THE BIG HURT
William Wyler’s Ben-Hur—a hugely successful CAMERA 65 roadshow, with souvenir booklets, stagebills, Ben-Hur candy bars, special Saturday morning Christian-indoctrination showings for parochial school students, and for two years the top holiday attraction at downtown movie palaces. Certified by the Academy as its most honored movie (until 1997’s Titanic and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), in retrospect it’s pretty thin stuff—a spectacle big on hate and limited on spectacle. Not so much a tale about the Christ as a tale of two boyhood friends who as adults become estranged through betrayal and seek vengeance upon one another. As with the novel, political tyranny wants to be the central ailment that will be cured by the redemptive words and death of the supposed savior. Wyler’s difficulties with the script are legendary: while Karl Tunberg gets the unjustified credit, and Christopher Fry, S.N. Behrman, Maxwell Anderson and producer Sam Zimbalist worked on it, the “hook” to make sense of the cascading action remained missing. Thanks to rascal Gore Vidal, unrequited passion emerges as the paramount if covet issue which sets in motion the soap opera calamities. He’s not, however, solely responsible for our over-awareness of the not so subliminal shorthand. Just about every principal Roman is effete with curls, and Rome’s soldiers and their tricks are the gamut of beefcake tops and pansy bottoms. And Messala isn’t the only one who has a thing for Ben-Hur: lustful eyes are exhibited by Jack Hawkins’ Arrius when he spots and then whips Ben-Hur in a galley, and then finds the slave hovering over him in his cabin, though these teases get wisely repressed when he “adopts” his Jewish prince after becoming Rome’s most celebrated charioteer. Whether it’s all meant to be this sleight of hand, as Vidal would like us to believe, is dependent on whether we’ve read Lew Wallace’s Christian propaganda, in which it isn’t very clear what the antagonism is all about, or viewed the silent movie version, during which audiences have been known to laugh heartily when Novarro and Bushman look rather longingly at one another and, if not reward for hard rowing, wonder what that tempting nude in the ship’s galley is all about. Boyd’s not around to confirm if he received secret instructions from Vidal or Wyler to play the brute as jilted wannabe lover, and Wyler had little to offer in the way of clarification, so we’re left to take what we see and hear on screen as calculated scheme. Heston steadfastly denied that Vidal’s contributions were used; worse, he and Wyler even went out of their way to attempt to deny Tunberg lone screenplay credit, which necessitated the Screen Writers Guild to intervene on his behalf. The battles, however, still left the premise of an underlining sexual tension impossible to ignore. (This isn’t true in the 2016 version: stripped of any sexual overtones, Messala is incensed when his explicit instructions to his Jewish “brother”—to make clear to his fellow countrymen that peace with Roman rule in Judea is better than the alternative—have been ignored.) At a cost of nearly fifteen million in 1958 dollars, the epic’s accoutrements and some of William Horning and Edward Carfagno’s Roman sets are impressive, and the arena’s Spina is very. But there’s a lot of fakery to wade through: the ships are mostly miniatures that are poorly photographed and even more poorly rigged and you can see clearly the use of dummies; the glass shots surrounding Rome and the arena are inadequately rendered; Heston’s stand-in for some of the race’s sequences are too obvious; the leprosy of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister ultra ineffective when you stop to consider they’ve spent five years deep in the bowels of a dungeon. Outstanding sound effects—particularly the sloshing of the shitted-up water in that dungeon, the whips lashing on all the bare skin, the galley chains, and the chariot race which was filmed MOS. Miklós Rózsa’s score is a real workout, with Wyler editing scenes to enhance its power. Most audiences today will only see this picture on TV, and the 2005 non-Blu-ray restoration is a huge improvement over previous video and DVD versions in the areas of color, lighting, definition of detail, aspect ratio. (Click at left for comments on the Blu-ray edition.) Heston’s Oscar might be explained as the industry’s acknowledgment that he’s the king of the roadshows—that he belongs more to the history of someone else’s past than belonging to our contemporary age. There’s no other American actor who can redeem togas and caftans and laurel wreaths and the elevated fakespeak of epics. Hugh Griffith won an Oscar as the Sheik, but it’s Boyd’s unmitigated evil that is this picture’s major “acting” moment. And there’s Frank Thring, doing his short-of-tongue thing. Oscars: Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, Color Photography, Costumes, Art-Set Direction, Dramatic Musical Score, Editing, Sound and Special Effects. MGM's CAMERA 65 is also known to purists as Ultra Panavision.
ROLL OVER IMAGES
Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 2016). All Rights Reserved.