starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd
screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on the novel by Lew Wallace
directed by William Wyler
Editor's Note: Warner has just reissued Ben-Hur on Blu-ray minus the third disc and material bonuses of the box set, although this release does include the commentary and isolated music score. Technical specs remain unchanged.
by Jefferson Robbins Charlton Heston's Judah Ben-Hur is a Jew in a Roman world, but his emotional journey is all Greek. It's 26 AD, and Judah's bond of friendship, his philia, with Roman noble Messala (Stephen Boyd), is sorely tested. When this bond breaks and Judah's entire family suffers under the Roman version of justice, his romantic love, eros, for his servant's daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet), is smothered by hate and vengefulness. What is left him? Only a really bitchin' chariot race--the paramount action-chase scene in movie history, not matched for twenty years (see below) and still never bettered--and the hope of agape, the love and yearning between Man and God. This faithful but frustrated son of the Torah must learn that path through brushing contact with the new rabbi in town: a humble carpenter's son, bound for glory on the Hill of Skulls.
Ben-Hur's subtitle--"A Tale of the Christ"--is taken to heart from the first frames of the prologue. After Miklós Rósza's thundering overture, director William Wyler renders the Nativity in full choral-backed glory--an effort to establish the divinity of Jesus paralleling that of the Gospels themselves, only seeming more desperate. (The prologue was cut for the film's 1969 reissue, and I'll bet it didn't suffer for it.) More, it hails the child's birth with the bray of a shofar, the ceremonial Jewish horn, planting both the son of Jesus and the title character firmly in the Old Testament tradition. (The picture will later take distinct steps to overwrite this context in the terms of Christianity.) Jesus's birth must roughly coincide with those of Judean merchant-prince Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, for by the time Messala is made a tribune and dispatched to manage the subjugated Jewish homeland where he was raised, the two men have aged into Heston and Boyd. They greet each other like long-separated brothers--or, depending on your read of the scene, in which the two clasp and stare searchingly and then have a metaphor-rich javelin contest, lovers. Let's call it philia of the deepest kind, the sort that men can still experience but disguise from themselves and each other. I guess Plato today would call it brodownia.
But there's another love exerting force here, the love of patria, of homeland. Messala and Judah have grown into ultra-nationalists--and that's their conflict. When Messala demands Judah's help rooting out subversives in Jerusalem, he's asking his friend to serve the nation that, in his view, shelters and succours them both. Judah doesn't necessarily love his own strangled country more than he loves Messala, but he certainly loves it more than he loves Rome: Israel is an amalgam of faith, heritage, kinship, and scripture that is, in its own way, unconquerable. Judah's daily obeisance to the mezuzah hung from his doorpost is at once an act of faith and a pledge of allegiance. Meanwhile, Messala crows about the divinity of the Emperor and the infallibility of his Empire like a sword-and-sandals evangelist. These are two men who take their very citizenship in the world as proof of God's (or gods') favour. Nothing can sunder a friendship faster than politics of this kind.
It's easy to see Ben-Hur now as a sort of Forrest Gump for the Sunday-school set--the meanderings of a viewpoint character brushing up against Biblical figures and forces, assembled into a Jews For Jesus propaganda piece. And the script (taken from Lew Wallace's 1880 novel) and Wyler's directorial choices certainly point our hero towards specific conclusions. (Not that way, Judah, this way.) Yet the character conflicts--and the grand, glorious action set-piece to which they build--stand in for greater questions of allegiance and the bitter rewards of even the most righteous vendetta. Nine teams of four horses, nine laps around the circus, ten minutes of gripping, coherently orchestrated, emotionally-motivated contest fulfill all the promise that precedes it. Though Ben-Hur's chariot battle has been frequently homaged or merely aped, I doubt it has a rival outside of The Road Warrior's highway race or Raiders of the Lost Ark's extended truck hijacking, and each of those has the grace to nod in Wyler's direction. Legendary horse handler Yakima Canutt and his crack team, with vigorous rein-work in the chariots by Heston and Boyd themselves, overawe with their craft, while editors John Dunning, Ralph Winters, and Margaret Booth assemble Wyler's sequence masterfully. Even in this tumult, there is room for character: The freed slave Ben-Hur drives his horses without a whip, and a bloodied Messala crawls in the dust as though he would throttle his former friend with his last breath.
