The Oscars Project: Week Two – Ben-Hur

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to tonight’s winner. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

Ben-Hur (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and 8 others)

“Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.” — Quintus Arrius in Ben-Hur

For “A Tale of the Christ,” as the subtitle posits the film, Ben-Hur is remarkably full of hate. Rather than a hero of the “turn-the-other-cheek” variety — that sort isn’t ideal in the swords-and-sandals world of Hollywood epics — Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur is dedicated to vengeance. From the moment he and his family are wrongly condemned to his inevitable triumph over the heartless bureaucrat who wronged him, Heston is driven almost solely by a desire to live out his eye-for-an-eye fantasies. Sure, he eventually learns that smiting your enemies doesn’t lead to lasting satisfaction, but only after standing over his enemy’s crushed, broken body. Ben-Hur is bookended by Christianity, but the majority of its three-and-a-half-hour running time is pure Old Testament.

Which makes sense, actually, considering most of the events take place either prior to or contemporaneously with Jesus’ teachings. Heston’s Hur is born in the same year as Christ, so it’s only fair that he’s unfamiliar with such newfangled concepts as mercy and forgiveness, let alone loving thine enemy as thyself. But the movie’s blend of Biblical austerity and guilty-pleasure wallowing is oddly reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ: if Jesus wasn’t in it, it likely would’ve been a fair bit more controversial.

Even in broad strokes, story is suitably epic for a three-and-a-half-hour movie. Wealthy Jewish merchant Hur is reunited with his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has spent the last decade or so rising through the ranks of the Roman empire, and apparently losing his soul in the process. Messala wants Hur to convince rebellious Judeans that armed rebellion would be a mistake, which the pacifistic Hur is more than happy to do. But when he’s asked to name names of any rabble-rousers who aren’t receptive to that message, Hur gets huffy and refuses, effectively ending a lifelong friendship. So, when an accident involving a loose roofing tile gets Hur arrested for assaulting a Roman general, Messala sets an example to other potential rebels by sentencing Hur to death and arresting his mother and sister.

Instead of going straight to the executioner, Hur is sent to work with other condemned men as a rower in a military ship. Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) takes a shining to him (he’s entranced by the hatred in Hur’s eyes), and after Hur saves Quintus in a naval battle, the Roman decides to take him back home. Before long, Hur becomes Rome’s greatest chariot racer and the adopted son of Arrius, but he leaves to get his revenge on Messala, who has conveniently also taken up chariot racing. In the meantime, Hur’s family contracts leprosy, Jesus begins his preaching and, well, suffice to say that a lot can happen in 212 minutes.

Given the scale of the story, it’s curious that director William Wyler opens the film with a tasteful but aggressively unnecessary depiction of the Nativity consisting entirely of blandly wholesome Illustrated Bible Stories for Children tableaus. It’s not like your average moviegoer in 1959 would need much prompting to remember the story — it involves a star, some wise men and a manger, if you’re drawing a blank — so the sequence does nothing but prevent the story from gathering any momentum (and this is after a six-minute orchestral overture). Still, when you make a film that’s bordering on the four-hour mark, I suppose phrases like “director William Wyler wastes little time” aren’t exactly what you aim for.

Fortunately, things pick up the moment Heston takes the screen. As an actor, Heston specializes in delivering his lines as if speaking requires him to flex every muscle in his face, and his unabashed scenery-chewing is tailor-made for these Hollywood road shows. Take a look at his introduction: In his first scene, he’s reunited with Messala, and just being in the same room as his old friend fills him with what appears to be a painful amount of joy. To Heston, there’s no reason that moments of character-building shouldn’t be every bit as intense as his delivery of the 10 commandments three years earlier; it’s a wonder that two bible epics in four years didn’t grind his teeth to a fine powder.
(The introduction comes just under five minutes into this scene):

As an aside, if that reunion seems a little, well, enthusiastic, that’s not entirely unintentional. Uncredited screenwriter Gore Vidal is said to have encouraged cleft-chinned co-star Boyd to play up a homosexual subtext in all of his scenes with Heston. They’re more than just childhood friends, according to Vidal; they’re former lovers, which explains why Messala gets so enraged when Heston won’t help him with his political aims. Naturally, Vidal also told Boyd and Wyler not to pass that tidbit along to “you can pry my heterosexuality from my cold dead hands” Heston (I guess Heston didn’t pick up on it when Boyd asks “Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?”). Any homoeroticism on his part is purely subconscious, and purely wonderful.

That’s not the only subtext-heavy scene, either. As Time Out London points out in a perfect capsule review of the film, there’s a bathhouse-worth of repressed sexuality in Hur’s celluloid.

