Ben-Hur (1959)

When In Rome…

Metro Goldwyn Mayer hadn’t created a production this big since Gone with The Wind some twenty years earlier. Ben-Hur was created with the intent of lifting the studio out of financial trouble, yet somehow along the way art managed to be created. With the gloriously pompous opening credits set to the backdrop of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo and the booming horns of Miklos Rozsa’s score, the stage is set. During the early scenes of Ben-Hur I get the satisfaction of knowing that everything in front of the camera is real and had to be assembled, such as every single extra in those trails of roman soldiers which go back as far as the eye can see. Ben-Hur was William Wyler’s Cecil B. DeMille picture, well certainly thematically. Technologically Ben-Hur is an incredibly different film to those made by DeMille. The films of DeMille’s where largely staged despite their epic scope which does work in its own way and while I’m not trying dismiss The Ten Commandments (it is my favourite biblical epic) it can’t be denied Wyler is a far superior craftsman and that comes through in Ben-Hur; his filling of the frame is more rich and vibrant with a great sense of depth of field. At nearly four hours long, Ben-Hur is the perfect example of how to pace a movie of long length; it feels shorter than it is.

Ben-Hur was only one of a handful of movies shot using the MGM Camera 65; an extremely wide aspect ratio. The wide lens is not just for grand sweeping shots, it helps make the intimate, close up moments more immense and make the actors more godlike. Any close up of only one actor in the middle of the frame with an out of focus background looks majestic. Ben-Hur seems to be a movie largely remembered for just its spectacle, which is a shame. It is also a movie of rich layered vibrancy, evoking the senses and full of emotion. The story also includes that age old idea of one’s destiny being by a seemingly insignificant event. If that tile didn’t fall of the roof during the Roman parade then things may have turned out very differently. I also love Jack Hawkins’ words off “You have the spirit to fight back, but a good sense to control it”, and “[hate] That’s good, hate keeps a man alive; it gives him strength”; two more additions to my book of life advice from movie quotes.

People will be quick to dismiss Charlton Heston as a ham actor. He’s a classically trained actor, over the top and boisterous at times (in a good way) but so was Laurence Oliver yet everyone gives him a free pass; I guess when you’re the star of mainstream, blockbuster films then you don’t garner as much respect. The style of acting is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I relish in it.

One of the reasons why the famous chariot race is so great is because the action is real; people where actually put in danger’s way for the creation of art. There is no music during the race; just primarily the sound effects of the chariots and horses storming across the ground with the cheers from the immense crowd of spectators. The filmmakers brought 2,000 years ago back to life; nine minutes of cinema history in which your eyes are truly glued to the screen. The chariot race is one of the reasons why the 1959 film version of Ben-Hur will always be the definitive version. If anyone thinks they can do a chariot race which is better then they are fooling themselves. Imagine if Hollywood remade Ben-Hur with a CGI chariot race, that would be really awful wouldn’t it? Oh wait, never mind. The ship battle sequence on the other hand, while superb I do feel the battle in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur is more effective; a more brutal sequence in which people are tied to the front of ships and snakes are catapulted into other enemy boats.

Even as someone who is not religious I can’t deny the power of the film’s religious moments such as the scene of Jesus giving Judah water and the roman guard being unable to whip him, and even the birth of Jesus appears very dreamlike. Even the use of miracles as a device to resolve plot points doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film such as the section of the movie at the Leper colony; a powerful and disturbing sequence in which people segregated from the rest of society with a debilitating illness. Yet is it not an easy way out when the leprosy of Judah’s mother and sister is cured instantly? Burt Lancaster, a self-proclaimed atheist turned down the role of Judah Ben Hur as he felt he couldn’t star in a film which promotes Christianity. I feel the same way, but dammed if it doesn’t stop me from loving this movie.

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