It's all downhill from the chariot contest, but that's because we're wrung out from Judah's trials and from the peak of action; after that climactic race, the battle is internal. Here, Heston excels. It's safe to say the towering actor's most memorable roles are not unlike those of Mel Gibson--we needed to see him debased and tormented (by corrupt Romans; by damn dirty apes) before we could engage with his resolute forward drive. Unlike Gibson, though, the payoff for a Heston hero is often pyrrhic (it's really Earth; it's made of people). Judah Ben-Hur, touched by the Saviour himself (though he knows it not), stands over the shattered body of his foe and feels no triumph. He would rage and tear down Rome itself, and as a newly adopted scion of Roman nobility (long story), he would be in a perfect position to do so. Finally, his communion with Jesus will not let him. (The movie would end a half-hour earlier if Judah stuck around to hear the Beatitudes.) By the end of his journey, the mezuzah at his doorway--his household covenant with God--is shattered, and Judah raptly ascends the stair, climbing towards proof of a new divinity. It's a unification of historical forces: In Judah Ben-Hur, Israel is now become Christendom, just as Christendom will become Rome and the bedrock faith of the modern West.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
It's an epic, given epic treatment on Blu-ray by Warner's two-years overdue "Fiftieth Anniversary" box set, released in a "limited edition" number of 125,000. Most of that delay was probably caused by a Herculean restoration effort of the 65mm elements, the end result of which is nothing short of miraculous. Ben-Hur looks so beautiful in its 2.76:1 frame that I wish my already-too-huge TV were the size of my house. I want more of this picture, as if there weren't already a banquet on offer. Ironically, this definitive presentation of the film for home viewing winds up being an argument if there ever was one for the majesty of the movie theatre. The outstanding 1080p transfer is so clear, you can tell that gifted cinematographer Robert L. Surtees lensed Judah slightly out-of-focus in the staging area before the chariot race. Colour is alive and real, never blown-out or dishwatery. Blacks are deep where depth is needed, but nowhere else. See the play of shadows and silhouettes in the lounge and courtyard where Judah and Esther have most of their tête-à-têtes--a lesser effort would have made murk of that. The nearly-four-hour picture sprawls across two discs, with Disc One breaking off where the intermission comes in.
Rósza's score fully inhabits the soundstage in the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, sticking in mind as a hummable incantation long after a screening. Truly, it's so recognizable that my toddler, who's sat transfixed through every household showing of the chariot race, hears the first notes of the overture and says, "Horsie!" The F/X soundscape is similarly enveloping in this careful reconstruction of the film's six-track mix: Whenever Judah is in the thick of his misfortune--chained in a slave galley, battling off Macedonian pirates, racing his four white Arabian steeds to an unfulfilling reward--we are there with him. The only complaint I might lodge is that in those galley scenes, the drums of the hortator, who sets the slave rowers' pace, sound kind of cornhusky, if that's a word.
"You need to be better in this part," Wyler told Heston in his dressing room on the set of Ben-Hur. According to Heston's comments in the feature-length yakker (originally recorded for the 1993 LaserDisc), Wyler then went on to be maddeningly unspecific about exactly how the star should improve. For example, Heston recalls writing character backstories for himself and showing them to Wyler, who dismissed them as artsy crap. The actor dings Wyler, with whom he had previously collaborated on The Big Country, as an unpleasant director to work for, but one guaranteed to pull the best possible performance out of his cast. It's that kind of inexplicable alchemy that happens far too rarely between the person behind the camera and those in front of it. Heston's comments, specific and pleasant in the way of well-practiced party banter, are sometimes overbroad. ("The Brits tend to be better actors. I think it's because they do Shakespeare there.") But they make me feel warm towards the man, and sad to know that his vivid memories--of, say, his three-year-old son dudded up like a centurion by the costume crew--were eventually washed away by Alzheimer's disease.
This older commentary is interwoven with that of film scholar T. Gene Hatcher, ported over from the 2005 DVD release. Hatcher's contributions are chockablock with interesting minutiae, such as the fact that the uncredited Claude Heater, who plays Jesus as a hairstyle and a robe, was an opera baritone.1 Confused by the chronology of events--other characters report Jesus's miracles in roughly his mid-twenties, when the Gospels put them around age thirty-one--I was grateful to have Hatcher on hand to untangle things.2 His best advice comes during the chariot race, pasted together from several days' shooting at CineCittá Studios in Rome: "Don't watch the shadows and the sunlight in this sequence. It'll drive you crazy." A music-only track (in 5.1 DTS-HD MA!) lets us bask in all the Rósza we can handle. It's a first-world problem for sure, but I wish this feature would autoskip past the scenes that are music-free. There are actually quite a few of those, however, and then we'd miss the chariot race as well.
