Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Movie Review: "Ben-Hur" (1959)


Director: William Wyler

Producer: Sam Zimbalist

Screenplay: Karl Tunberg, Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry

Based on: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace

Cinematographer: Robert L. Surtees

Music by: Miklós Rózsa

Starring: Claude Heater as Jesus, also Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd

Production company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Country: United States

Initial release: November 18, 1959

Run Time: 212 minutes

Ben-Hur is an epic story of a fictional hero named Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman who was falsely accused of an attempted assassination and enslaved by the Romans. He becomes a successful charioteer. The story's revenge plot becomes a story of compassion and forgiveness. This compassion and forgiveness stems from two brief encounters with Jesus - once as a slave dying of thirst to whom Jesus gave some water, and another time on the way to Golgotha where he returns the favor and witnesses the dying declaration of Christ to forgive his enemies.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) originally announced a CinemaScope remake of the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur in December 1952, ostensibly as a way to spend its Italian assets. MGM, however, suspended production in early 1956, following director Sydney Franklin's resignation. Marlon Brando was intended for the lead. A year later, due to financial distress at MGM with the rise of television, and inspired by the success of Paramount Pictures' 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, it was announced that they would move forward with production with a new director and a new lead, hoping the gamble would pay off. Filming started in May 1958 and wrapped in January 1959, and post-production took six months. The film cost $15 million dollars, which adjusted for inflation is $133 million - making it the costliest film ever produced up to that time.

Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, ran to about 550 pages. Assigned producer Sam Zimbalist hired a number of screenwriters to cut the story down and turn the novel into a script. Karl Tunberg wrote a draft, but director William Wyler thought it was too much of a morality play overlaid with current Western political overtones, and that the dialogue was too modern-sounding. Writer Gore Vidal and the British poet and playwright Christopher Fry rewrote the dialogue.

Zimbalist offered the director position to William Wyler, who had been one of 30 assistant directors on the 1925 film, in early 1957. His base salary was, at the time, the largest ever paid to a director for a single film, at $350,000. The job appealed to him also because he wanted to film in Rome again, as he did with Roman Holiday. Professional competitive reasons also played a role in his decision to direct, and Wyler later admitted that he wished to outdo Cecil B. DeMille, and make a "thinking man's" Biblical epic. In later years, William Wyler would joke that it took a Jew to make a good film about Christ.

MGM opened a casting office in Rome in mid-1957 to select the 50,000 people who would act in minor roles and as extras in the film, and a total of 365 actors had speaking parts in the film, although only 45 of them were considered "principal" performers. In casting, Wyler placed heavy emphasis on characterization rather than looks or acting history. He typically cast the Romans with British actors and the Jews with American actors to help underscore the divide between the two groups. The Romans were the aristocrats in the film, and Wyler believed that American audiences would interpret British accents as patrician.

Several actors were offered the role of Judah Ben-Hur before it was accepted by Charlton Heston. Burt Lancaster stated he turned down the role because he found the script boring and belittling to Christianity. Paul Newman turned it down because he said he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic. Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Geoffrey Horne, and Leslie Nielsen were also offered the role, as were a number of muscular, handsome Italian actors (many of whom did not speak English). Kirk Douglas was interested in the role, but was turned down in favor of Heston, who was formally cast on January 22, 1958. His salary was $250,000 for 30 weeks, a prorated salary for any time over 30 weeks, and travel expenses for his family.

Italy was MGM's top choice for hosting the production. Cinecittà Studios, a very large motion picture production facility constructed in 1937 on the outskirts of Rome, was identified early on as the primary shooting location. The Ben-Hur production utilized 300 sets scattered over 148 acres and nine sound stages. Several sets still standing from Quo Vadis? in 1951 were refurbished and used for Ben-Hur.

A total of 1,100,000 feet (340,000 m) was shot for the film. According to editor John D. Dunning, the first cut of the film was four and a half hours long. The most difficult editing decisions, according to Dunning, came during scenes which involved Jesus Christ, as these contained almost no dialogue and most of the footage was purely reaction shots by actors. Dunning also believed that in the final cut the leper scene was too long and needed trimming. Editing was also complicated by the 70mm footage being printed. Because no editing equipment (such as the Moviola) existed which could handle the 70mm print, the 70mm footage would be reduced to 35mm and then cut. This caused much of the image to be lost. When the film was edited into its final form, it ran 212 minutes and included just 19,000 feet (5,800 m) of film. It was the third-longest motion picture ever made at the time, behind Gone With The Wind and The Ten Commandments.

