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Ben-Hur Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 1, 2006

    Ben-Hur Review
    Ben-Hur. There was a time when just the title of this movie struck fear in my heart. Why? As a child, the only big-scale epic film that I could stomach was Zulu, but this grand gargantuan spectacle, like so many other motion pictures starring granite-chiselled Charlton Heston, was just too big and overwhelming for me to comprehend. In fact, I never even saw the film until I was around sixteen and, even then, I didn't enjoy it one little bit. But, time and attitudes change and, looking back upon my first viewing I now realise that my negative reaction to it was purely down to my resentment of the religion solidifying the story. Nowadays I am probably far less enamoured by religion (any religion, that is), but the fact is that Ben-Hur is actually a rollicking, old-style adventure, jam-packed with full-bodied characters, a rich and intelligent screenplay and one of the most stupendous and celebrated action set-pieces in the history of the cinema. Defining the word “epic” in every way imaginable, William Wyler's studio-backed leviathan is one of the most highly regarded and cherished films of all time. Its issues and themes stand the test of time because of that element that so put me off it in my rebellious teenage - its foundation in Christian doctrine and its shameless re-telling of, ahem, the greatest story ever told. But, hang on a moment, it's also a rip-roaring rampage of revenge, too. In fact, the driving impetus behind the entire saga is one that is fuelled by one man's insatiable hunger for vengeance against the injustice of a society encapsulated in the body of his former best friend, now turned despicable betrayer. Now, we're talking. Or singing from the same hymn book, if you like.

    “We've seen Romans before.”

    “Yes, and we will see them again.”

    Based upon General Lew Wallace's novel of the same name (written just after the American Civil War, and still an astounding read today), this Tale Of The Christ is also a remake of Fred Niblo's and Irving G. Thalberg's silent 1925 version - which is included in this package and will be discussed in detail later on. A huge undertaking that would take in a continent-hopping shoot, the marshalling of thousands of extras, the building of the biggest sets ever conceived and the staging of the most audacious and expensive action sequence ever created, Ben-Hur also saw the death of its legendary producer, Sam Zimbalist and was, as much as anything, just an extravagant last-ditch attempt to revive the ailing MGM studio, which was, at the time, enduring a financial crisis. The film saw its budget raised from successful capitalising on a timely re-release for Gone With The Wind and the profits from the selling of The Wizard Of Oz to TV. That the resulting movie would go on to win 11 Oscars - totally unparalleled until a certain James Cameron came along with an equally epic saga of his own, forty years later - and the undying admiration of the public and the critics alike is testament to many things that went into the production of the film. But the overriding element that still astonishes today, is size and scale. Apart from Niblo's DeMille-style excesses for his earlier version, Wyler's picture literally broke the mould for the carving of cinematic legend, with staggering proportions and a majestic use of widescreen filming, via MGM's new Camera 65, to capture it all in breathtaking clarity. The following year saw the spectacle of the ancients taken even further with Kubrick's, in my opinion, much more impressive Spartacus, but Ben-Hur remains one of the biggest, and most opulent, productions ever greenlit. And with its swallow-an-afternoon running time of three-and-a-half hours, it has the benefit and luxury of being able to delve ever-deeper into its characters' motivations without the need for lazy, tacked-on exposition, giving everybody in the crowded cast room to breathe. Even Christ's often controversial background appearances, his face never revealed and his voice never heard.

    “It's a Roman world, Judah. If you want to live in it, you must become part of it.”

