Sunday 31 March 2013

Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur is my favourite film.  I don't think I'd claim it as the best film I've looked at, or even as the film I think is the best, but it's the one I'm closest to, and love the most dearly.

I saw it as a child, but forgot almost everything about it except that it was long, exciting, and that it spans enough time for the main character to grow a beard.  I rediscovered it almost by accident in 2004, when I stayed up all night writing an essay for university, then realised I had just enough time to take in the movie's three-and-a-half-hours duration before breakfast.  I did so, and was overwhelmed.

What I'd entirely forgotten about this ancient epic was that it's about Jesus of Nazareth.  By most standards, he's a very minor character here, as he only appears in about 5 or 10 per cent of the film, and we never see his face or hear him speak; nonetheless, he's at its heart.  The film's oft-forgotten subtitle, 'A Tale of the Christ', probably tipped me off ahead of time, but since he appears only very briefly at the one-hour mark, then disappears until the film is almost over, the climax featuring his trial and execution caught me unprepared.

Judah, Messala, Judah's mother and sister.  In very widescreen.
So, what's the story about?  Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a young Jewish prince in Jerusalem, AD 26.  His boyhood friend, a Roman called Messala, returns to the city having been placed in charge of the garrison, and tries to persuade Judah to give up the names of Jewish troublemakers and those who oppose the Roman rule.  This invitation to treachery mars their friendship sufficiently that, when a lose slate falls from Judah's home it's wilfully misinterpreted as an attack on the new Governor, who was passing at the time, and Messala condemns his friend Judah to become an oarsman in a Roman galley - a very terrible form of slavery - and locks up his mother and sister.  So, as with 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) or perhaps 'Julius Caesar' (1950), the first half of the film shows matters getting worse and worse, and the second half is about revenge.

The thing is, when Judah is struggling across the desert towards his fate in the galleys, he meets Jesus.  Or rather, he meets some guy, who gives him water as he's perishing of thirst.  We've already seen a brief glimpse of the nativity in a (somewhat religiose) scene before the opulent opening credits, and seen Joseph the carpenter, so the long-haired bloke is obviously Jesus.  This moment comes back to Judah at various times on his adventures, and on his return to Jerusalem he meets Balthazar, the wise man (you know, 'We Three Kings' and all that), who saw the Christ as an infant, and has come back from Alexandria to find him again before he dies.  Balthazar can see Judah's murderous intent, but urges peace and forgiveness.  From this point the viewer, or this viewer at least, knows Judah Ben-Hur needs to depart from his anger and find peace with his erstwhile friend Messala, but we also want to see him revenge himself with appropriate violence for his years of great suffering.

This excellent conflict drives the film's second half - the call to forgiveness and the need for bloody vengeance.  Charlton Heston, an actor I've grown to like very much since seeing him in this (I have most of a foot of 'Heston section' on my DVD shelf, next to, and dovetailed with, the Biblical epic section), performs this sort of conflict very well.  I find his scenes of anguish, distress and obvious internal torment very affecting, though I can see it's an acting style that's less popular these days, and that his egregious firearm politics of later life have marred him in many people's eyes.  If you're not familiar with him, know only that he'd make an excellent Indiana Jones or a damn good Batman, and that the sort of roles once written for him now go variously to Swarzenegger or Will Smith.

Judah resolves to have his revenge
I was a bit wary of going back to 'Ben-Hur' this year, after watching all these many films for this blog.  I've been so impressed by the quality of film-making in general and special effects in particular in films from the 30s, 20s, 10s and even 1900s that I worried this magnificent epic would seem less impressive in comparison, now that I was judging it less ignorantly.  I'm delighted to say that it's an excellently shot film, the sets huge and believable, the famous chariot race is real and the sea-battle tense rather than embarrassing.

The two big action set pieces are astounding things.  The chariot race was done for real and is about as good a chase or race sequence as you could ever hope to see.  Parts of it are shot-for-shot lifted from the 1925 film of the same novel (which has also lent its-self to the storyboards of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) but Ben-Hur seizes the inspiration and adds rich colour and the widest widescreen you've ever seen.  The chariots really do go at thrilling pace, there's the thunder of hooves and the roar of a real excited crowd.  The sequence runs for almost twenty minutes without any sign of flagging - as the horse-drawn chariots thunder nine times around the vast arena, with many catastrophic accidents along the way.  What makes the chariot race yet better is the complete absence of incidental music.  Often, as here or in some of the Roger Moore bond films (to give an unlikely example), edge-of-your-seat sequences become far tenser when the music stops, and we're just given the sounds of the environment, loud or quiet as they would be.  The music can blare in once the action is through.

