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 on one another. As with Lew Wallace’s novel, political tyranny wants to be the central ailment to be cured by the redemptive words and death of the supposed savior. Easier said than achieved, as Wyler’s difficulties with the script are legendary: while Karl Tunberg gets sole credit, Christopher Fry, S.N. Behrman, Maxwell Anderson and producer Sam Zimbalist worked on it, trying to find the “pivot” eluding them to make sense of Wallace’s cascading consequences. Thanks to rascal Gore Vidal, who as a MGM contract writer at the time was sent to Rome to bridge the causation gap while the production was filming, unrequited passion emerges as covert issue which sets in motion the soap opera calamities. He’s not, however, exclusively responsible for our over-awareness of the not so subliminal shorthand. Just about every principal Roman is effete with bangs or curls, and Rome’s soldiers and their tricks are the gamut of beefcake tops and obedient bottoms. Stephen Boyd’s Messala isn’t the only one who has a thing for Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur: lustful eyes are exhibited by Jack Hawkins’ Arrius when he spots, whips and then ganders at Ben-Hur during galley rowing exercises and later waking to find the slave hovering over him in his cabin, though these teases get wisely repressed when he later “adopts” his Jewish prince after becoming Rome’s most celebrated charioteer. Whether it’s all meant to be glinting jujitsu, as Vidal would have us to believe, is dependent on whether we’ve read Wallace’s interminable Christian propaganda which isn’t very clear what the central antagonism is about, either, or have viewed the silent movie version, during which audiences have been known to laugh when Novarro and Bushman look rather longingly at one another and, if not reward for hard rowing, wonder what the nude in the ship’s galley is all about. Neither Boyd nor Hawkins available to confirm if they received quiet instructions from Vidal or Wyler to play jilted wannabe lovers, or risked adding the luxuria on their own. Wyler had little to offer in the way of clarification other than perfunctory denial. Heston sometimes angrily contested Vidal’s contributions were ever used, though the oft-told story of Wyler cautioning others on set not to mention any aberrant overtones to Heston sounds comically plausible. (Miklós Rózsa apparently had an inkling as his “Friendship” theme is occasionally amatory.) Because of various rewrites, Wyler as well as Heston went out of their way to attempt to keep Tunberg from getting lone screenplay credit, necessitating the Screen Writers Guild to intervene on his behalf. The false impression lingering is Tunberg wasn’t around after he completed the first major draft; in fact, he was in Rome during filming. (Wouldn’t be the first time Wyler tried to block a scriptwriter from getting credit: after Michael Wilson, amalgamating a number of Jessamyn West stories into Gary Cooper’s Friendly Persuasion, became ineligible for screen credit because he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Wyler tried to assert his own brother wrote a significant part of the script, a claim the SWG rejected.) The battles of dissatisfaction over the Ben-Hur script still left the unsolved premise of the motivation for the underlining tension impossible to ignore. This isn’t a factor in the 2016 version: stripped of worrisome implications, Toby Kebbell’s Messala is mighty incensed when his explicit orders to Jack Huston’s Judah—to make clear to his fellow countrymen that peace with Roman rule in Judea is better than the alternative—have been ignored. And though made dull by its jaundiced visuals and duller stars, this remake is more faithful to the wishful politics of religious conversion of Jews to Christianity in the book, the most popular American novel until Gone with the Wind. MGM CAMERA 65 is also known as Ultra Panavision. (Opening 12/23/1959 at the Michael Todd, running 74 weeks; a return hardticket engagement started 2/26/1969, lasting 16 weeks.)
Oscar wins: best picture, actor, supporting actor, director, color photography, costumes, art-set direction, dramatic musical score, editing, sound and special effects. Oscar nomination: best adapted screenplay.
The Blu-ray of Ben-Hur is mostly a winner. William Horning’s and Edward Carfagno’s sets are refreshed of impressiveness: the darker they are—the Roman quarters, the dungeon, the interiors of the galley, Ben-Hur’s palace in disrepair—the greater the affects and effects. The chariot arena and its ornamentation look spectacular, and Messala’s nasty blades attached to his chariot and all the gold and silver the charioteers and horses wear glisten most awesomely (though not as humorously as in the Blu-ray of De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, wherein the blinding bling is ready for auction). However, the engineering behind Blu-ray mockingly exposes fakery; it’s like X-raying the shoddiness, as the glass shots and flats as painted backgrounds become insurmountably unconvincing. The sea battle is a combination of sets, miniature battle ships and a set as ship with some dummies now so pitiful and incredulous it all looks like gross dereliction in the art of counterfeiting. To be charitable, the dummies may not be as offensive, for no other reason than viewers understanding why they’re there. (The 2016 remake effectively uses CGI in battle and is an overload in the arena.) The leprosy of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister ultra ineffective when considering they’ve spent five years deep in the bowels of a dungeon; they seem already three quaters of the way to their miracle by the time Judah recues them from the Valley of the Lepers. In previous VHS and DVD releases the bogus blocks of stone walls for Judea appear unintrusive; now in high definition they look inordinately artificial and spotless—emphatically a Cinecittà set, something the set decorators for HBO’s Rome took careful note to avoid. Blu-ray gives depth to the cracks in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s brush strokes viewed during the credits, and the opening birth-of-Christ sequence is a series of colossal Xmas cards. With Dolby 5.1, the sound effects are outstanding—particularly the sloshing of the shitted-up water in the dungeon and water dripping from God knows where; the whips lashing on all the bare skin; the galley chains; and the chariot race which was filmed MOS, meaning no sound was recorded during the filming but added later. Miklós Rózsa’s score is a real workout, with Wyler reportedly editing scenes to enhance its power; the marching strains accompanying the Roman troops are annoyingly loud and redundant. Promoting phony ecumenicalism by Academy members, Hugh Griffith won an Oscar as the Sheik, yet it’s Boyd’s unmitigated evil which provides this picture’s major supporting act. Sam Jaffee, as Haya Harareet’s father, has a very moving moment when breaking down at Heston’s return from the presumed dead. Frank Thring’s “particular talents” are optimized, starting at the chariot smackdown. This Blu-ray’s foremost virtue is re-establishing Heston’s undoubted monarchal presence. His Oscar might be explained as the industry acknowledging he’s the king of the epics, belonging 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, caftans, laurel wreaths and the elevated movie fakespeak of antiquity. One of the documentaries included in the deluxe package has someone saying it’s impossible to keep our eyes off him. Standing on the life-preserving raft following a sea battle during which he saves whipper Hawkins, we aren’t thinking so much about whose ship he’s waving down as we are recognizing the motivation of Messala’s coded hankerings. In 2007’s Man in the Chair, Christopher Plummer’s Flash sets us straight: “You never could act in pants, Chuckles.”
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 2016). All Rights Reserved.