    Closely following Wallace's book, the film sees boyhood friends, Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) and newly-appointed Roman Tribune Messala (the often underrated Stephen Boyd) reunited in Judea as Messala assumes command of the province. There's trouble in the air, what with a possible insurrection on the swell and a strange prophet at large in the wilderness, gathering a dangerous following, but Messala sees an opportunity to quell dissention by having his heartfelt friend aid him in rooting out the rebellious elements in town. Judah, a patriot, is aghast at this plan and cannot believe that his friend of old could turn so dramatically against a people that he grew up with. Tempers become short and magnificent rhetoric is spouted, but the upshot of this dispute sees Judah banished as a slave in the Roman galleys and his beloved sister and mother incarcerated in Messala's incredibly gothic dungeons. This first third of film is actually the best-plotted section of the film with the honour and loyalty of a once great friendship twisted into a rage of despair and hatred. The catalyst for Messala's turning on the very people he once thought of as family may involve a little too much coincidence - a loose tile dropped accidentally onto the head of the new Governor of Judea implicates Judah's unfortunate kin in an act of treachery - but the film uses chance and fate often, making it the point of the narrative, rather than just convenient story stepping-stones, as many detractors would have it. Years later, Judah, now a lean, mean pillar of pent-up anger becomes the bizarre saviour of the slightly miscast Jack Hawkins' Roman Consul Arrius after a blazing sea battle with pirates, and is transformed into a pillar of Roman society, instead. How the world turns. Celebrated for his skills as a charioteer in Arrius's races, Judah soon sets out to return home, all the while his blood still boiling for revenge upon Messala, who is now a famous charioteer, himself. Thus, the scene is set for the cataclysmic race at the Circus of Antioch which will see the two enemies going to head to head amid the carnage, and the shocking revelations that will follow.

    “You have the spirit to fight back, but the sense to control it.”

    Of course, there is more to it than this. But, surprisingly for such a long film, not that much more. The real meat and bones of Ben-Hur is in the towering vision of it all brought so vividly to life ... and, essentially, the performances that carry it. First and foremost is the iconic Heston who, it must be said, is an incredibly powerful actor. He had already played Moses and was certainly no stranger to pictures other than biblical epics. He had even worked with Wyler before on the classic western The Big Country, so his talent for such inspiring, larger than life characterisation was never in question. However, I have never felt him to be a likeable star, his charisma severely cramped by an unbreakable stoicism that envelopes him like stone. This leads to a tendency to be predominantly hard and aloof, emotionally reigned-in. Old school qualities in a leading man these credentials may be, but they render the actor decidedly wooden when it comes to intimacy or soft, heartfelt dialogue. Heston was always much better at delivering rousing speeches or cynical establishment-bashing monologue - the establishment in this case being the ruling Roman Empire - but, nevertheless, here he digs deep to find a core of raw sentiment with regards to the plight of his mother and sister. Witness his terrific reactions to the harrowing sights confronting him at the leper colony and, especially, the exquisite pain he portrays as he hides himself behind a rock. Even his moment of transcendence as he gazes into the face of the mysterious stranger who gives him water reveals clear evidence that Heston is clutching at the very soul of his character, etching its spirit across his proud and arrogant face. Ben-Hur offers the most indefatigable proof that there is a talented chink in his armour. His pivotal attempts to break through the Roman cordon and help the fallen Christ when he collapses under the weight of the cross betray a genuine sense of loyalty and charity that Heston, the actor, seems content never to have allowed resurface since. I've long preferred him in his three classic sci-fi roles - the universe-weary and cynical Taylor in Planet Of The Apes, the jaded detective in Soylent Green and my favourite, the crusading last man on Earth Neville in the junky-but-funky 70's adaptation of Richard Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend, The Omega Man (itself rife with Christ allegory) - but there's no denying his star status with this awesome performance. It could even be argued that he carries the movie just like the Messiah hefting his burden of the cross, and Heston has come to epitomise that determination and sacrifice in such career defining roles as this.

    “By making this example of you, I discourage treason. By condemning, without hesitation, an old friend, I shall be feared.”

