A Favorite Classic Film 

 

"BEN-HUR"

 

Warner's 50th-anniversary collection edition of Ben-Hur is now available in both regular DVD and Bluray. This is my copy.Often at parties or in social situations someone will pose the question as to what might be the best movie ever made. There are moments when the answers can provide some interesting insight into the individual tastes of the guests at hand.

Most critics will suggest such titles as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell wrote the novel Gone With The Wind over the course of ten years and there is little doubt a strong author and story go a long way in producing a classic film that rises to the level of an art form.

My humble opinion would put forth the 1959 epic Ben-Hur, winner of eleven Academy Awards, as a top classic. Ben-Hur does have religious overtones but ultimately is more of an epic tale of human relations, the basis for the most enduring sagas.

The central character of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman portrayed by Charlton Heston, gets unfairly caught up in the politics and circumstances of his time. It is not long before he is betrayed by his best boyhood friend Messala, portrayed by Stephen Boyd, and is condemned to serve as a rower in the Roman sea galleys. While traveling across the desert on his way to serve his sentence he collapses from thirst. As his tormenters give drinks to the other prisoners and the horses at a water hole in a small village, a carpenter working near by happens to notice Judah's situation and gives him water. This small act of kindness is one of the few times Jesus is on the screen and the significance of the act is not made known to Judah or the audience until later in the film. In the meantime Judah goes on to become a bitter and angry man as the story continues. Judah is eventually pitted against his betrayer in the legendary chariot race. The race is not the culmination of his struggle and final destiny. This happens near the end of the movie, when Judah realizes that the man condemned at a prominent trial is the same man who saved him long ago from dying of thirst. I am intrigued by stories of fate and this beautiful story is built around the simple act of someone receiving a drink of water.

The writing of Ben-Hur begins as a novel more than a century ago by General Lew Wallace. Being a Civil War general, Wallace may seem an unlikely candidate to compose such a story. Wallace began his career as a lawyer in Union Major General Lew Wallace - Future author of "Ben-Hur"Indiana after serving in the Mexican-American War.  Prior to the Civil War he served as a state senator. Wallace rose to the ranks of Major General during the Civil War and commanded divisions of the Union Army. Interestingly he served after the war as a military judge at the Abraham Lincoln assassination trials before being appointed to governor of the New Mexico territory. Conflicts erupted in this area that included the likes of William H. Bonney, otherwise known as Billy the Kid. When Bonney was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang Wallace issued the death warrant. Bonney ended up escaping and was hunted down by Pat Garrett. Wallace also was appointed by President Garfield to serve as United States Minister to Turkey. I am a strong believer that some of the best authors have a wealth of life experiences to draw upon and Lew Wallace is no exception.

In the midst of living a very full and active life Lew Wallace penned the novel Ben-Hur, a labor of seven years of research and writing, which was published in 1880 and has never been out of print. It was adapted into a stage play sometime after with eight horses trained to run on treadmills for the chariot sequence! Motion pictures brought the story to the screen as an epic in the silent version of 1925 and then again in 1959. Even now productions of various kinds continue. The 1959 version was first adapted as a screen play by Karl Tunberg who has full credit for doing so on the film. However, Gore Vidal and others worked to revise the script even after shooting began. This made some at the studio nervous as MGM gambled everything on Ben-Hur. At the time Ben-Hur was the largest movie in history with a staggering budget, hundreds of sets, and thousands of extras.

The 1959 version of Ben-Hur was directed by William Wyler, a director well known for cinematic artistry. William Wyler came from a group of directors that put script first. One of the things I enjoy about the direction of Ben-Hur is that Wyler does not feel the need to over tell the already great story. Wyler creates identifiable characters on screen and allows them to feel powerful emotion. In this way characters leap off the screen into the audience.

The subtle touch really comes across in the scene where Jesus gives Judah the drink of water. The temptation of most directors of the time would be to have a dramatic sequence with light beams shining overhead as a halo laden Jesus appears and hands Judah a mug of water. Instead, the face of Jesus is never shown on screen throughout the film. The water sequence is filmed with only the back of Jesus shown as He helps Judah, and Jesus never utters a word. Even with this subtlety the scene is so masterfully constructed the audience clearly knows who He is. The scene ends with a Roman soldier sternly warning Jesus not to give that particular man any water. The soldier marches toward Jesus but then pauses. The actor in this small role does a superb job portraying a soldier not quite sure of why he is intimidated. Likewise, Charlton Heston is pulled away to move on with his journey and without dialogue is greatful yet bewildered as to why the act of kindness was committed. As great an action sequence as the chariot race is, it is this sequence that has the ability to set the tone for the audience as they now know the path for Judah will somehow change. Every shot of the film seems to be composed as if taking a photograph and William Wyler keeps his actors grounded in realistic talk and actions, unlike many Bible epics of the time engaging in over the top manners of speaking.

Stephen Boyd, portraying Messala the former friend and betrayer of Judah, has one of the best and interesting death scenes in a film. After being mortally injured and being worked on by a physician, Messala is visited by Judah. What I like about this scene is the pure evil Boyd portrays even as his character is in great pain and about to die. While his face is showing agony Messala still manages to smile a wicked grin while revealing to Judah the true awful fate of his mother and sister, whom Judah presumes are dead at this point in the story. While Judah recoils in horror, Messala slowly exhales the last bit of life he has in his body satisfied that he was still able to inflict more pain on Judah.

The chariot race segment was directed largely by Yakima Canutt, a famous stuntman whose son doubled for Charlton Heston during the more dangerous sequences. Cinema enthusiasts all agree the chariot race is among the best shot action ever on film. Some of the fatalities depicted in the race are particularly realistic and gruesome even by today's standards and shocked some audiences in 1959. It took nearly a full year to plan the chariot race which included finding and training horses up to the task. Heston worked hard well ahead of the filming schedule to be adept at handling a chariot. This makes it easier on directors who can rely on more realistic close ups on actors in character as opposed to length shooting of stunt doubles. Heston, it is told, confided in Canutt that although he felt comfortable training with his team of horses he was nervous about running in close quarters with other teams during the shoot. Cannut apparently only provided minor assurances to Heston simply by instructing him to just stay in the chariot as he was guaranteed to win the race.

Ben-Hur was shot in 2.76:1 with the MGM Camera 65 cinematographic process complimented with 6 channel sound, although configured differently than what is today referred to as surround sound. William Wyler took advantage of the extra wide frame especially in the action sequences. For easier distribution some prints were released as 35mm anamorphic with a mix down of the sound. In addition to being shot on very hearty film stock, most of the movie is live action. There are very few special effects of the time to date the appearance of the movie other than the Roman sea battle sequence.

Great movies have great music. In Ben-Hur, Miklos Rozsa creates a musical score with an orchestra worthy of a concert performance. When the music gets big it is like listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing the Hallelujah Chorus, if you are not a believer you will understand why others do. By the same token the music creates serenity as in the drink of water sequence referred to on the soundtrack as The Prince Of Peace. This same soft tone is called upon anytime Judah speaks of the incident at the water well. In the Roman galley a man hammers on a block to pace the rowing. The music follows the hammers precisely with various strings and other instrumentation. Miklos Rozsa creates a mood and drama with music that is in fact part of the experience on the screen.

Ben-Hur stands the test of time. This would be my suggestion for the debate as to what may be one of the best movies ever, for no other reason than for the story's pedigree. What began as a story taking years to pen by a Civil War veteran turned into a saga that represents a culmination of story telling refinement through various adaptations of stage and film across many years. The 1959 production of Ben-Hur also showcases the era's premier directorial talent and a brilliant musical score.