Friday, May 16, 2014

Ben-Hur (Best Picture 1959)

The first thing you need to know about Ben-Hur is that it is close to four hours long. The second thing you need to know is that there is a six minute overture and a 13 minute prelude that tells the story of the birth of Jesus. So, yeah, there are pacing concerns...!

Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, son of one of the richest Jewish families in Palestine. Stephen Boyd is Messala, the new military ruler of Judea. They were boyhood friends, but their politics and class conspire to make them enemies. Messala wants to repress the uprisings and rebellion of the Jews; Ben-Hur agrees to speak out against violence, but not against fighting against the Roman control. When Messala has the chance to arrest his old friend and make an example of him, he does so. Ben-Hur is sold into slavery and is assigned as a rower on a Roman barge. Not only that, but his mother and sister are thrown into prison and his house and riches are confiscated. His accounts manager and his daughter, Esther, are also detained.

On the barge, Ben-Hur catches the eye of Quintus Arrius, commander of the armada. Arrius (Jack Hawkins) offers Ben-Hur a chance to be a warrior and charioteer in Rome, but he declines, hoping to go back to Judea to rescue his mother and sister. The Roman Navy is on a mission to stop pirates, and in a spectacular battle scene, Ben-Hur rescues Arrius from certain death. When they are rescued, Arrius makes Ben-Hur his personal slave and brings him back to Rome. He ends up being a charioteer after all. After five months, Arrius formally adopts Ben-Hur, bestowing on him a ring from the House of Arrius. Granted his freedom, however, Ben-Hur returns to Palestine.

On the way back to his native land he meets up with Sheik Ilderim, played by Hugh Griffith. They talk of chariot racing, and the Sheik's overwhelming wish to beat Messala's horses. Ben-Hur has no wish to help him at this time, desperate to get back to his mother and sister. When he returns to Judea he confronts Messala as Arrius The Younger, threatening him politically if his mother and sister are not released. Messala sends his personal aide to see to them, and finds that they have caught leprosy while in prison. They are released, but too embarrassed to meet up with Ben-Hur. They meet Esther, who promises to keep their secret. Instead she tells Ben-Hur that they are dead, and he decides to race Messala after all.

This is where the first half (?) of the movie ends. Yes, we still have another 90 plus minutes to go.

Ben-Hur decides to go back to Sheik Ilderim and help train his horses. The Sheik confronts Messala with a bet to gamble on the race result and tells him that Ben-Hur will be racing for him. Messala is angry again at this "traitorous" act by his old friend, and gladly commits to racing him. And so we get the famous Chariot Race scene, with the thousands of extras. By this point in the film, however, we have already seen the Navy battle, the crowd scenes, the parade in Rome for Caesar, and countless other epic scenes. In that sense, this is just another in a parade of epic scenes. It did look painful for the stunt-men to get run over by the horses, though!

If telling you that Ben-Hur wins the chariot race spoils that for you, I apologize. He does win, and as a reward gets two pieces of information: Messala tells Ben-Hur that his mother and sister were lepers, and Pontius Pilate, who he had met in Rome, tells him to either stay on the side of Rome, or risk getting put out of the way. Ben-Hur denounces his Roman citizenship, returning the ring from the House of Arrius.

Ben-Hur (getting kinda tired of typing that out!) finds his family in a leper colony, and also finds Esther, who he confronts. She explains that it was their wish to remain "dead" to him, so he reluctantly agrees to their wishes for now. Meanwhile, Esther has heard the teachings of the prophet Jesus Christ, and she begs Ben-Hur to accompany her to his next get-together. They decide to bring his mother and sister to see Jesus, hoping that he can cure them. In a tearful reunion, he begs them to accompany them.

Unfortunately, by the time they get back to the city, Jesus has been condemned. They witness his carrying of the cross for his own crucifixion. When Ben-Hur stops and offers Jesus water, he realizes that he had met Jesus before, years ago when he, Ben-Hur, was being dragged off to slavery. Something touches Ben-Hur and he joins the crowd who watches over the Crucifixion. The night of Jesus' death, a terrible storm rises, and all four of them convert to Christianity. The next thing they know, the women have been cured, and Ben-Hur denounces violence.

Believe it or not, this is just a summary of all that happens in this film! This is a complex, well-plotted, but LONG film. I guess I should have known that this was another one of those Bible Epics that were so popular at this time (such as The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, and The Robe). I was always put-off by the length of this film and by the presence of Charlton Heston; he was never one of my favorite actors, and he is in nearly every scene. However, after watching the film I can't really argue with Heston winning Best Actor for his work. Along with Best Actor and Best Picture Ben-Hur won   nine other Academy Awards, making it the most-honored film up to that time (beating last year's Gigi by two awards). Titanic (1997) and The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King (2003) share the record, with eleven awards each. The only award I would really question is Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim. He beat out Arthur O'Connell and George C. Scott, both in Anatomy of a Murder, Ed Wynn in The Diary of Anne Frank, and a young Robert Vaughn in The Young Philadelphians. I wasn't able to find a copy of Robert Vaughn's film, so I can't speak to his role, but the others were all more dramatic and memorable than Hugh Griffith. Sorry, but I think he just rode the coat-tails of the chariots on this one. 

One last note: I was surprised that Jesus was a supporting character, even though he is never actually shown. (In one scene immediately prior to the Crucifixion, there is a scene with Pontius Pilate and Jesus where Jesus' face is actually obscured as if by a primitive mosaic. I know that certain countries and groups frown on actual portrayals of Prophets; I wonder if that had something to do with this.)

So if you like epic films with a capital "epic," you'll like Ben-Hur. If you don't.....then watch the trailer and call it a day. The trailer hits all the epic highlights, and only takes 3 minutes. Amen!

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1959*
Produced by Sam Zimbalist
Directed  by William Wyler
Screenplay by Karl Tunberg

My only question when I watched this trailer was: did all that many people *really* read the novel Ben-Hur? The film is much more famous than the book, atleast to later generations.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Anatomy of a Murder
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Nun's Story
Room At The Top
I took the time to watch Room At The Top, starring Simone Signoret, because she won Best Actress for this film. This was the first foreign actress to win the Award, and the only French woman so far. She portrays an older, more experienced and unhappy woman having an affair with Laurence Harvey (nominated). Anatomy of a Murder is the Otto Preminger directed court-room drama starring James Stewart, George C. Scott, Ben Gazara, and a smoldering Lee Remick. It's a very entertaining film. The Diary of Anne Frank is the film version of the Tony-winning play, directed by George Stevens. During WWII Stevens was in one of the US Army units filming the fighting; they were one of the first groups to visit Dachau after it was liberated, and he felt very strongly about the making of this film. Shelley Winters won Best Supporting Actress, and donated her Oscar statuette to the Anne Frank House in the Netherlands. It's a terrific film about a terrible incident in world history. I didn't watch The Nun's Story; I went so far as to check it out from the library, but even with Audrey Hepburn as the lead it didn't interest me. Sorry!

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