Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)
My dad was home for a post-operation rest period the summer after my second grade year and he and I spent the week watching movies. I don’t remember most of them but I’ve never shaken the experience of seeing Ben-Hur then, on a hideous pan-and-scan double-tape VHS set that reverted to letterbox for the duration of the chariot race in the second half. A big part of the memory hinged upon me thinking that, because the film’s box proclaimed it this important crown jewel of Hollywood, I should be humbled to find myself in its sacred presence. MGM was quite good at that in the videotape days, opting even to refuse to put Gone with the Wind in a civilized box that was possible to shelve. I went in believing I was about to see the greatest film ever made, some sort of spectacle. And it sounds weird to say this, but: it didn’t disappoint.
Moreover, it still doesn’t disappoint me, even though I don’t think it’s any great shakes as a film. Perhaps that’s the idea. A truly great film like Citizen Kane or Vertigo struggles with the pedestal it’s often placed on by moviegoers, moviemakers and critics because it was never intended to carry such baggage; Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, it can be safely assumed, never made a movie hoping you’d walk in thinking you were about to see the most incredible astonishing thing ever put on celluloid. But MGM, facing mounting debt and the ever-changing face of Hollywood eleven years after the antitrust losses, most assuredly wanted you to enter Ben-Hur thinking it would be the spectacle of a lifetime, an overwhelming force. William Wyler, after some hesitation, signed on to direct not because he had some grand artistic auteurist impulse, but because he wanted the check to make the big giant movie, which he did rather well and thus the check was his. Therefore, outlandish expectations don’t hurt Ben-Hur because they’re part of the experience; they’re in the text, even!
The subtitle, “A Tale of the Christ,” wouldn’t have meant much to me when I was nine because we were in a strictly secular household and I wasn’t even aware of a concept of God until I heard kids talking about God, Jesus and the Devil in kindergarten. As such, my dad had to explain a lot of the mythological aspects of the story to me as we watched, something he didn’t have to do when we later watched Spartacus, because I was pretty enraptured, and The Longest Day, because I fell asleep. (He was fond of very, very long movies.) At the time I assumed the complicated nature of the dialogue scenes were one reason he kept fast-forwarding through them. Then, as an adult, I discovered it’s because they’re overlong and deathly boring. I got into a lengthy conversation with a couple of coworkers when I was a clerk at a grocery store about old epic Hollywood movies and discovered that fast-forwarding through parts of Ben-Hur (and watching all of Spartacus because it kicks) is like a familial rite of passage for the VHS generation. Like a lot of the big Scope widescreen films of the era (this one is 2.76:1!), Ben-Hur more than likely makes perfect sense at its leisurely pace and outrageous length (three and a half hours) on a massive cinema screen, but we can’t really sense that at home, no matter how big our TVs are.
So this is one of the movies for which, in terms of home viewing, “just watching the good parts” became a real concept. In this case, the good parts are so masterfully good that they virtually cancel out all of the overextended yammering that pads out the running time, not to mention such bizarre and unintentionally hilarious moments as Charlton Heston talking to horses, and Charlton Heston belching. It says enough, I suppose, that three sequences were so vivid to me as a kid that they managed to stay in my mind strongly without my ever seeing the film in its entirety for a second time (until this year). The first hour is interminable, introducing Judah Ben-Hur without giving us much reason to care about him, but the eventual paralleling of his life to Christ’s gets things moving, first with the glorious and actually moving sequence in which Judah, now a slave, collapses and is given water by Jesus. It’s deservedly iconic and offers one of the few moments in Charlton Heston’s performance that doesn’t seem overwrought.
The other achievements are completely Wyler’s and his second unit’s, and have little to do with the actors or their personalities. The rowing sequence just prior to Judah’s escape from slavery, featuring the forced rhythms of a crew of slaves heaving through the sea, is ingeniously photographed and edited, the sweat and tension of the moment manifested giant on the screen, all easily more compelling than the oceanic battle that immediately follows. But even this is upstaged by the twenty-minute chariot race itself, a still-magnificent feat of movie magic that might very well stand as the greatest action sequence ever shot. Wyler’s staging of this massive undertaking is utterly flawless; it soars and is a note-perfect piece of direction because it makes sense. Though its scale is quite incomprehensible, there’s never a moment when we are not aware of where the important characters are situated, where we are in the race, and what is happening. It’s a visceral explosion of a scene, within or out of context, almost musical in its cutting and violent breadth, precision.
This, unfortunately, gives Ben-Hur the classic Red Shoes problem: its most exciting sequence ends with nearly an hour of movie left. From there, we blunder onward through a lot of silliness about leprosy and Judah’s gritted-teeth pledges of vengeance, but then oh never mind because Jesus. A crucifixion sequence directly out of a B-picture, replete with a healing rainstorm, presents the biggest problems because it’s visibly meant to be the climax of the story, but it consists almost entirely of Heston telling us what’s happened, a big movie no-no. Other sequences are intended as bravura but fall flat (including, unfortunately, the opening Nativity scene), yet are marginally rescued by Miklos Rosza’s improbably gorgeous score, which as with so many epic Hollywood pictures from Maurice Jarre’s work in Lawrence of Arabia to Nino Rota’s in The Godfather, is really the major unqualified artistic accomplishment of the picture.
The worst element of Ben-Hur is undoubtedly the performances, in particular the steaming all-caps ACTing in the lead by Heston, who as usual is unreservedly horrible. But this gives the film back some of its entertainment value today; it’s so much fun to watch his confusion and consternation and shouting throughout scenes the filmmakers clearly meant to be subtle, or sacred, or (in a few cases) homoerotic. It’s pure camp, and kind of wonderful. But it’s unfair to Heston to ignore just how equally embarrassing Stephen Boyd is as the spurned lover Messala. At one point before the chariot race begins, Boyd lets it all out to Heston, full-hearted and fierce: “This is the day, Judah. It’s between us now.” Heston glares at him, empty-eyed and fuming, and has no idea what to offer in return except, gutturally, “YES. This is the day.” It’s a laugh-out-loud moment, and really sums up this movie, which isn’t great cinema — despite what the unusually solemn and silent Leo the Lion seems to think at the outset — but was when I was eight and remains when I’m twenty-eight a hell of a lot of fun, intentional and otherwise.