Wednesday, February 17, 2016

I tell you, they're drunk with religion


Perhaps the finest of its breed, Ben-Hur is a smashing entertainment, an Old Testament kind of story set against the backdrop of the New.  It is fueled by a sharply-drawn and deeply-satisfying tale of revenge, animated by enormous sums of money, realized by some of cinema's all-time finest talents, electrified by its star, and, finally, glommed onto a good-enough Christian fable... just in case you felt like taking a nap after the chariot race (though, speaking personally, I think this part's reasonably swell, too).  Ben-Hur is everything you could ever want out of a Biblical epic (and probably more!), and it represents the Golden Age of Hollywood at its very best.

Directed by William Wyler
Written by Karl Tunberg, S.N. Behrman, Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal, Andrew Marton, and Yakima Canutt (based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Gen. Lew Wallace)
With Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Haya Harareet (Esther), Martha Scott (Mariam), Cathy O'Donnell (Tirzah), Sam Jaffe (Simonides), Finlay Currie (Balthazar the Egyptian), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), and Stephen Boyd (Messala)

Spoiler alert: sadly, the Kingdom of Judea is not freed in any conventional or meaningful way

Charlton Heston.

That's the two word review of Ben-Hur, and in some ways those are the only two words we need, although it obviously does a grave, grave disservice to the uncounted thousands who also worked upon William Wyler's vast and weighty epic, the film that won as many Academy Awards as any motion picture ever did—and though the Oscars have never been any seal of quality, here, for once, they were earned.

Shall we list them?  Please, let's list them: Best Picture; Best Director, taken by Wyler; Best Supporting Actor, going to Hugh Griffith for the irascible Sheikh Ilderim; Best Art Direction, awarded to Edward Carfagno and William Horning for faithfully executing one of the toughest and most monumental tasks of production design in history; Best Costume Design (in Color, anyway), awarded to Elizabeth Haffenden for the equally monumental task of clothing all the human objects populating Carfagno and Horning's divine sets; Best Cinemtography (likewise, in Color), handed to Robert Surtees for his superlative camerawork; Best Special Effects, given to Wyler's team of movie magicians (for in 1959 a few brief descents into terrible rear projection weren't going to sink an otherwise astonishing production); Best Film Editing, won by John Dunning and Ralph Winters, whom I'm sure we'll have cause to discuss later; Best Music (in a non-musical), handed to Miklos Rosza for his thundering sublimity of a score; and, finally, Best Sound Recording, given to Franklin Milton.  (And are you looking for Best Adapted Screenplay?  It's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Academy's failure to nominate Ben-Hur's script arose not from its quality—which is substantial, if debatable—but from the tedious scandal that erupted over who deserved the credit.)

Yet that still only brings us to ten—Ben-Hur won eleven—so must we not have forgotten someone?  The hell we have: you're not going to just forget the Best Actor of 1959, and, possibly, of all time.

Well, he's still one of my favorite actors, anyway, though this has never been a fashionable opinion, even when it was still possible to look upon Heston's life with untroubled admiration rather than the somewhat jaundiced eye it requires now.  But here, immortalized in 70mm, Heston remains: snarling and lashing and spitting his dialogue through clenched teeth, creating one of cinema's most vivid portrayals of righteous vengeance on one hand, and unexpected spiritual redemption on the other.

Beyond obviously, Heston was not a performer of nuance.  But he did four things better than anybody: the crazed intensity that threatened to leap through the screen and grab you, personally, right by the neck; the open-faced earnestness delivered with a toothy grin; the sarcasm spit like lethal poison; and the howling, cosmic anguish at whatever tragically, comically absurd existence his screenwriters had for him this time.  Each passionate expression on Heston's face seemed to come from a bottomless well of energy.  He would act with his whole skull, and his whole frame, pitching headlong into every scene, or else retreating from it, as if bodily repelled.  Sometimes dismissed, even at the time, as a physique in search of a specific emotional resonance, this particular criticism of the man I have never understood: if you want to call Heston's technique so stylized that it reaches the point of a live-action, dead-serious cartoon, then fine.  We can only chalk this up as a difference in taste, even if your taste is bad and wrong.  But in none of his films is it ever in question for a moment what his characters are supposed to be feeling.  Oh, we've all heard the man described as "wooden"—but God help you if you've ever known a tree that yelled at you like him. Thus, if you knew no better, you'd believe that Ben-Hur was built around its star, for its hero is the sum total of all Heston's strengths—and devoid of all his weaknesses.

