Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ben-Hur (1959)

Director: William Wyler                                    Writer: Karl Tunberg
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                                Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet and Hugh Griffith

I can imagine most modern audiences for this film skipping Miklós Rózsa’s majestic overture to Ben-Hur on their DVD players in order to get right to the film. But this is a shame. Back in the late fifties, and for a decade after, huge epics like this were something that audiences had no way to experience except in the theater. And it was the overtures that connected the experience for viewers to something like opera or the concert hall and made going to the movies something special. Biblical epics like this also counted on the reigning Christian ethos in the country to guarantee enough of an audience to earn back their enormous production costs. Of course the picture was a juggernaut at the Academy Awards that year, winning eleven Oscars out of twelve nominations, only losing out for best adapted screenplay by Karl Tunberg. Director William Wyler, Miklós Rózsa --a great score, but for me not as memorable as his music for Julius Caesar--Charlton Heston, and Hugh Griffith all won, as did a host of technical artists on the film. And, of course, the film took home top honors for best picture, one of many big budget extravaganzas that took the prize beginning in the early fifties with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth and ending with Oliver! in 1968.

The story begins with the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary and the three wise men, and this is followed by a Roman fanfare and the opening titles. When a Roman legion headed by Stephen Boyd marches into Jerusalem, old commander Andre Morell seems a little too eager to hand over the command. It seems the new Messiah is stirring up the minds of the Jews to intellectual rebellion, something Morell feels is impossible to control. But Boyd is ecstatic, and sees the new post as the fulfilling a boyhood dream. The Jewish prince Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston, grew up with Boyd and pays him a visit, but childhood loyalties begin to fray when it soon becomes clear that Boyd expects Heston to inform on his fellow Jews who are unhappy with Roman occupation and the two part as enemies. Later Heston meets with one of his slaves, businessman Sam Jaffee, and falls in love with his daughter Haya Harareet who is due to be married soon. But when the new governor comes and Heston and his sister are watching from above the street, a tile breaks loose and hits the governor, nearly killing him. Boyd uses the incident to pay Heston back for refusing to help him and sentences him to slavery on a Roman galley and throwing his sister and mother, Martha Scott, in prison. On the way the prisoners stop in Galilee and Jesus gives a cup of water to the thirsty Heston. Jack Hawkins is the commander of one of the ships Heston is assigned to and during a battle, when the ship goes down, Heston saves Hawkins from drowning and returns with him to Rome as his personal slave and a few years later as his adopted son.

Eventually Heston returns to Judea and meets up with the Arab prince Hugh Griffith who runs horses. Since Heston learned to race in Rome and was the best, Griffith wants him to race against Boyd and defeat him in front of the Judeans. At the same time, Jesus is beginning his mission and the two stories intertwine before the climactic chariot race. One appreciates William Wyler’s more measured approach to the subject right away, especially when thinking about the obvious parallels in the films by Cecil B. DeMille, specifically The Ten Commandments. Much of the bombast and scenery chewing in DeMille’s films are mercifully absent here. But DeMille was also remaking his own film, where Wyler had the opportunity to update the silent classic of the same name. MGM’s Ben-Hur from 1925 had been something of an ensemble production with as many as five directors working on the picture, with Fred Niblo receiving final credit. The vast expanse of the sets seen in wide-screen CinemaScope is one of the delights of the remake. And though the special effects can be obvious at times, the grand scale of the backgrounds more than makes up for it. The chariot race itself is a tremendous achievement. The tracking shots through the stadium floor are breathtaking, and the suspense is increased by not having any music throughout.

While the subtitle of the film is “A Story of the Christ,” this is very much Heston’s picture, and he dominates the screen. One of the fascinating aspects of the actual story is the loving relationship that Heston, a Jew in the picture, has with Hugh Griffith, an Arab. In many ways it echoes the father-son relationship the star has with the Roman Jack Hawkins in the first half of the film, but has far reaching implications for peace in the region even back then. The last forty minutes of the film is something of an anti-climax in dealing with Heston’s conversion to Christianity, though it is nice to see the ideas of Christ presented in a way that is free from the baggage of organized religion. MGM had the idea to remake the film back in 1952, but the expansive scope resulted in years of delay. Ironically, it wasn’t until the studio saw the success of The Ten Commandments at Paramount in 1956 that they went forward with a full commitment to the project in late 1957. It took over half a year to film in 1958 and cost over fifteen million to produce. Like the direction on the earlier film, screenplays for this one were attempted by at least a dozen writers, including Gore Vidal. The results are certainly worthy of the Academy Award, and even though the film clocks in at over three hours, it never drags. Ben-Hur is one of MGM’s greatest achievements and one of the best epic films of all time.

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