“When not fondling phallic substitutes, Heston and Boyd gaze admiringly into each other’s eyes, but when they fall out – well, hell hath no fury like a closet queen scorned. Heston ends up naked in the galleys where he’s rowing and Jack Hawkins is commanding; one look at Chuck’s rippling muscles, and Hawkins adopts him. Heston goes back for revenge on Boyd, who’s lying around in the baths with his men looking like they’re auditioning for Sebastiane.”

As fun as it is to try to pick out just what Vidal conspired to slip under the noses of Hollywood’s censors, though, latent homosexuality isn’t why Ben-Hur became a runaway success, both financially and critically. It’s certainly not why the film racked up a still-record 11 Oscar wins (a feat tied by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, two films that owe a huge debt to the old Hollywood road shows). Ben-Hur was designed to be pure spectacle, the kind of film that viewers would return to again and again. As odd as it is to imagine now, studios back in the ’40s and ’50s weren’t so concerned with pumping out a massive blockbuster once or twice a year. Production cycles ran inordinately long, and for a movie to make back its budget could literally take years; the goal with movies like Ben-Hur was to establish a steady stream of income that could keep a studio financially secure for as long as a couple of decades.

And boy did M.G.M. need that stability. Wyler and his producers were well aware that the studio was staking its entire future on one film. They spared no expense, constructing over 300 sets and hiring tens of thousands of extras to ensure that every dollar of the then-massive $15 million budget was up there on the screen. If it failed, there was basically nothing left in the studio’s coffers. And it didn’t fail.

While critics lauded Hur for taking the time to develop its characters and allowing even its villains to have three-dimensional personalities, the film’s two main set-pieces are really what kept people coming back. I argued last week that movies that rely too much on style are bound to age poorly, or at best will be nostalgia pieces, and the first of Hur’s two big sequences seems to prove that right. Though it certainly looks impressive for its time, and the pounding drums help ramp up the tension, the naval battle isn’t likely to impress the kind of crowds that turn up for Transformers these days. Most of the tension comes from the reactions of the slaves trapped in the galleys — the catapults, arrows and swordfights up on deck just seem clumsy, which may be accurate, but it’s also dated. The chariot race, though, still holds up as an absolute masterpiece of filmed action.

Directed by second-unit director Andrew Marton and compiled from footage from five weeks of shooting, it’s a staggering bit of filmmaking. The set was the largest ever constructed — the track is clearly wide enough to hold 36 horses across, and there are about 15,000 extras in the crowds. Nowadays you could make an identical set through digital comping, but the logistics of doing it 50 years ago are mind-boggling. But as elabourate as it gets, the basic setup is Hollywood simple: Hur and his white horses against Mesalla and his black ones. Good against evil. It’s easy to make fun of that kind of ready-made symbolism, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. As a single sequence, it’s almost enough to make me question the “style can’t hold up” adage; if you put this on screen today, it’d still hold up, even if it’s not quite as tightly edited (read: incoherent) as most modern action sequences.

But are a couple of impressive action sequences and a few solid performances really all it takes to win an Oscar? After all, the bible pictures did gangbusters at the box office, but they’ve also (rightly) been ridiculed as pompous, stiff and overblown. What elevates Hur above, say, The Ten Commandments?

Well, the film’s rivals probably helped things a bit. Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder was heavily criticized for its prurient leanings, with Time saying that there was too much focus on anatomy, rather than murder (the strangeness of that complaint and its prevalence in America is an article for another time). Given that kind of competition, its easy to see how a conservative Christian tale could rally the voters. And while The Diary of Anne Frank and The Nun’s Story were suitably moral, it’d look a little odd and out-of-touch to give the award to them over such a box-office juggernaut.

As for the other question this column is trying to answer — namely, could this movie be Best Picture today — well, Hollywood still loves an epic, and there’s no doubt that Titanic and Lord of the Rings owe a huge debt to this big-budget gamble. And Gladiator, which follows a lot of the same beats, managed to win back in 2000, without even needing to couch the violence in a tacked-on message of forgiveness and redemption. In a lot of ways, though, the closest modern equivalent would seem to be Avatar, from its ridiculous-for-the-time scale to its dominance at the box office (heck, Avatar might even be getting re-released in theatres this fall, which sounds a lot like the old road-show mentality). But Avatar didn’t manage to take Best Picture, which means that scale and popularity might be losing their sway with Academy voters — never mind the fact that the Christian underpinnings aren’t exactly mainstream Hollywood anymore. Ben-Hur may epitomize what we now think of as an Oscar-baiting epic, but it’s probably harder than ever for that to translate into an actual Oscar.

Coming up next:

1960: The Apartment

1961: West Side Story

1962: Lawrence of Arabia

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