by Sam Juliano
Note: This essay on the 1959 ‘Ben-Hur’ is Wonders in the Dark’s contribution to Richard R.D. Finch’s William Wyler blogothon, a venture that launched on Sunday, June 24th at ‘The Movie Projector.’
William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is one of those artistic properties that resists and defies criticism, even those among its detractors will argue till the end of time that is encompasses all that is wrong with epic movie making. The second film based on a potboiler novel released at the turn of the twentieth century by a Civil War commander named General Lew Wallace that sold a then-record 400,000 copies and inspired a stage play that ran for twenty years, Ben-Hur never tried to hide its philosophy that ‘big is better’ and it has more dramatic climaxes than any film in history. Yet what often gets lost in the translation is that it is the most intimate big-budget epic spectacular in movie history, and one that impressed critics as much as audiences upon it’s 1959 release. Naming the film the year’s best the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, normally committed to smaller and independent films, displayed rare agreement with the Oscars, who honored the film with a record-breaking total of eleven Academy Awards, a feat that has since been equaled twice. With critics and award givers on board, it is little wonder that the film has retained audience popularity for nearly six decades, and in a career of cinematic milestones of every capacity it makes a strong case as the crowning achievement in William Wyler’s storied career.
Such prohibitive success will of course doom any film with the elitist movie intelligentsia, who often equate wide popularity with pedestrian artistry, and are naturally predisposed against the movie epic as a form lacking artistic discipline, and one prone to excesses of every kind. These observers might also make claim that Wyler forfeited his particular style and personal trademark by holding the reigns on a film by it’s very substance plays to audience emotion and religious fervor in a big way. The great Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini was savaged by the critics of his day for wearing his emotions on his sleeves and for pandering to his audience’s insatiable appetite for unadulterated melody and uncomplicated story lines. There are a number of critics today who have steadfastly stood by that unflattering estimation. Yet audiences then and now have shouted down the criticism and have unfailingly filled opera houses year in and year out with the composer’s beloved works, much in the same way that Ben-Hur has ravished audiences for 53 years, by way of theatre revivals, holiday broadcasts on television and the endless releases on video formats since Beta and VHS made their mark in the early 80’s. The one element or factor that can be found in both the operas of Puccini and William Wyler’s epic is naked emotion. When audiences are moved to this kind of life-affirming depth, attempts at summary criticism can rightfully be seen as “beside-the-point” in view of the work’s astonishing power to move and enthrall. Worldwide fans of the film have attested to seeing the film hundreds of times through the years, despite it’s exorbitant length, and have identified it’s famed set pieces as among the most spectacular ever filmed.
The epic’s real artistry has less to do with it’s epic status, nor even with it’s exceeding religiosity, especially since Jesus Christ doesn’t really appear until near the film’s end. This is curious in view of the fact that the complete title of the book and film is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. If anything, the religious context of Ben-Hur is strictly of the Sunday-school variety, leaving very little to the imagination. In the end, it is the intimacy (and suggestiveness) of the central male friendship between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, and in the affecting lifelong crusade for Judah to find his beloved mother and sister, who were unjustly imprisoned, that resonates most compellingly in this story. Writer Gore Vidal’s intents with the Ben-Hur-Messala relationship were obvious despite the mandatory tone-down dictated by the period. Hence, unless a certain subtext is fully understood, that relationship on the surface could not work. These two old friends fall out over politics and end up trying to kill each other. This is at face value a highly unlikely scenario, as one hates so passionately, something personal has to be involved. The filmmakers knew this, and Vidal purportedly approached Wyler, explaining they needed to make the inference plain, as otherwise the characters’ motivations would come off as gibberish. A Republican doesn’t make a friend a galley slave and send his mom and sister to prison because he’s a “Democrat”. On the other hand, a spurned lover would do that. Supposedly Wyler concurred, and Heston (a conservative who would never agree play an open homosexual) did his best not to suppress this sensibility, especially since Stephen Boyd, who arguably gives a performance to match Heston’s, played this spurned lover role to the hilt, as can readily be seen by the way he gazes at Heston, and in indulges him in a highly symbolic spear-throwing competition. In the suppressed 50’s, this relationship, much like the one between the characters played by Lawrence Olivier and Tony Curtis in Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) is played for what it is, and it’s spellbinding, and psychologically hovers over the action well after Judah is sent to the galleys, while his mother and sister become inhabitants of the Valley of the Lepers.
