Friday, December 31, 2010

Ben-Hur: Bigger Is Better

It has been said that the Academy often awards Best Picture not based exclusively on merit, instead opting to reward the film with the biggest payroll (and in certain regard, it makes sense—a big film is likely to have more Academy members employed on it, and if cast and crew show loyalty to the picture they worked on, then naturally the films with the largest productions would have an advantage in terms of votes). Perhaps no film symbolized the triumph of logistics better than William Wyler’s Ben-Hur.

Even by modern standards, Ben-Hur is a massive picture. The film endured six years of pre-production, and when, in 1956, Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of his biblical epic The Ten Commandments (which DeMille first staged as a silent film in 1925) proved to be a massive hit for Paramount, MGM became serious about bringing Ben-Hur back to the screen. Like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur was also first successfully staged as a silent film—also released in 1925. MGM, like every studio in Hollywood, was quick to adapt to trends, and they even went so far as to cast Charlton Heston—famous for playing Moses in The Ten Commandments—in the lead role of Judah Ben-Hur.

Ben-Hur was also—at the time—the most expensive film ever made, budgeted at $15 million dollars (which doesn’t even pay for the salaries of some actors today). It was filmed on location in Italy, where massive, life-like sets were erected, to be populated by tens of thousands of extras. The Circus Maximus stadium built on the Cinecitta Studios backlot in Rome for the climactic chariot race spread out over eighteen acres, and the ten-block set used for the re-created Jerusalem was historically accurate. The film used over 1,000,000 props. Over 1,250,000 feet of 65mm film were processed in MGM’s laboratories for Ben-Hur–at the cost of a dollar a foot—and for the chariot race alone, for every foot of film used, 263 feet were trimmed. The marketing of the film was also taken to a ridiculous extreme. Aside from the usual and expected movie tie-ins like the soundtrack and action figures, MGM created Ben-His and Ben-Hers matching bathrobes. In every regard, the picture was massive.

The result—an unprecedented eleven Oscar wins out of twelve nominations. The film also represented an enormous gamble and payoff for MGM. Had the film been a failure, it would have sunk the studio. Instead, Ben-Hur was a massive success and saved MGM from bankruptcy.

In my opinion, time has not been particularly kind to every aspect of Ben-Hur. I will be the first to say that a film this massive and phenomenally popular in its time will always attract favorable audiences, but many elements of the film don’t hold up well under the scrutiny of time. First things first, Ben-Hur is an extremely old-fashioned film. There are many reasons that contribute to this. Part of it is the length of the film itself. Three hours and thirty two minutes is a long time for any audience to invest in a film, particularly one that doesn’t contain very much complexity—either from the actors, characters or the story itself. Another reason is the subject matter of the film. Ben-Hur is subtitled A Tale of the Christ and the film is unquestionably Christian. I have nothing against religiously themed films, but I’ve also found that film is a poor substitute for actually going to church. There is nothing subtle (save one very notable exception, which I will discuss in a bit) about Ben-Hur’s interpretation of Christianity, from the opening credits that unfurl themselves against Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to the Passion play finale. Finally, the script is easily the weakest part of the Ben-Hur, and struggles to contain the massive scope of the film.

Director William Wyler (who was paid the then record setting salary of $1,000,000 to direct Ben-Hur) hated the screenplay from its inception. Upon his first reading of Karl Tunberg’s script, Wyler scribbled the words “awful” and “horrible” in its margins. Almost immediately, Wyler sought out superior screenwriters to polish and in some cases rewrite the screenplay. One of the writers commissioned to do rewrites was Gore Vidal. Vidal also hated the script upon first reading, and wanted nothing to do with the film. However, Vidal was also under contract at the time, and hated being a contract writer as much as he hated the script for Ben-Hur. Wyler offered to get Vidal out of the final two years of his contract if he would contribute to the script rewrites. Vidal’s major contribution to the screenplay was to provide a homosexual subtext to the relationship between Judah Ben-Hur and the primary antagonist of the film, Messala (Stephen Boyd).