The chariot scene took five weeks (spread over three months) to film at a total cost of $1 million and required more than 200 miles (320 km) of racing to complete. Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt were assigned to film it. They filmed the entire chariot sequence with stunt doubles in long shot, edited the footage together, and showed the footage to Zimbalist, Wyler, and Heston to show them what the race should look like and to indicate where close-up shots with Heston and Boyd should go. Seven thousand extras were hired to cheer in the stands. Economic conditions in Italy were poor at the time, and as shooting for the chariot scene wound down only 1,500 extras were needed on any given day. On June 6, more than 3,000 people seeking work were turned away. The crowd rioted, throwing stones and assaulting the set's gates until police arrived and dispersed them. Dynamite charges were used to show the chariot wheels and axles splintering from the effects of Messala's barbed-wheel attacks. Three lifelike dummies were placed at key points in the race to give the appearance of men being run over by chariots.

Ben-Hur premiered at Loew's State Theatre in New York City on November 18, 1959. During its initial release the film earned approximately $74.7 million in box office sales. It was number one at the monthly US box office for six months. It was the fastest-grossing film as well as the highest-grossing film of 1959, in the process becoming the second-highest-grossing film of all-time (at that time) behind Gone with the Wind. Ben-Hur saved MGM from financial disaster, making a profit of $20,409,000 on its initial release, and another $10.1 million in profits when re-released in 1969. By 1989, Ben-Hur had earned $90 million in worldwide theatrical rentals.

Ben-Hur received overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release. Many critics hailed it as the best film ever made up to that point. They especially point to the brilliant acting, the engrossing drama, and the exciting and spectacular chariot race. Criticism centered mainly on the fact that it was considered by some to be too long, with some scenes extending beyond what they should have been. Heston was also criticized for being more physically than emotionally compelling. Even William Wyler later privately admitted he was disappointed with Heston's acting. Another critic called the film a "four-hour Sunday school lesson". Nonetheless, Ben-Hur was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won an unprecedented 11. As of 2020, only Titanic in 1998 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004 have matched the film's wins. The movie was banned in China under the regime of Mao Zedong for containing "propaganda of superstitious beliefs, namely Christianity."

With all this being said, and believe me much more can be said, for the most part I agree with the positive and negative responses to the film, though I would give Heston a bit more credit. Nonetheless I consider it one of the best films ever made. I have watched it several times since I was a child and was always both excited by it and moved by it, which I think was the intention of the film. Just last year I was able to see it on the big screen for the first time for its 60 year anniversary, and to see it on the big screen in a movie theater was like seeing it for the first time. During the galley-rowing sequence, which some critics criticized for being too long, even though I have seen it many times, for the first time I became very anxious and even had a slight panic attack, which really caught me by surprise as to how effective it really is. As far as the parts with Jesus, I found them to be well placed from beginning to end and powerful. The only person I know to have seen the film when it was originally released was my very pious grandmother in Greece, and when she would tell me stories of saints, which she loved to do, once I asked her who her favorite saint was, and she told me it was Ben-Hur. When I told her Ben-Hur was just a made up story and that he never really existed, she got mad at me for suggesting such a thing, because she really believed he was present at the crucifixion of Jesus. When I saw how strongly she felt about it, I dropped the subject, and in fact I found it quite moving that she was so moved by that scene, which is a powerful testimony to the film.

Unlike other post-World War 2 Jesus films, where Christianity is depicted in conflict with the Roman Empire, Ben-Hur is not a tale of martyrdom like its predecessors Quo Vadis? and The Robe. In fact, Judah Ben-Hur is never shown to have converted to Christianity. He undergoes a transformation from hatred, revenge and bitterness to love and forgiveness. Redemption is depicted as through transformation. In many ways it is an argument in favor of pacifism. The chief theologian in the film is Balthasar, who in the movie is one of the three magi who was present at the birth of Jesus and later at the Sermon on the Mount. Balthasar teaches that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins.

An interesting theme in the film revolves around touching. Michelangelo's painting of "The Creation of Adam" from the Sistine Chapel serves as the backdrop to the opening credits, where God stretches forth his right hand toward the left hand of the seated Adam, index fingers nearly touching. In the two encounters between Jesus and Ben-Hur, this scene is recreated when Jesus offers a cup of water to Ben-Hur and when Ben-Hur offers water to Jesus. Water also plays a role at the crucifixion when it rains and the rain mixes with Jesus' blood, runs down the hillside, and gathers in a pool that reflects the image of Jesus hanging on the cross. Also, when Ben-Hur's mother and sister are lepers and are healed by the power of Jesus, it is discovered they are healed when they are washed by the rain. The untouchables became touchable again. In other words, God touching the world through Jesus is the main message of the movie. Herein lies redemption.

Out of a score of 1 to 10, I give Ben-Hur a 9.6.