by Alexandre Paquin
"Ben-Hur" (1959) is the closest Hollywood has come to creating a film now described as a biblical epic which is neither biblical nor epic.Extremely popular when first released, the film, based on a famous novel by Lew Wallace, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a record only equalled by Titanic (1997), an achievement made more spectacular by the fact that the film was the remake of a prestigious 1926 silent production which had cost a then-unheard-of four million dollars. And while the 1959 film is technically more advanced than its predecessor, it is imbued with an undeserved solemnity which is more apparent than in the silent version. In most other respects, the remake is less original and exciting than the silent picture.
"The Dullest Story Ever Told"
Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a member of the Jewish nobility living in Jerusalem, who lives a religious life and peacefully opposes the occupation of Judea by Rome. When his old friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to the region as a Roman official, they are divided over the fate of Judea. Throwing friendship aside, Messala has Ben-Hur, as well as his sister and mother, arrested under a wrongful accusation of treason. While the fate of his family is unknown, Judah is condemned to spend the rest of his life in the Roman fleet's galleys. His fate, however, takes a turn for the best when he saves the life of the commander of the fleet, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). Freed from slavery, he becomes Arrius's adopted son, but instead of forgetting his past to become the heir of a Roman aristocrat, the motives that becomes the purpose of his life is to find his family and take his revenge on the treacherous Messala, which he eventually does through a famous chariot race.
Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is not the main theme of the film; ultimately, Ben-Hur is less a biblical epic in the manner of The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) than a traditional Roman Empire story in the style of Quo Vadis? (1951), or a film set against the background of the life of Christ such as The Robe (1953), a film which it closely resembles. Despite its subtitle "A Tale of Christ" (more used in reference to the 1926 version), Ben-Hur's protagonist is not a biblical character, but its eponymous character, who is entirely fictitious. Furthermore, in spite of Judah's constant references to his God, Christianity is mostly relegated to the background, and apart from a sequence before the opening credits, a brief encounter between Ben-Hur and Jesus, and the last thirty minutes of the picture which deal with the Crucifixion, there is nothing particularly biblical about Ben-Hur, in comparison to the 1926 version, which, although never rising above biblical tokenism, had episodes of the Christ's life (filmed in two-strip Technicolor) regularly interrupting the protagonist's story. And in spite of its length (217 minutes), widescreen cinematography, and potential scope, there is nothing particularly epic about it either.
Ben-Hur's most obvious problem is its constant decline into maudlin melodrama, for instance when it depicts the relations between Judah and former Hur family slave and lover Esther (Haya Harareet) or Judah's family's plight, the latter conveniently cured by a miracle for a more dramatic climax while heightening the apparent importance of religion to the story. The film's other problem is its relentlessly slow pace; Ben-Hur plods along at a speed which makes even the famous Cecil B. De Mille epic The Ten Commandments, a film which also demonstrates that too much of a good thing is not always better, look more eventful. At its most exciting, Ben-Hur features the famed eleven-minute chariot race, but this is the only truly memorable moment of the picture. The other moment which should have been exhilarating is the naval battle during which Ben-Hur saves the life of Arrius, but in the 1959 version, this scene is uninspired, and its most involving moments are cut short when the camera drifts away from the battle scene itself to pay attention to the two men on a small raft. The battle is over by the time it merely begins to become interesting. The silent film's version of this episode, which spent more time on the battle itself, is undoubtedly the most cinematic of the two, with better direction, editing, and attention to detail. Together, these two scenes last approximately twenty minutes; the rest of the film is unnaturally stretched out, and between these two events, tedium quickly takes over as we are left waiting for the climactic chariot race, which in any case is nowhere near the end of the picture, to begin.
If Charlton Heston seemed to be overacting in The Ten Commandments, his performance as Ben-Hur, for which he won an Oscar, is even worse. Every subtlety of this well-developed character is grossly amplified, as though the nature of the story commanded a larger-than-life performance. The rest of the cast is generally unremarkable, although Stephen Boyd as Messala could have had a positive impact on the picture had he had more screen time (he is mostly confined to the beginning of the film and the chariot race). As it stands, the film fails to fully develop the antagonism between Ben-Hur and Messala.
While the exterior scenes are breathtaking (including the forum where the chariot race is held) thanks to the cinematography, the interiors are generally too lavish and pristine to look authentic. Most films from that period, including The Robe and The Ten Commandments as well as the white elephant Cleopatra (1963), suffer from unrealistic sets which come across as decorated sound stages (which of course they are), but which nevertheless must have conformed to the aesthetic tastes and historical conceptions shared by millions of fifties American suburbanites. A few of the exterior scenes, particularly the Crucifixion, give the impression of having been filmed in a studio. Even the naval battle loses most of its effectiveness because of its painted background. As well, the viewer cannot entirely discard the thought that what he sees is a collection of movie stars with makeup wearing costumes that are too bright and look too new to seem historically accurate. In other words, the film is marred by a complete lack of visual verisimilitude, which does nothing to make the film more appealing or interesting.
The screenplay by Karl Tunberg (and others, including Maxwell Anderson and Gore Vidal) lacks originality, the dialogue is stilted, Miklos Rozsa's score is alternately grandiose and uninspired (with echoes of Quo Vadis? and Ivanhoe), but the person most to blame is director William Wyler, who was an inappropriate choice for the task. Wyler was an immensely talented director of dramas (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives) who also directed a few comedies and thrillers, but his inability to direct anything on an epic scale is showing. With Wyler at the helm, the crowd scenes lack impact, and the complete film lacks the required resonance. Only scenes directed by his assistants (including the chariot race) are visually enthralling; the rest is highly forgettable.
Because of its subject matter and overall prestige, Ben-Hur has become a film almost impossible to criticize. However, Ben-Hur is a pretentious film which tries to pass as a serious topic (undoubtedly because of its mostly unconnected biblical excursions) a story which would have been better treated without the heavy-handedness. The 1926 silent film, which is shorter but somehow more compelling, is the best of the two versions, even though it is, as its remake, unbearably slow in parts.The 1959 film might well be, in retrospect, the dullest story ever told.
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originally posted: 04/04/02 07:26:25