The original script simply had the root of the conflict between Ben-Hur and Messala—who were the best of friends in childhood—arise from political differences. Wyler felt political disagreement was not impetus enough for a relationship between two characters who were such close friends as children to devolve into outright hatred. Vidal supplied the subtext that Ben-Hur and Messala were lovers as teenagers, and the resentment and bitterness Messala feels is because Ben-Hur spurned him. Wyler was hesitant to implement this change—and was especially fearful of Heston’s reaction—but agreed to it after no explicit mention of the sexuality of the characters be made in the film (which would have violated production codes at the time) and that Vidal discuss the change with Boyd (who was fine with it) while never mentioning it to Heston. This results in an awkward performance from Heston, who is completely clueless to one of the motivating foundations of his character.

Astute audiences picked up on the subtext, and the sexuality of the two characters remained a mystery for years until in 1995, Vidal publically admitted he wrote the characters as former lovers. Wyler was proven right in wanting to hide Vidal’s changes from Charlton Heston. Heston, upon hearing Vidal’s assertions, immediately denied that Ben-Hur and Messala had a homosexual relationship. He claimed that Vidal never received screen credit for the film (more on that a bit later) because he tried to add gay innuendo to Ben-Hur. As most bigots eventually prove, Heston hypocritically contradicted himself. In his 1978 autobiography, Heston cited that Vidal was ultimately responsible for authoring the majority of the shooting script. After seventeen years, Heston changed his tune.

Wyler then brought in Christopher Fry to author the second major rewrite of the Ben-Hur screenplay. Fry’s contributions included a polish of the dialogue and a rewritten ending. Upon the release of the film, neither Vidal nor Fry received on-screen credit for their extensive contributions to the screenplay of the film. Wyler eventually commissioned 40 scripts for the film (never a good indication of a quality screenplay), and was so incensed of the lack of credit that Vidal and Fry received that he leaked the drama to the press (still considered something of a no-no in Hollywood). To add further insult to injury, Karl Tunberg received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for his “work” on Ben-Hur. It is perhaps a small measure of justice that Adapted Screenplay was the only Oscar Ben-Hur was nominated for that it did not win.

I think one of the major weaknesses of the script is that it doesn’t always reconcile the Ben-Hur part with the A Tale of the Christ part. Mostly, the film is a revenge story. Ben-Hur is framed, his family is imprisoned, he is wrongly enslaved, he becomes a confidante to his Roman captors, then ultimately seeks revenge on Messala, his former friend who imprisoned him. Ben-Hur even swears to Messala, “May God grant me vengeance. I pray that you live until I return.” This is an Old Testament theme in a film supposedly about the other part of the Bible.

Ben-Hur’s story is interwoven with that of Christ’s. The film opens with the traditional nativity story—the three Magi bearing gifts and riding into Bethlehem to witness the birth of Christ. The film ends with Christ’s crucifixion. Throughout the film, Ben-Hur and Christ intersect, most importantly in a scene shortly after Ben-Hur is enslaved and being forced to march through a desert. When they stop at Nazareth, the dehydrated Ben-Hur is at his weakest moment, and he literally cries out for God to help him. Who should be there with a drink of water but Christ himself, and in that moment, Ben-Hur is transfixed by the son of God.

The most effective part of Christ’s depiction in the film is that His face is never seen. In fact, I will go on record as saying that I think this is the most effective interpretation of Jesus I have ever seen on film. Any actor who plays Christ—and there have been several very good ones, notably Willem Dafoe and Jim Caviezel—will inevitably fail to live up to the image of Christ in the minds of the audience. One thing Ben-Hur does do subtly and well is to keep Christ’s face hidden and let our imagination of Him fill in the gaps. He is also referred to obliquely, almost in passing at times (the Romans refer to Jesus as “a King of the Jews who will lead them all into some sort of anti-Roman paradise”, and that Christ is a “young carpenter’s son” who is “different. He teaches that God is near, in every man. It’s quite profound, some of it.”). Later, Ben-Hur meets Balthasar (Finlay Currie), one of the three Magi, who tells a disbelieving Ben-Hur:

