Friday, December 26, 2008

Target #253: Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)

TSPDT placing: #321
Directed by: William Wyler

Watching Ben-Hur (1959) is a lot like paying a visit to the Colosseum. Situated in Rome, Italy, this massive elliptical amphitheatre is the largest ever built in the Roman Empire, able to seat up to 80,000 spectators for gladiatorial games and various public spectacles. I've never been to Rome myself, but I'd imagine that one would look up at this amazing feat of ancient architecture, and be left in awe at the scale of it all. You would marvel at the amount of care and labour that must have gone into such a project, particularly given the comparatively primitive tools with which the builders had worked. I feel the same way about Ben-Hur – William Wyler's epic of epics, and, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. Winner of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this colossal cinematic gamble resurrected M-G-M from financial ruin. But is it worth nearly four hours of your time? Like a lumbering elephant, Ben-Hur wallows in its immensity, extravagance and self-importance. But it is epic – oh, so very epic! – and, like the Colosseum, demands our awe.

Earlier this year, I decreed Ben-Hur to be the one film that I wouldn't watch for the first time until I had the luxury of viewing it at the cinema. Sooner than expected, the opportunity came along, though the Christmas Eve screening date made it essential that I bring the usual holiday festivities forward one day. The sacrifice was much warranted, for the film can only be fully experienced in the movie theatre, not least because of the breathtaking 70mm anamorphic print, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 – one of the widest ever made. William Wyler fills every frame with rich extravagance, such that even the quietest person-to-person conversation takes place in a magnificent, lavishly-decorated chamber. Such expansive surroundings often promote coldness and detachedness from the audience (many uninvolving historical epics were produced around this period), and Ben-Hur doesn't entirely escape the same fate; for every exciting and emotional sequence, there are maybe two scenes of negligible exposition. But the film thrives on its excesses, and, fortunately, the good scenes are so incredibly good that they merit the wait.

Charlton Heston won an Oscar for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, though his performance is merely adequate without being particularly brilliant. Heston, an actor who flourished mostly on sheer charisma, I think, appears to struggle in the film's most emotional moments {my personal pick for the award that year would have been Laurence Harvey in Jack Clayton's Room at the Top (1959)}. Stephen Boyd, though un-nominated, is quite terrific as Messala, Judah's boyhood friend who was later corrupted by the evils of the Roman Empire. Though there are many exciting scenes – such as the fiery ocean battle or Christ's crucifixion – the film's undisputed centrepiece is, of course, the extraordinary chariot race, a marvel of adrenalin-charged action and suspense. Every single metre of the contest had me enthralled, every jolt and tremble of the carriage sending an agitated chill down my spine. The sequence's enduring influence is to be found in practically every historical epic that followed, most noticeably Ridley Scott's Best Picture-winning Gladiator (2000).

To be denied one's name is the film's greatest tragedy. When condemned to a lifetime of slavery aboard a Roman galley, Judah loses his important status and is delegated a generic identification number – #41. His mother and sister, having contracted leprosy after years in confinement, later flee to a leper colony, where, we are told, names are of no use. After being liberated from captivity by the kindly nobleman Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), Judah takes on the name of his newly-adopted father, a compassionate gesture but one that he is later ashamed to have accepted. To be denied one's face, on the other hand, is apparently divine. Claude Heater, as Jesus Christ, is never properly seen, glimpsed only from behind or at a distance. In this way, the Messiah is portrayed as something holy and angelic, not to be glimpsed by mortal eyes. Though the story of Christ may only form a subplot, thematically it sits at the film's heart. Ben-Hur is about the beginnings of Christianity, and how its teachings have inspired people from the very beginning, and ever since.

Currently my #8 film of 1959:
1) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (Bernhard Wicki)
2) Room at the Top (Jack Clayton)
3) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
5) On the Beach (Stanley Kramer)
6) Le Quatre cents coups {The 400 Blows} (François Truffaut)
7) Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
8) Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
9) The Tingler (William Castle)
10) Some of Manie’s Friends (Bob Finkel) (TV)


J Luis Rivera said...

It's big and bombastic, but yeah, I think it's worthy. I wouldn't repeat the dose too soon, personally, but that's just me.

The chariot scene still is quite thrillin, in my opinion.

Happy holidays mate!

aeuzop said...

Pretty much. Have you seen the silent version?