The bonus disc in this threefer set stacks up everything you could care to know about Ben-Hur in its many incarnations, in addition to lionizing its star and makers at length. All its content is in standard-def and English Dolby 2.0, although there are French, German SDH, Italian, Spanish, Castilian, Dutch, and Portuguese subtitle options. It's such a dense helping of supplements that it merits its own table of contents:
1. Behind the Scenes: This subcategory proffers the sort of documentary material you'd expect of most special editions. "Charlton Heston & Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey" (78 mins.) discourses with more than a dozen colleagues and kinfolk of the star, from those who knew him best (wife Lydia Clarke Heston, children Fraser and Holly) and those with only acquaintanceship (Tom Selleck, I suspect enlisted by virtue of being Hollywood's other name conservative). Ben-Hur was a crucial moment in Heston's career that's hard to appreciate now, to hear Lydia tell it: "It was a point at which he would either go on to stardom, or perhaps not." We owe this woman a great debt for the 16mm home movies excerpted here, lovingly shot and well-preserved, that show Heston at work and at play, at home and at CineCittá. Likewise, Heston himself kept a daily journal from 1956 through his later career, and Fraser reads passages that put his father in the context of Ben-Hur's production. "They don't make very many like him," says Joe Canutt, the stuntman who doubled for Heston in the chariot race. "Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema" (58 mins.) is definitely a companion piece to an earlier SE, probably the '05 DVD, with talking-head contributions from Ridley Scott, Michael Douglas, George "Podrace" Lucas, and so on. It's way too hyperbolic, too typical of extras composed to honour milestone films like this. Note that the Ben-Hur clips in this featurette haven't been corrected to the quality of the BD image. "Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic" (58 mins.) dates to at least the early 1980s, and it's formatted for standard TV broadcast, squishing or panning-and-scanning much of the Ben-Hur footage. Christopher Plummer narrates, but it's still extremely skippable. "Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures" (5 mins.) is a stylish slideshow.
2. Additional Footage: "Screen Tests" (29 mins.) pair Leslie Nielsen as Messala with both Cesare Danova and Yale Wexler trying on the role of Judah. The latter segment is soundless. Had either of these tests passed muster, we might have been denied the existence of Frank Drebin. A third test has British thespian George Baker (soon to play Tiberius in the BBC's immortal "I, Claudius") going out for Judah, opposite William Russell for Messala. Baker is asked to walk and pose shirtless, a reminder of the dehumanizing process even the best actors are subject to. Haya Harareet gets a soundless makeup test that finds her way more gussied up than Esther ever is in the completed film. It reaffirms the point: she's gorgeous. "Vintage Newsreels" (10 mins.) captures the cast and studio luminaries at various openings of Ben-Hur, playing up the $15 million cost. It's fun to see Heston rubbing shoulders with Ramón Novarro, star of the 1925 silent version. "Highlights From 4/4/1960 Academy Awards" (10 mins.) boasts only intermittent sound, but wow, they kept acceptance speeches short in those days. Wyler picks up the supporting actor Oscar for Hugh Griffith, playing Sheik Ilderim. He pauses long enough to make a political point: "My only regret is that he people of the United Arab Republic will not be permitted to see his performance."
3. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, 143 mins., 1.33:1) is the Navarro starrer, directed by Fred Niblo--a black-and-white silent that shifts to two-tone Technicolor in certain key (mostly Biblical) scenes. It, too, features a prologue centred on the birth of Jesus, very specifically situated on December 25, but better illustrates the social oppression of which Judah complains to Messala--physical bullying, casual anti-Semitism, theft, corruption, et cetera. Also, prior to the Nativity, Mary (Betty Bronson...yowza) demonstrates the same nonverbal impact on observers that Jesus does in the 1959 version. For his part, Jesus is mostly a hairless, disembodied hand and forearm, as if the multitudes are being converted by Thing. This pre-Code entry doesn't shy from bare breasts, bare buttocks, or strong depictions of torture and barbarism: The Macedonian pirate king Golthar the Terrible launches glass bowls full of snakes at Roman ships, and binds a captive legionnaire to his prow before ramming them. The practical (non-miniature) effects of the naval battle lend it a heft that Wyler's version cannot match, but the chariot scene suffers by comparison. It mostly leaves me feeling sorry for the horses, which are sent crashing into one another willy-nilly.
The massive packaging of this edition boasts a slim hardback retrospective book plus On the Set of Ben-Hur: The Personal Journal of Charlton Heston, a 128-page replica of the star's diary mentioned above. It's a fun perusal, although Fraser Heston reads many of the best bits in the aforementioned retrospective--including entries like June 19, 1958's, in which Heston writes: "[Wyler] is beyond question the toughest director I've ever worked for...and I still think the best." That same day, he'd blocked out time to attend one party for Van Heflin and another for Hedda Hopper. What a gent. Originally published: November 24, 2011.
1. Of all the Biblical epics, this one's portrayal of Jesus may intrigue me the most. Filmmakers of the era had to find respectful but evocative ways to conjure the Nazarene's deeds: Nicholas Ray, with the later King of Kings (and again employing Rósza to great effect), invested Jesus's power in his shadow. Heater's Messiah is a visual enigma, but his power registers through those who observe him. As Jesus prepares to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, Judah stalks away on a footpath below...and Jesus seems to watch him go, grieving the fall of this beleaguered sparrow. As Heston says of Heater, "Not a line to say, but he was awfully good, and you never see him." return
2. Apparently if you stack known historical events up against Wallace's narrative, about thirty real-world years pass between Judah's enslavement and his chariot victory. In film time, Judah is confined to the galleys for three years, during which his mother and sister are imprisoned in Judea. One year later, they're turned out to a leper colony and live there for a while before Judah finds them, having now earned (offscreen) some fame as a charioteer in Rome. Say five to seven years at most, then. But Judah's Arab patron Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) implies his people worship a unitary God, yet Islam was still six hundred years away, so...ah, forget it. return