And that brings us to Ben-Hur itself, MGM's remake of its own 1925 adaptation of Lew Wallace's novel—an eminently faithful remake, except better in every respect.  Like its forebear, Ben-Hur took, for a time, the title of the most expensive film yet made; unlike its legendarily troubled forebear, every penny of the 1959 production's $15 million budget makes it way to the screen, with 300 sets, a million props, and thousands upon thousands of extras, all filmed in the most luxuriant format Hollywood ever devised.

It is the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a noble Jew in an occupied Judea.  Indeed, our story proper begins not with Judah himself, but with Messala, a Roman tribune—and Judah's boyhood companion.  Messala has been tasked with breaking the province's increasingly intractable Jews in the name of Empire; he conceives of his ancient friendship as a weapon in his war.  But when they reunite, this is not Messala's first instinct, nor does Judah yet suspect this Roman of perfidy.  Once, their friendship was true—and for the briefest moment, we see that it still could be, if Messala would only hesitate to ask Judah for a list of seditious Jews.  But Messala does not, and soon each man has made a nemesis of the other.  When a chance accident kills the Roman governor, Messala leaps to accuse Judah of assassination.  And Roman justice knows no law: Judah's mother and sister are thrown into the dungeon; Judah's slave and friend Simonides is tortured till his body breaks; and Judah himself is chained to an oar in the belly of a galley, to serve the Roman fleet.

And yet this is not the end—three years pass, and Judah's untrammeled spirit is noticed by the Roman admiral, Arrius, as they prepare to sail against Thracian pirates.  Arrius first saves Judah from the fate of all galley slaves whose masters have been defeated, removing his chain before the battle.  When the pirates sink the admiral's ship, Judah returns the favor, rescuing Arrius from the sea.  Another year passes: Judah has been made Arrius' adopted son, and now serves his father on land, as a charioteer in the Roman Circus.  Yet the loss of the life he knew still festers in his heart.  It is hatred and hope alike that send him back to Judea, to search for his family.  There, he rediscovers his would-be love, Simonides' daughter Esther.  But his mother and sister, or so he's told, are long dead—two more victims of Roman tyranny.  This is how he enters a chariot race against Messala: to defeat the Roman, to shame him, and, ultimately, to destroy him.  Suffice it to say, Judah makes vengeance his own.

And then there's still an hour more movie left to go—bringing Ben-Hur up to its full length of 224 daunting minutes.  Why, did that sound like an ending to you?  Of course it did; and of course it isn't.  Ben-Hur might be as gratifying a tale of revenge as has ever been told, but it is as determined as any film ever made to have its cake and eat it too.  The novel's subtitle, A Tale of the Christ, is hardly there by accident.

Throughout Ben-Hur, we catch glimpses of the Christian deity.  He enters the story at right angles, virtually at random.  In fact, the film actually begins with neither Messala nor Judah, but with the Nativity (and, for the first time, the MGM lion stayed silent).  The film climaxes—or, if you prefer, climaxes again—with the Crucifixion.  The Gospels are not just the background to Judah's struggles.  If you asked Lew Wallace, he'd tell you that the Gospels are the reason Ben-Hur even exists in the first place.

Judah is both mirror-image and counterpoint.  Like the Christ, he undergoes terrible hardships in the name of his faith.  Very much unlike the Christ, Judah's faith is the more uncomplicated religion of Jewish resistance.  This was the aspect that Wyler, Jewish himself, found most attractive about the production (though he nonetheless had to be cajoled into accepting the gig), and it's quite easy to see how: it's a film deeply concerned with the notion that the whole Jewish nation suffered under the Romans, not just Yeshua alone.  For a genre that gave birth to some of the most conventional movies Hollywood ever made, the Biblical epics simmer with undisguised allegories of contemporary conflict—above all their depiction of oppression.  Themes of Zionism, anti-fascism, anti-communism, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and religious toleration collide in these films, not ever to any completely unproblematic end result, even here.  (Spoilers for Ben-Hur, but Judah is the heroic Jew who meets Jesus, and guess how that winds up in a story written by a gentile in 1880.)  Still, there's much more for us to chew on in these Biblical epics than their critics tend to admit, even given that one of their major functions was to serve as a devotional aid to a specifically, and even exclusively, white Christian audience.

