January 2, 2010

#100: Ben-Hur

Well folks, it began. The blog-a-thon! And right on schedule: new year's day. Auld lang syne, kidlins.

The first movie on the AFI Top 100 (from the bottom up) is William Wyler's 1959 epic Ben-Hur, which I was surprised to learn was actually a remake (one of only two remakes to win Best Picture at the Oscars, the other being The Departed in 2006). Based on Lew Wallace's 1880 fictional novel of the same name (subtitled A Tale of the Christ), the story had been adapted for the screen not once, but twice before, silently in 1907 and then again silently in 1925, and it was the first work of fiction to be blessed by a pope (Leo XIII read it during his papacy). How's that for fun facts?

Company: Emily LeClair, college friend, movie lover and ultimately awesome confidant. Clocking in at 222 minutes, this is one of the longest movies on my list, so I'm glad I had a friend there for support.

Cuisine: vodka grapefruits, sugar snap peas and carrots, hummus and pita bread (a throwback to ancient times), petite quiches (leftover frozen ones from holiday parties)

The film follows Judah Ben-Hur (played with pointy-eyebrowed masculine intensity by Charlton Heston), a wealthy merchant in Jerusalem, who reconnects with a childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has just been made a commanding officer in the Roman Empire garrison.

At first they meet amicably (even longingly? good ol' Gore Vidal), but because of their political differences -- in a nutshell Messala is a power-hungry Roman (wearing red) and Judah is a peace-loving Jew (wearing white) -- they part ways. Then, by chance, Judah is accused and falsely imprisoned for attempting to kill the governor during his welcoming parade. Messala knows Judah to be a peaceful man, but sends him and his mother and sister to be imprisoned anyway. He is left alone in the Hur family courtyard in a striking image.

The Roman soldiers are outfitted in red throughout the film, and it becomes a strong symbol for power, corruption and, ultimately, bloodshed. I love that we're seeing him from behind trees and pillars, almost as if we're spies. The contrast here of earth tones against the red makes Messala seem even more alone in his knowledge -- he knows (and soon confirms) the whole thing was a big misunderstanding, but he justifies his decision to Judah by saying that he needs to create fear in the Jews and intimidate them by punishing a known friend. A possible study question here is: is wanting power inherently evil? Could Messala have risen to the status he aspired to without betraying his friend? Judah vows revenge, and for most of the rest of the film, he overcomes many obstacles in order to seek vengeance and to save his mother and sister.

Wyler is a master of imagery. I love the duality of the following images: first, as Judah, freed from the galleys on a battleship, looks down at the men who do not share his fate;

and then later, as Judah looks in on Messala, severely injured in the famous chariot race.

Notice that Judah is illuminated in the first image while the subject of his gaze is dark, suggesting that he is taking pity on the men below the deck, while in the second, as his vengeance and the chariot race have been won, asserting him to a place of power, he is cast in shadow while the men in the lit infirmary await him to come and speak with his enemy. The movie's chock-full of fancy duality like that -- mostly in the parallels between the two friends-turned-enemies.

Ben-Hur's back in full effect.

This whole time the Romans have been dressed in red, and once Judah is back to face his enemy again, the tables have turned: Messala is in white (albeit against the red wall of his home) and Judah's the one wearing blood. Maybe Esther's right: "It's as though you had become Messala!" Thanks a lot, Roman state! Look what you did!

So we're watching the movie, and the chariot race is over, and we think "all right, it's nearing the end ... but why is the book subtitled A Tale of the Christ?" when Jesus Christ appears and our characters are weaved into the crucifixion narrative. At first I thought it felt somehow tacked on, but as I reflect back on it, it's an essential part of this story of redemption and the power of faith. Rome has poisoned Judah, his family, and his best friend, to leave him near devastation at the end when, after sticking to his faith, Judah is saved. It's almost a Job story -- everything is taken away, and when it's hardest to do, Judah believes in salvation ... and so he gets it. A happy ending.

The film is unbelievably broad in its scope -- even by today's standards. There are many facts and figures about how much the production cost, but let's just say you can tell it's huge when the score doesn't seem melodramatic enough. I love old movie scores for that, the way they tell us just how to feel. When Judah and Esther kiss ... woah. But then some of the epic scenes (including the famed chariot race) are presented with no score at all, perhaps to bring the attention back to the narrative. Even the acting is broad -- rarely if ever overplayed, but always flirting with melodrama. Emily made a great observation that Charlton Heston is a less cute version of Paul Newman, who apparently was offered the role of Ben-Hur but turned it down because he didn't think he had the legs to pull off a tunic. Umm hello? Priorities?

Drop that hankie, Pontius Pilate! The anticipation is building to a terrifying frenzy!

In the end, Ben-Hur stands alone as an American epic. We see as many extras as you see in the Home Tree scene in Avatar, except that CGI, much less computers with movie-making technology, didn't even exist in 1959. Add on top of that the alarmingly emotional connection to the Christ story and the very real thrills of the action sequences, and you've got 222 minutes of epic. It's a chore to sit through, but the story is universal and compelling, and what more can you ask for, really?

So what do you think, readers? Have you seen this movie? Do you want to? Are you steering clear? And if you've seen it, do you think the story is universal despite its Christian origins?

A wonderful beginning to the diablogue! Next up: a movie I could watch nearly three times in the time it took to watch #100. Toy Story will be early next week!

1 comment:

  1. Good thoughts Max! I know I said I felt like the Christ story was tacked on as well, but you're right, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was essential. Perhaps it could have been more integrated throughout to make us feel like we're watching one story instead of two? Preferably by cutting some other parts so as not to push the run time into four hours? I think that's what would have taken it from good to great for me.

    Also, the Paul Newman thing: further proof that I should be in casting, totally called it.