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 that will be cured by the redemptive words and death of the supposed savior. Easier said than achieved. 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” that eluded 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 and whips Ben-Hur in a galley and later waking to find 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 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 heartily when Novarro and Bushman look rather longingly at one another and, if not reward for hard rowing, wonder what that nude in the ship’s galley is all about. Boyd’s not around to confirm if he received quiet instructions from Vidal or Wyler to play his brute as jilted wannabe lover. Wyler had little to offer in the way of clarification other than perfunctory denial. Heston sometimes angrily contested that 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 has been that Tunberg wasn’t around after he completed the first major draft. (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 that 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 politics of religious conversion by Jews to Christianity in the book, the most popular American novel until Gone with the Wind.
The Blu-ray of Ben-Hur is, by advancement in technology, the most praise-worthy of video or DVD editions. At a cost of nearly fifteen million in 1958-59 dollars, some of 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 that gold and silver the charioteers and horses wear glisten almost 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 is such that fakery is mockingly exposed; it’s like we’re X-raying the shoddiness. The sea battle is a combination of sets, a few real ships and miniature battle ships, and the latter, filled with male dummies, are now so pitiful and incredulous that they look like gross derelictions in the art of counterfeiting. The dummies used when ship ramming commences aren’t as offensive, for no other reason than viewers understanding why they’re there. (The 2016 remake uses an overload of CGI in battle and the arena.) As with the Blu-rays of Gone with the Wind and The Greatest Story Ever Told, the glass shots are denudated of any pretense of reality and the painted backgrounds as flats even more problematic. The leprosy of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister ultra ineffective when we stop to consider they’ve spent five years deep in the bowels of a dungeon; they seem already half-way to their miracle by the time Judah saves them from the Valley of the Lepers. In previous VHS and DVD releases the monstrous blocks of stone walls for Judea appear unintrusively bogus; 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 used 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 that dungeon, 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, some of it overwrought. Promoting phony ecumenicalism by Academy members, Hugh Griffith won an Oscar as the Sheik, yet it’s Boyd’s unmitigated evil that provides this picture’s major supporting moments. Not to be forgotten, there’s Frank Thring, doing his unappreciatively amusing short-of-tongue thing. This Blu-ray’s foremost virtue is re-establishing Heston’s undoubted monarchal presence. His Oscar might be explained as the industry’s acknowledgment that he’s the king of the epics—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, 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.” 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.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 2016). All Rights Reserved.