"Your whole life is a miracle. Why will you not accept God's judgment? You do not believe in miracles, yet God once spoke to me out of the darkness, and a star led me to a village called Bethlehem where I found a newborn child in a manger. And God lived in this child. By now, He is a grown man, and must be ready to begin His work. And that is why I have returned here, so that I may be at hand when He comes among us. He is near. He saw the sun set this evening as we did. Perhaps He's standing in a doorway somewhere on a hilltop. Perhaps He is a shepherd watching, a fisherman. But He lives in all our lives. From now on we'll carry His mark. There are many paths to God, my son. I hope yours will not be too difficult."

This all serves to make Christ in the film a legendary figure, so that when He does appear in the film the audience is prepared to witness a figure of powerful faith.

Yet Ben-Hur’s conversion from a man filled with a bloodthirsty hatred for Messala and the Romans into a man who follows Christ’s example is less convincing. I never felt that, at least in the way Heston plays it, that Ben-Hur’s spiritual conversion comes from within. Instead, it feels like a plot device. After Christ gives Ben-Hur the drink of water at Nazareth, He disappears from the film for the entire second act—even after the chariot race is finished. Ben-Hur witnesses the Sermon on the Mount, but he is unmoved by Christ’s words. Furthermore, Ben-Hur doesn’t manage to put two and two together in that the man preaching on the hill is the same man who gave him a drink of water when he was thirsty. Balthasar and Esther (Haya Harareet), whom Ben-Hur loves, also witnesses the Sermon on the Mount, and it is she who reminds Ben-Hur of Christ’s teachings.

Ben-Hur is not satisfied that he has defeated Messala in the chariot race; he wants revenge on all of the Romans who have persecuted the Jews. (Important to note here is in Ben-Hur’s absence from Jerusalem, his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) have contracted leprosy after their own imprisonment in solitary confinement and are condemned to live in the Valley of Lepers.) Esther tells Ben-Hur, “Love your enemy. Do good to those who despitefully use you.” Christ’s words, from the mouth of a supporting character (again also serving to enhance the larger-than-life figure of Christ in the story). Yet Ben-Hur is unmoved, and Esther claims that Ben-Hur has become like the Romans whom he despises.

Finally, although he does not quite believe it, Ben-Hur is persuaded to seek out the Messiah to see if he can perform one of his miracles to cure Miriam and Tirzah of their leprosy. Esther persuades him to act by saying “Life is everlasting. Death is nothing to fear if you have faith.” In Jerusalem, Ben-Hur learns that Christ was put on trial and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Ben-Hur again passes by Christ carrying the cross on his back as he is on his way to Golgotha. It is here that Ben-Hur finally recognizes Christ as the man who gave him water when he was dying of thirst in Nazareth. When Christ falls, Ben-Hur offers Him a drink of water, and Ben-Hur’s conversion is brought full circle.

Yet do we ever hear Ben-Hur forgive the Romans? Is there ever reconciliation with Messala? I understand that the film asks us to accept that Ben-Hur’s reawakening of faith is another one of Christ’s miracles. I don’t deny the existence of miracles. However, I don’t feel that a miracle alone is reason for spiritual reawakening—the new ideals one has accepted into their heart must be put into practice, and the film never allows us to see the Christian Judah Ben-Hur becomes. Heston does not convincingly sell the conversion of faith. (To be fair, an awakening of faith is one of the most difficult things an actor can portray on screen. We’ve already seen Paul Muni do this effectively in The Life of Emile Zola, and we will see Ben Kingsley do it in Gandhi.) As such, the reaffirmation of faith—and the film wants to be more about spiritual awakening than vengeance—seems more plot driven than coming from within the character of Judah Ben-Hur.