    But, possibly, my favourite role in the piece is actually that of the villain, Messala, a part that Stephen Boyd has often taken flack over. Contrary to many commentators, I find his performance riveting. Initially, when he and Judah first meet after many years apart, the reserve and unease he feels at his friend's return is played out magnificently. And the subsequent bonding and joy as they embrace is warmly human and touching. Yet, even in the same long scene, Boyd reveals the boyish jealousy and pride at work beneath the surface with his instigation of the javelin-throwing competition. There is far more than simple friendship going on here, there is a constant testing and probing that touches on much deeper connections than mere athletic challenge. Even at the height of his generosity, there is something of a coiled snake in his sly and manipulative demeanour. But again, he is not simply evil. The script, despite the homo-erotic subtext that Gore Vidal sought to bring in when he was drafted in for a rewrite, and is still prevalent in the arousal of their rivalry, seeks to hide his machinations behind political ambition and personal effrontery. But Boyd makes every effort to suck the marrow from his lines, injecting a cruel vitriol into his performance that has Messala acting more like a jilted lover than a spoiled Emperor's brat. When they share the screen, Heston and Boyd ignite the film. Messala's cryptic message to Judah after the frenzy of the chariot race is an electrifying moment of mixed emotions - hate and love totally and inescapably enmeshed.

    “There's a carpenter's son going around doing magic tricks.”

    Hugh Griffith's Sheik Ilderim, who comes to befriend Judah and even sponsor him in the great race when he proves his affinity with, and control over, his fine Arabian horses, is good fun. His makeup may be a little unconvincing and his mannerisms less Middle Eastern and more North Walesian, but he swings the often dour tone of the film into lighter territory. Jack Hawkins, though, looks totally ill-at-ease in his Roman armour and, despite a decent enough turn as the man who eventually accepts Judah as a son, his stiff British-ness lets the character down. The slave girl Esther, with whom Judah falls in love, is an interesting part. Played by Israeli-born actress Haya Harareet (who had completed service in the Israeli Armed Forces and could apparently handle herself in any situation), Esther has a Sophia Loren look about her and a beguilingly tragic fragility. What's nice about her development is the passion and belief she attains for the notorious prophet gathering his flock all over the land. She comes to embody the hope that the film strangely struggles to convey for much of the time, and you can plainly see it in her eyes. The clumsiness of the love scenes between herself and Judah are the fault of Heston not Harareet.

    “This is the day, Judah. It's between us now.”

    “Yes. This is the day.”

    But how can I leave out the famous chariot race, the film's most essential and glorious sequence? Even if the story of historical treachery and revenge, and the side-helping of the final days of Jesus Christ aren't enough to float your boat, then the exhilaration of fifteen minutes around the death-strewn sands of the Circus Antioch are certainly guaranteed to satisfy even the most die-hard action junkie's cravings. Shot like Mad Max 2 in a time-warp by the esteemed Yakima Canutt, the final showdown between Messala and Judah is a punishing and terrifying adrenaline rush that absolutely takes no prisoners and pulls no punches. When one of these ancient hot-rods overturns, limbs are shattered and bodies hideously mangled. The trampling of one key player is shockingly vivid and hellishly protracted. The dirty tricks campaign from seasoned victor, Messala, brings a note of pure dread to his raging around the track, the death and destruction he leaves in his dust-plumed wake a grisly footnote to his fierce determination to best Judah once and for all. Check out the contorted glee on his face when he gets the chance to turn his whip upon his nemesis, and the tremendous flip-and-cling stunt that sees Judah contemplate his place in the grand scheme of things from the most precarious of positions. And, all the while, just marvel at the fantastic and jaw-dropping full-size set that they are racing around. Remember, folks, no CGI. And the enhanced clarity of this release adds considerable detail to the grand statues in the centre of the track that, again, are real edifices. Thoroughly scintillating stuff and well worth the wait, even if there won't be any more action after this.

    “It goes on, Judah. The race ... is not ... over.”