But it surely doesn't hurt that their foremost function was to serve as revenue-producing entertainment, and entertainment knows neither color nor creed.  Ben-Hur, the most enjoyable of them all, is therefore made a terrifically exciting motion picture—something that comes as an outright shock every time I watch the damned thing, for there is no reason in the whole wide world that a 224 minute movie should ever feel so fleet.

It could be that it's just so unebelievably stimulating: Wyler's direction and Surtees' cinematography are surely quite godly enough without any reference to God, making maximal use of their colossal 70mm frame, showcasing the massive sets and gorgeous costumes we find within it without ever losing the finer aspects of film composition that even the broadest epic still demands.  (Naturally, the lush Technicolor transfer must be credited, as well: Roman soldiers' accoutrements have hardly ever been rendered such vivid red, nor an ocean dyed such deep blue, nor darkness made so metaphorical.)

What it probably can't be, however, is that Ben-Hur is "action-packed" in the quantitative sense—in 224 minutes, it has only four action scenes, and that's only if you dickishly count the Crucifixion.  Of course, the action scenes we get are hardly trifles.  The chariot race sequence is so famous that I doubt it really needs any further discussion—though discuss it we are compelled to do, for here Ben-Hur squares its own circle and delivers fully on its promise of (bloody, gory) vengeance.  As gut-churningly visceral as it is soul-stirringly mythic, Judah and his white Arabian steeds are set against Messala and his demonic black stallions—in case it wasn't already clear who is good and who is bad.  The race itself, everyone knows, was directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Cannutt, experienced second unit men; indeed, they wrote it as well.  (Karl Tunberg, numbered amongst Ben-Hur's many scenarists, had written but three words, "the chariot race," leaving it up to a more visually-minded talent to fill in the details.)  Meanwhile, the actual construction of the sequence was principally the work of editors Dunning and Winters.  I said Marton and Cannutt "directed" the chariot race, but they handed the editing team over a thousand hours of footage, and any attribution of authorship to a mess of that magnitude has to favor the editors—even if Marton still must be given special credit, for convincing them to incorporate into the story the footage of Cannutt's stuntman son, John, coming damned close to killing himself while standing in for Heston.

Yet one of unsung aspects of the chariot race was Wyler's idea: the "pageant" that takes the eight charioteers and their teams around the track, making sure that you can see the record-breaking size of the Jerusalem Circus set, while underlining the fierce, tangible reality of what we are about to witness, as one hundred and twenty-eight hooves pound their prints into the sand behind them.  Meanwhile, the scene's mightiest moment is Wyler, too.  It is what happens after: Messala waiting for Judah to come to him.  Finally, he does, and the camera pans to take stock of his apocalyptic shadow standing in the gate—a Jewish death to a Roman world.  Yet even though Messala perishes, in some ways he emerges the victor of this confrontation; revealing the truth about Judah's family—they are not dead, but worse, lepers.  Truly from hell's heart does he still stab at his foe.  But of course he does: after all, the struggles of the Jews themselves were far from over, even when old pagan Rome bit the dust.

Anyway, focusing solely on the chariot race undersells that other great action sequence of Ben-Hur, the sea battle.  Overly reliant upon models it may be—the 1925 original has harder-core naval action, with its fleet of full-size, semi-functional triremes—but Ben-Hur '59's boarding scene still tops its predecessor's, when Heston sets an extra's face on fire.

So, yes: the action content of Ben-Hur is iconic in the grandest sense of the word—to the extent that, for many viewers, all else pales in the comparison.  And yet it occupies at most but forty minutes of the film.  And so, while I never bore of Ben-Hur's splendor, its most salient quality, counterintuitive as the claim might seem, truly must be its irrepressible narrative drive.  It's those editors again, Dunning and Winters: Ben-Hur is stunningly well-cut, with no more than three or four cuts that seem like outright mistakes (and all of them in process shots), and with a great many more that are absolutely perfect.  The only time the momentum flags at all is when Judah returns home, where you could notice that the movie's slowed down—and, of course, this is only the quiet before the storm of the chariot race, and the race might not be quite as jarringly effective without it.