Wyler, who ironically served as an assistant director on the celebrated silent film version, released in 1925, initially felt that a big-budget spectacular was not the direction he wanted to take, though he was interested in the chariot race sequence as a potential example of ‘pure film making’ and agreed to serve as a unit director. Little by little producer Sam Zimbalist wore the director down, and the irresistible chance to explore the fascinating Ben-Hur/Messala relationship – initially warm, but torn-apart by ideological differences- and the chance to work with some of the greatest actors of the period was too much of an allure to pass on. But there was more. In a 1967 interview the director added: “Judea was struggling against the Romans for freedom. Today its equivalent, Israel, is still fighting, only against the Arabs, 2,000 years later, the same situation.” Wyler originally wanted to avoid any cast similarities with the 1956 Cecil B. De Mille-directed The Ten Commandments, preferring to stay clear of what he saw as the melodramatic excess of the earlier film, but he did offer Charleton Heston the part of Messala. The actor refused and told Wyler to give him a call if he wanted him to play the lead role. After a long period of exploring other possibilities including the likes of Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman, Heston wore down Wyler and was awarded the role that more than any other defined his on screen persona through the end of his career and to the present day. But Wyler, whose intent was to make Ben-Hur an intelligent and nuanced epic, further broke with his intentions, when he cast Martha Scott as Heston’s mother. Scott of course also played Heston’s mother in The Ten Commandments. The casting was a result of the director’s dissatisfaction with Marie Ney, the original choice. In any event there were still some striking similarities between Moses and Judah, in that both characters share similar story arcs, with each falling from upper societal grace, and enduring years of slavery before returning to bring down the powerful figures who condemned them. Yet, Judah as played by Heston is a far more human and vulnerable character than Moses, and Heston conveys anguish brilliantly. Stephen Boyd as Messala gives a superlative performance, one that matches Heston’s monumental presence, with a turn as one of the most notorious screen villains in history. After sustaining fatal injuries in the chariot race, Boyd spews hatred and vindication in his final agonized breaths after he in carried off to meet up with his vanquisher in a holding room off the main arena. Boyd chills your blood in one of the film’s most unforgettable sequences.
With about two months of shooting left in Rome, and the budget surpassed 15 million (Ben-Hur was the most expensive film to that date to produce) Zimbalist suddenly died of a heart attack, and Wyler assumed complete artistic and supervisory control of the production. The raw spectacle visualized in the film went beyond prior epics like the aforementioned The Ten Commandments, as well as Quo Vadis and The Robe. Robert Surtees’ cinematography looked etched on a painter’s canvas, and the widescreen was the ‘widest’ at 2:55 to 1, of any film to that point. Surtees capturesd the regal splendor and pageantry of Rome, as well as the raw beauty of the Judean deserts, and darkened caves seen in the Valley of the Lepers segments. The celebrated chariot race and the thrilling sea battle where Judah saves the life of his council, allow the film to showcase not just one, but two of the most spectacular adventure set pieces ever filmed. And Wyler’s tasteful way of handling the religious sequences, often showing less than more is further evidence in his restraint in handling the film’s quiet but most vital emotional underpinnings.
The film’s most vital and altogether extraordinary technical contribution, is Miklos Rozsa’s impassioned and majestic score, his magnum opus, which may well be the most widely-discussed and analyzed in movie history. The score has an unusual immediacy of impact and a depth of emotional commitment that could only have emanated from a man of Rosza’s immense talent at its peak and consummate cultural expertise, which informed other epic scores like King of Kings amongst others. This literally massive score, symphonic and dramatic, boisterous and serene, militarist and spiritual, and one which Rosza claimed was the ‘dearest to his heart’ abounds with multiple themes and variations and touches upon every facet of human behavior and emotion: profound religious belief, love and hate, fierce warfare, generally everything from epic spectacle to gentility and simplicity. Familial bonding is the strand of the film that ultimately yield’s it’s most piercingly gorgeous central ‘love’ theme. The melody for this theme is simultaneously grave and hopeful and achieves a triumphant musical climax. It sounds strongly Hebraic in tone and is used movingly in the scene where Judah’s mother implores Esther not to reveal to her son that she and her daughters are lepers, and in the sequence where Judah finds his mother and sister in the colony. The music in its almost unbearable poignancy speaks to a refusal to succumb, and a steadfast belief in survival fueled by love. It’s a defining intimate moment in film music that as much as any physical embodiment, expresses the gamut from longing and loneliness to triumph and euphoria. Rosza’s ‘Christ’ theme – shimmering and radiant’ is magnificent, and the film’s closing stanza is unforgettable, when Judah’s mother and sister realize after the thunderstorm following the crucifixion that the rain has washed away their leprosy. Their joy and wonder is reflected in an exultant transformation of this theme on high strings and with horns, mirroring the rain-swept landscape, with blood trickling down from the cross and intermingling with the water flowing past on the ground. With altered harmonies, changes in dynamics, tonal shifts and variations in orchestral color, Rosza re-invents the material he was given to define the emotions of the characters and specific arc of a dramatic scene like the one after Judah’s arrest when Messala demonstrates callousness after sacrificing his friend in the name of ambition. Rosza again makes superlative use of Primus inter pares, Roman marches with the sound of a long ago time, as he had used in Julius Caesar and Quo Vadis and would again employ in King of Kings. The use of musical onomatopoeia in the rowing sequence in the galley, the triumphant appearance before the Emperor when the trumpets take center stage and the march used for Christ’s solemn procession to Calvary are further examples of the musical richness and variety of this incomparable score. Rosza, who won his third and final Oscar for Ben-Hur, later developed a suite of the film’s themes, which he played around the world in concerts to great acclaim.
In the end, it was Wyler himself who deserved the most credit for bringing together so many crafts and hundreds of actors, holding the production together after the tragic death of Zimbalist, and achieving unprecedented character intimacy, in a film spectacular that wed power to passion. With its moving portrayals of brotherhood and messages that harken back to ancient history, Ben-Hur’s magnificent treatment of the themes of freedom and love are as prevalent and as poignant today as when General Lew Wallace’s epic novel was first published.