    From a technical standpoint, Ben-Hur excels, too. The cinematography is simply majestic. From the expansive panoramas of ancient Judea and the all-encompassing Circus Antioch, which blows anything Ridley Scott came up with in Gladiator or Kingdom Of Heaven clear out of the water, to the smaller, more intimate settings of the interiors of the House Of Hur, the slave decks of the galleys or the caves of the lepers, everything is so attentively rendered that it places you deep into the story with ease. You have no trouble believing any of this - because what you're seeing is really there and not mocked up on some computer. Even the added clarity of the new transfer does not make the use of painstakingly created matte paintings any more obvious to the eye than they were before. Look at how Wyler uses the ultra widescreen, even in close-ups. In fact, it is in the closer moments that you can really see how cleverly he frames his subjects - the positioning of objects at either end of the image automatically has you focus more upon the intended features, drawing you in still further. The only time when the film slips a visual gear is in the sea battle when pirates attack the fleet of Roman galleys which, to me, is a great disappointment, looking for all the world like a conflict staged in the bath with toy boats. Mind you, when the ram-raid finally occurs, and Wyler has real-life amputees writhing about amid flames, wreckage and bloodied water, the effect is pretty galvanising. Although the sea never looks quite right, there's still the great image of Judah and Arrius adrift on a chunk of wood that is wonderfully evocative.

    And finally, there's the grand score by Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa. No stranger to the audio recreation of times gone by, with The Thief Of Baghdad and Quo Vadis under his belt, Rozsa researched even deeper for this project and the classic results of festive flourish, large scale pomp and sweeping elegy mean that, even during the sagging middle section of the film, there is always something engaging the senses. This release also allows you to hear the full score on an isolated track.

    A fantastic movie in every sense of the word.

    Now, let's turn out attention to one of the best features on this release - the original 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur, from director Fred Niblo, which is found on Disc 3. I'm not going to count this as a special feature because its inclusion here is no mere novelty.

    “What has kept you alive?”

    “I live for revenge.”

    “Spoken like a Roman.”

    “I am a Jew.”

    Running far shorter than Wyler's own extravagance, at 142 mins, it stars Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur and Frances X. Bushman as Messala and, if anything, is actually a much bigger picture. In fact, I was completely blown away by the scale of this film - the sets are immense, the cast numbers well into the thousands and the set-pieces are - wait for it - better than Wyler's! Yes, folks ...better.

    Featuring the original tints, the film, restored by Thames Television Restoration with a new stereophonic score by Carl Davis, has many colour, sepia and lavender-hued scenes as well as the more obvious black and white. It is astonishing to see not just how well the print looks, but how well the whole movie stands up today. Featuring far more of the Jesus Christ story - check out the beautifully done shooting star and celestial signposting of the Messiah's birth - and heaps of the slightly exaggerated acting that was the fashion of the era, Ben-Hur 1925-style is still a jaw-dropping, action-packed spectacular that tells the same tale but prunes away a lot of the fat that Wyler later added. The bust-up between Judah and Messala is certainly founded on more racial differences in this version, but the arrest of Judah and his family is still just as traumatic. We even get to see some graphic torture of Simonides as he is stretched on a rack when the nefarious Romans seek the riches of the incarcerated Hurs, which is oddly accompanied on the new score by a kind of Close Encounters-style riff by Carl Davis.

    But the film knocks spots off Wyler's when it comes to the sea battle. Niblo was right on the money with this bloodthirsty version that has full-scale vessels ploughing into each other on the real high seas, and tremendous violence taking place when the battle is joined. Look for the Roman head mounted on the tip of a sword and, most wince-inducing of all, the poor Roman prisoner that the pirates strap to end of their battering-ram-cum-figurehead as they smash into another ship. The skirmish is huge and savage and choreographed with all the skill of a modern-day blockbuster ... in fact, it trounces most large scale melees that you see today. The race, too, is a work of genius, with hundreds of camera angles, some speeding right up alongside or in front of the chariots and some terrific swooping long shots. There is absolutely no trickery involved in this set-piece, what you see is exactly what they did and it is truly punishing and exhilarating, and just as thrilling as Wyler's, with all the same superb stuntwork and carnage that is just as devastating. We even get the Last Supper and some hellzapoppin' Biblical rage smiting the great wall of Judea in one awesome rolling matte shot that looks absolutely amazing when the mighty rocks come tumbling down upon the masses. Very highly recommended, folks. And I didn't expect to be saying that at all.