I’ll wrap up my discussion of Ben-Hur on a positive note by backing up a bit and talking about the chariot race—the sequence that the film is most famous for and that most likely secured the Best Picture Oscar for the film. What works best about the chariot race is that nothing is faked. I think one of the things modern audiences struggle the most with when watching older films is that the special effects or the stunt work looks crude and phony. In Ben-Hur certain scenes are guilty of this. The naval battle in which Ben-Hur’s slave galley takes part in is a good example of an action sequence that has not held up well over time. With the chariot race, the reverse is true. Many action sequences today do not have the immediacy, the true sense of peril and overall reality that the chariot race has. William Wyler knew that the only way the scene would be effective was to actually film a chariot race.

The sequence took five weeks to complete filming. As mentioned earlier, the Circus Maximus was recreated on an eighteen-acre set—the largest ever built—on the backlot of Cinecitta Studios in Rome with a high degree of historical accuracy. 15,000 extras populated the sequence. Eighteen chariots were built for the sequence. Heston and Stephen Boyd learned chariot driving, and the actors serve as their own charioteer in all but two of the most dangerous stunts. One is where Ben-Hur is flung backward off his chariot, and the other is where Messala is trampled by his own horses (a scene which is still shocking, even today).

Of course, there have been several urban legends associated with the scene. It was claimed that a stuntman died during the trampling sequence, and the footage was used in the final film. However, Wyler, and his second unit director Andrew Marton, who actually filmed the chariot race, denied this claim, and it was backed up in Heston’s autobiography when Heston claimed the worst injuries anyone—actor, crew member or stuntman—obtained while filming the chariot race was minor scrapes and bruises. Other outlandish urban legends since debunked are that a Ferrari can be seen in the background and that Heston is wearing a wristwatch. No matter what tall tales are concocted about its filming, the chariot race will always remain a classic cinematic sequence, and it is a testament to the mastery of the actors, filmmakers, craftsmen, and stuntmen (stunt director Yakima Canutt and his son Joe, who was involved in a memorable stunt as the driver of a chariot who is flipped when Ben-Hur’s chariot jumps his deserve special mention) responsible for its creation.

I think the best form of praise the sequence can receive is in its many homages. Most famously, George Lucas homaged the chariot race in 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The pod race in that movie follows the chariot race in Ben-Hur on an almost shot-for shot basis. Yet the sequence does not contain the immediacy or sense of danger as the original sequence filmed forty years earlier. Lucas had vastly more sophisticated filmmaking techniques at his disposal, yet created a scene that while thrilling, plays more like a video game than the life-or-death encounter between good and evil that the chariot race in Ben-Hur actually is. All Lucas did was prove the might of the original sequence.

Ben-Hur fittingly closes the 1950’s as a decade where films grew more fantastic and opulent by giving audiences an epic of historical and religious spectacle. In this decade where films most directly and fiercely had to compete with television for audience supremacy, Ben-Hur throws down the gauntlet and unquestionably proves that movies are the exclusive domain of spectacular entertainment. That Ben-Hur was a massive global success that not only resonated with popular and critical audiences, but also quite literally saved its studio, MGM, is proof that bigger really is better. How could the Academy not make Ben-Hur the most honored ever in terms of Oscars won (a record the film still shares with 1997’s Titanic and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King)?


Ben-Hur (1959)

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Finlay Currie*, Claude Heater**

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Total Oscars: 11(Best Picture—Sam Zimbalist, Best Director—William Wyler, Best Actor—Charlton Heston***, Best Supporting Actor—Hugh Griffith***, Best Art Direction (called at the time Best Set Decoration, Color), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score—Miklós Rózsa (called at the time Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Best Sound, Best Visual Effects (called at the time Best Special Effects)) out of 12 nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay—Karl Tunberg)

*Finlay Currie played both the Magi Balthasar and narrated the film.
**Claude Heater, an opera baritone, was the stand-in for Christ in Ben-Hur. He was uncredited, and it was his only film appearance. The roles of Mary and Joseph were also played by uncredited actors.
***When Heston and Griffith won for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively (Griffith plays the sheik who sponsors Ben-Hur’s entry into the chariot race), it would be the last time a pair of actors won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same film until 44 years later, when Sean Penn and Tim Robbins accomplished the same feat for Mystic River.

NEXT BLOG: Ranking the 1950's Best Picture winners, then into the 1960's with The Apartment