in the best way possible. If they could have gotten their hands on a suitable 70mm print at the time they wanted to schedule it, they most certainly would have.

OK, done ranting. That whole episode just really made me mad. It was enough to provoke a now rare comment from me, though of course since I didn't insult his age I got absolutely no response.

Jeff McMahon said...

Maybe next time.

To be fair, feelings of entitlement seem to be pretty common in the world of the professional movie reviewer. But he definitely takes it to a new self-centered level.