Yet the typical shot of Ben-Hur remains a rather patient one: Wyler lets you soak in the detail of his scenes—indeed, demanding that you scan the full width and depth of the frame to get the most out of this most immersive of cinematic experiences.  On the other hand, the clear centerpiece of Ben-Hur's Oscar-winning montage (outside of the race, anyway!), is the nerve-shattering scene set below the galley deck: Arrius primes his slaves with a dry run, taking the ship to maximum speed, as the hortator pounds his drum and the editing rhythm pounds along with him, faster and faster till the slaves reach the point of deadly exhaustion.  It's enough to get the heart racing, matching the rowers' own strained exertions—even though nothing terribly important for the narrative is actually happening.

This is, in fact, one of Ben-Hur's few real detours into texture at the expense of plot.  The others, I suppose, mostly involve Sheikh Ilderim, owner of Judah's team of horses, who offers a remarkable comic performance without presenting himself as any kind of unwelcome, unalloyed comic relief.  The wagering scene that reopens Ben-Hur, after the intermission, is a fine example: the character is amusing as he manipulates the Romans into betting large against the Jewish driver, but the scene is about the Romans' theories of racial superiority, with whispers of the Holocaust (and the Israeli-Arab wars) echoing in this white Roman bath.  Sure, it's something of a shame that one of the clearest-cut examples of Ben-Hur's humanism is driven principally by a British man in deeply-unconvincing brownface, but that is the 1950s for you: impossible to love without making a few exceptions here and there.  (If Heston is not totally plausible as a 1st century Semite himself—though, for what it's worth, neither of the two actual Ashkenazim considered for the role, Paul Newman and Kirk Douglas, would've been the slightest bit more believable—well, at least Heston doesn't spend the whole film stained with shoe polish.)

If we've returned to Ben-Hur's actors, what of Jack Hawkins and—more controversially—Stephen Boyd?  They're each fantastic, especially Boyd, especially in Messala's death throes.  Yet it probably wouldn't be much of a Ben-Hur review if we didn't take at least a moment to discuss Gore Vidal's contribution to the script and performances.  Or, perhaps, we should say "alleged contribution"—though if Vidal's story is not true, then we just have to assume that Boyd decided to play Messala as incredibly gay on his ownBen-Hur needn't necessarily be interpreted as a story of two men who loved each other—presumably, it wasn't in 1959—but this reviewer prefers it, both for its sociological fealty to the 1st century, and because it punches up the drama when Messala's psychotic bitterness is driven not solely by ambition, but a broken heart, as well.  Meanwhile, there's much to enjoy about the subtext between Judah and his daddy Arrius, too—whereas Judah's pursuit of Esther, rather than a mere straight overlay, leaves Judah as the greatest bisexual hero the screen has so far beheld.  (And yet all you ever hear from progressives is that Ben-Hur is boring and square!)

Well, they have their reasons, leaving us right back where we were: a fourth act chock-full of Christian pandering.  Ben-Hur's a perfectly striking film without all the Jesus stuff—indeed, there are Hebrew abridgments of the novel that cut the Christ out of Lew Wallace's profession of his Christianity, and I don't even know how I feel about that.  Yet while Wallace's in-your-face Christianity cannot be said to make Ben-Hur unambiguously better, it nonetheless makes it more heartfelt; and, from our standpoint here in the future, it perhaps makes it more unique and more worthwhile, as a glimpse into our past.  Of course, if you see Judah as the avatar of his people—which is completely unavoidable for the film's first phase—then Ben-Hur does so few favors to the actual history of the Jews that it borders on the anti-Semitic.

But if Ben-Hur is perceived instead as just one man's spiritual journey, then it works—the drama of Judah's struggle with his own faith (and with his not-quite-dead family) is certainly sufficient to carry the film to its uplifting conclusion.  It is not, I think, flawless (if nothing else, the Hur women's leprosy makeup is just awful), but Ben-Hur nonetheless serves its divine master with competence.  And Heston shoulders well this last burden, too—of demonstrating how a man of hate might learn that he cannot live on hatred alone.

Score:  10/10

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