It's no great surprise that it won a lot a lot of Oscars at the time, and I could happily single out all eleven of them for special praise, but I'll settle here on two.  First, the film editing, which allows a tremendous, if hardly plot-necessary, tension builder as the hortator of the galley hammers out the increasing speeds for the the oarsmen: battle speed, then attack speed, then ramming speed - with the pace and urgency of shots rising with that of the hammers, the oars and the music.  Second, the wonderful performance by a possibly-slightly-blacked-up Hugh Griffith as Sheikh Ilderim, who shines as the film's comic relief, a man of gusto and gleeful intelligence, who laughs along so graciously and patronisingly with the Romans' slurs against his ethnicity, knowing the joke is turned round against them, and who shows a great kinship with his four white horses, who ought to share his Oscar for best supporting actor.

A reflection in a bloody puddle
The end of the film is the part that stunned me when I watched it early one morning in 2004.  Judah learns that his mother and sister live, but are lepers, and are dying.  Esther, the rather wet romantic lead (though she's better and stronger in an argument toward the end) has persuaded him that the wondering Rabbi (oh, you know who) can heal them.  He takes them to see him, but finds the streets deserted, as everybody is away watching Jesus' trial.  Judah tries to help Jesus carry the cross, and tries (unsuccessfully) to offer him water as he thirsts, realising then that this is the man who once saved him.  Jesus is crucified, and everybody looks on helpless.  It's miserable, seeing this man who's done nothing wrong, has only acted kindly and gently in this film, nailed up to die.  He hasn't even said anything, anything - this isn't, as some imagine, and as I had imagined back then, somebody in any way judgemental.  He's a man who, by his actions, has cared, saved, and challenged.  Balthazar, who has come so far to see the man he met as a child, sees him executed, 'taking upon himself the sins of the world'.

Judah's family departs and hides in a cave from the rising storm, but find themselves, in the moment of Jesus' death, healed physically, as well as given hope and reason to live.  This is what confused and alarmed me back then.  For years I'd thought of the atrocity of the crucifixion as a failure, or at least as a dark and terrible thing, a reason for Good Friday to be bleak, with Easter the only associated hope.    It seemed obscene to see the family of Hur given reason to rejoice and be glad, to be healed in the moment of Jesus' death.  It was only then, having been ostensibly but half-heartedly Christian for most of my life, that I realised the Good Friday was the day that sin was conquered.  It was then, not at Easter, that Jesus declared 'it is finished'.  It was accomplished, as it was for that sin, our sin, and in this film Judah's violent anger as much as that of the crucifying Romans, for which Jesus was executed.  This is why the Friday is counted good, and though death was shown to be defeated on Easter Sunday, the more important barrier, the sin which had so long stood between humanity and God, was broken down in that moment.

Since seeing this in 2004, I've watched the film every year on Good Friday, or as close as I can manage, and to me it marks the real end of Lent.  It carries me in to see why Jesus' mission was important, why the crucifixion, and how we can be saved.  Once the film is over, once I'm relieved and have dried my eyes as necessary, it's practically Easter already, and hope can burgeon.  The film doesn't reach as far as Easter Day.  It needn't.  Judah returns to Esther and tells her he was there til the end, and heard Jesus forgive his executors from the cross, and that 'it was if he took the sword out of my hand'.  Reconciled with Esther, Judah learns that his family are safe and well, and we see the sun rising with the cross in the background and an (apparently unscripted) shepherd leading his sheep.

There are surely greater films, better made or more innovative - even, perhaps, more epic - but there are none I value more highly than 'Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ'.

A Roman who can't bring himself to berate Jesus for watering Judah.

P.S. I could probably end the blog here and be content, but the numerically obsessive part of me says I should plough on and do all hundred years - and so I shall!

P.P.S. When people say 'film adaptations are never as good as the original book', William Wyler's Ben-Hur is a great counter-example.  The book is very good, but the story-telling and the dialogue are notably superior in the film.  This also means other adaptations are never a patch on this version, though the 1925 silent film is quite something.  Incidentally, each of the adaptations (I've sought out other film, TV and radio versions) tell completely different stories about Simonides, Judah's former slave, all quite incompatibly.

Unless the prospect of long films or 50-year-old films is utterly inimical to you, you should totally see this film.  For various reasons, I have several Ben-Hurs on my shelves, so you're welcome to a lending copy.


  1. Hola! I've been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Porter Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic work!

    1. Thanks! Yes, I've been neglecting this blog lately, but I keep meaning to resurrect it. There's another 'Ben-Hur' out pretty soon, so that might be a good place to start.