Tuesday, February 4, 2014

BEN-HUR - 1959

Ben-Hur is nothing if not a colossal example of stirring, magnificent pageantry. It’s that rare achievement where all the elements of film combine to create a thundering spectacle that is truly unforgettable. It’s one of those feats that raise the standard of filmmaking to such cinematic heights that few films have been able to sustain a comparison to it without being swallowed up by the shadow of its accomplishment. The signature chariot race alone is a sequence few filmmakers could conceive, let alone actually pull off, even in this time of advanced technology. But perhaps its greatest triumph is that the intimate human drama and complex, internal struggle of its central character is never trampled underneath the visually epic constituents of the film’s enormous narrative. After watching Ben-Hur, it’s no wonder that Hollywood endeavors to produce so few Biblical epics these days. In my opinion, it is one of the most difficult genres to successfully navigate, particularly because producing success in this arena takes faith, understanding and respect for religious-themed subject matter, accoutrements which Hollywood has since long ago discarded. Although I might be heating up a plate of crow in saying that, as 2014 is shaping up to be a year when Biblical epics are poised to make a resurrected comeback, with big screen adaptations of the stories of Noah, Exodus and Jesus all set for wide release. Whether or not these efforts fail or flourish, it should be interesting to see Tinseltown’s treatment of the Old and New Testament over the next several months.

Directed by the fearless William Wyler, and starring the indomitable Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur dominated the 1959 Academy Awards with 12 nominations, taking home a record-setting 11 statuettes, including Best Picture. The only other films to match Ben-Hur’s Oscar haul are Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The one category the failed to realize Oscar gold was for Best Adapted Screenplay, which critics have attributed to controversy over the film’s writing credit, which, if true, is completely ridiculous. Pish posh on who actually wrote the thing?! The only point that counts is that it was an incredible screenplay that should have been honored regardless of who ended up taking home the bald guy that evening. 

Set in the year 26 A.D. during the Roman Empire’s occupation of Jerusalem and the surrounding region, the film centers on Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy prince and merchant. Judah enjoys a relatively peaceful existence until his childhood friend Messala returns to Jerusalem as a commander in the Roman army. Anxious to please his superiors, Messala immediately implores Judah to give up the names of those Jews who criticize the Roman Empire. His devotion to his people and faith cause Judah to refuse Messala’s request. Angry with his old friend, Messala later seizes upon a public misunderstanding as an excuse to cast Judah and his family into prison, committing Judah to a miserable existence as a galley slave.

 Through a series of fortunate events, Judah is able to save the life of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius amidst the chaos of battle with a fleet of Macedonian ships. The Romans prevail in victory, resulting in Quintus receiving credit for the campaign’s success. Grateful to Judah, Quintus adopts him as his son and secures his freedom from slavery. Free from the shackles of his sentence, Judah eventually returns home where he is given word that his mother and sister have died in prison during his absence. Stung with hatred and seething with an electrified vengeance in the wake of this terrible news, Judah straight away seeks out Messala. As a side note, in the scene where Judah first confronts Messala, who is stunned to see him return, it would have been awesome in an over-the-top sort of way if Judah had turned to the camera and grisly said, as only Charlton Heston can, “Ben-Hur’s back, bitch.” I guess that route was deemed a little too irreverent, so instead, the story has Judah and Messala settle their fates in a thunderous chariot race that leaves the latter mortally wounded. 

Before his wounds can carry off his spirit to the Great Beyond, Messala tells Judah that his mother and sister are indeed alive (sort of), dwelling in the Valley of the Lepers. Shocked by the news, Judah, grabbing the biggest bottle of hand sanitizer that he can find, goes off in search of his leper family, eventually reuniting with them under bittersweet circumstances. While trudging along in the wilderness of his anger over the injustices suffered by his loved ones, Judah comes to witness the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, whom he hears preach about forgiveness while hanging on the cross. The words bring comfort to Judah’s heart, allowing him to finally forgive the grievances brought against him and his family and to move forward in peace.

 It’s no great insight to point out that everything associated with the Ben-Hur was ordered on a supremely grand scale. The film’s running time is 212 minutes. The score is the longest in cinematic history, requiring it to be spread across three LP records when it was initially released for commercial purchase. Women in the Piedmont region of Italy donated 400 pounds of hair to be used for wigs. The number of costumes swelled to 100,000 different sets of attire, with the production of an additional 1,000 suits of armor. The glorious chariot race scene used a set that was constructed over 18 acres, using 1,500 hundred extras on any given day of shooting. Upon completion of principal photography, over 1 million feet of film had been used to capture the story of Ben-Hur, making it one of the most monumental artistic achievements in the history of the world.

But when you can step back from the sheer size and depth of the production, what is truly amazing about Ben-Hur is that the human drama and the inner conflict are never eclipsed by the weighty spectacle. I think this is due to the film’s exploration and illustration of the profound ideas rooted in forgiveness, particularly in the face of engulfing injustice. This gives the film a strong pulse that feels personal and real because everyone at some point in their mortality is confronted with the decision of whether or not to show forgiveness. In having to navigate the emotionally tumultuous journey that can be presented in reaching a point where anger and vengeance are swapped out in favor of forgiveness, Charlton Heston delivers a performance that feels credibly dignified, tormented, aggressive and wounded. With the one-two punch of playing both Moses and Judah, Heston’s talents seem specifically engineered for these types of Biblical epics. He soars, where lesser actors would easily plummet. He brings such a level of passion and earnestness to the character of Judah that his suffering and joy feel unquestionably authentic and true. In this light, it can rightfully be said that it’s Heston’s talent and strength that lift the film into the leagues of greatness. The narrative revolves entirely around the trials and tribulations endured by Judah, and Heston fearlessly tackles all of the elements with confidence and zeal. So many films have proven the fact that spectacle and thrills aren’t worth a damn unless they have real characters and conflict to breathe life into them. Heston not only gave life to Judah, and thus the entire film, but he completely electrified it with an energy that still resonates more than 50 years later.

The other component that makes this a powerful and compelling film is the portrayal of certain moments in the life of Jesus Christ, his ministry and earthly mission, particularly the Crucifixion. The enactment is done with an undeniable sense of reverence, but the act itself unfolds with the nature of a dark political deed done to extinguish any flicker of peace or hope of freedom from the Roman Empire’s bondage. It's emotional and affecting as a stand-alone event within in the film. But it also lends gravity to Ben-Hur's central theme of forgiveness: Jesus Christ set the ultimate example by expressing forgiveness towards the Roman’s for their deeds against him while he was hanging on the cross. On that note, perhaps the overarching reason that Ben-Hur is an untouchable film that is likely to never be matched by any future Hollywood production is that it contains some of the greatest events and most enduring truths in the history of mankind, which transcends awards, entertainment value and time, making the film forever resonant.  

Favorite Line: The film has several great lines that offer great insight into the true nature of life. But I thought the final lines spoken by Judah and Esther, his love interest, to be the most poignant. 

Judah: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." 
Esther: Even then?
Judah: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

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