Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Beauty of Ben-Hur – A 50th Anniversary Tribute

In its 1998 list of the Top 100 Films of All time, the American Film Institute placed Ben-Hur in slot 72. Considering the competition, I was very pleased with this placement of one of my favorite movies. Despite my esteem for this epic, I would have gladly seen it switch places with The Searchers, stuck inexplicably in slot 96. In 2007, the updated AFI Top 100 Films list redeemed itself for its underestimation of John Ford’s classic by bumping it way up to slot 12, but Ben-Hur got nudged down to 100. That makes me very nervous. Perhaps a future update of the list will bump it off into oblivion. Granted, lists are subjective and arbitrary, but I’ve read other estimations of the 1959 epic that seem to write it off as a vapid Biblical epic. This is not so. Ben-Hur is a beautifully filmed, compelling story of revenge that contains some stunningly memorable imagery, and for its 50th Anniversary year, I offer this tribute to its visual and structural beauty.

The story is cleverly united by three sustaining drinks of water: Ben-Hur, dying of thirst in the desert, gets a drink of water from Jesus; again, he is given water by another savior – Quintus Arrius, the Roman who takes him from the galleys and gives him the wealth needed to enact his revenge on Messala; finally, Ben-Hur recognizes Jesus carrying the cross – “I know this man.” – and gives him a drink. Throughout the film, water imagery echoes these three pivotal episodes. There is the vast sea. There is the clear stream where Ben-Hur takes a drink and recalls the drink that kept him alive so that he could return to Judea, only to learn that his mother and sister suffer from leprosy and exile. And there is the miraculous rain that washes the blood from the dying Jesus, runs down to Ben-Hur’s leprous mother and sister, and cures them miraculously. Water saves. Water cures. In the final sequence, the redeemed Ben-Hur, his heart at peace, walks through a clear puddle of rainwater that reflects Esther and his mother and sister, the family he has tried so hard to rescue.

Reflecting the story’s cruelty and violence, harsh accoutrements pervade the mise en scène. There are bars everywhere: in Messala’s austere room, in the Roman galley, in the chamber where Ben-Hur visits the dying Messala, in the gates everywhere. Hanging on walls, there are chains and spikes and whips. In the Roman bath where Messala is playing around with his whip, three coiled whips hang on three spikes – foreshadowing the crown of thorns and the spikes of the crucifixion. Ben-Hur is reunited with his friend, Messala, in a corridor of sharp javelins. The javelins are symbolic of their friendship. They used to hunt “jackals and lions” together when they were young and Messala saved Ben-Hur’s life during one hunt. Now reunited, they use javelins to refresh their friendship, the spears thrown together to the point where the beams cross – another foreshadowing of the crucifixion. Ben-Hur will later use a javelin from this armory to threaten to kill Messala if he doesn’t release Miriam and Tirzah. He will use another javelin to kill a pirate to save Quintus Arrius during the sea battle. The guard of Roman soldiers escorting Jesus to his death bristles with spears and javelins.

Painstaking art direction creates sets that are real environments. Ben-Hur’s home is not just a two-dimensional façade, Hollywood fakery. You come through the gate to the courtyard and the fountain where Messala remembers playing as a boy. In this courtyard, where grown-up Messala gleefully charms his Jewish friends, he will later approach the pinioned Ben-Hur, accused assassin, and turn his back on those friends, sending them to imprisonment. Over the gate there is the “roof where we used to stand and throw pebbles at the people in the streets below and then run and hide.” Across this courtyard there is the main door where Ben-Hur touches the mezuzah and kisses his fingers before entering the main house. Upon learning that his mother and sister are supposedly dead, he will throw himself in anguish against this mezuzah and break it. The house is broken, the family destroyed. Later, his soul healed, he fixes the mezuzah. Off the inner courtyard are the room where Ben-Hur begins lunch with his family – “Messala will not be joining us” – and the servants’ quarters where Esther lives with her crippled father, plotting to buy “death for the Romans.” And here is the stairway leading up to the landing. In the beginning of the film, Esther comes down this stairway to be introduced to Ben-Hur, who instantly falls in love with her. In the end, he goes up the stairway to the joyous reunion.

There’s a lot of marching going on in this film. After the rather silly Nativity prelude and the credits, the opening sequence is a more appropriate beginning: the conquering Roman army, columns bristling with spears and standards, soldiers outfitted with bright armor and bright red capes, marches toward Jerusalem. “We should arrive in Jerusalem tomorrow tonight.” The second procession is a more foreboding one as Governor Gratus reviews his troops and then marches through the streets of the city in a show of force. Columns of soldiers bear a thicket of golden Roman standards. The accompanying music carries the heavy tone of a death march. This leads to the fateful falling tile. “It was an accident!” A triumphal march – joyous and loud and full of floating rose petals – brings Ben-Hur and Arrius in glory to Rome. This image is the film’s biggest irony. Ben-Hur, the Jew, must participate in this pageantry and further Roman decadence for a number of years in order to be able to return to Judea to save his family and exact revenge. Later, the grand, glorious procession of the chariots is a lengthy establishing shot that situates the upcoming chariot race in a real circus with a real crowd – a vast location that needs to be enjoyed before our attention focuses on the action. Finally, the last procession is the slow, densely-packed death march to Golgotha. It starts immediately after the cut to Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the affair. Then the crosses are borne, the march begins, and the packed crowd presses against the barrier of soldiers. As the march slowly climbs a mountain of steps, the crowd presses and the soldiers push back. What are the people trying to get at?

Ben-Hur was considered a very violent film for 1959. Still, today, the violence has its effect. Bright red dominates the Roman army. In the Castle of Antonia, the desperate Ben-Hur pushes a soldier screaming to his death; he strangles another and bashes his head against the wall. In the sea battle, the rammed ship fills with water that quickly turns red from the smashed bodies and severed limbs. In order to save Arrius, Judah skewers a pirate with a javelin. When I saw the film in 1960, I remember the audience letting out a roar of horrified surprise when Ben-Hur sets a pirate’s face on fire with a torch.

The chariot race is a flurry of plunging horses’ heads and rumbling wheels, a frenzy of smashed bodies. “I’ll tell you what you see: the smashed body of a wretched animal.” The Corinthian charioteer who challenges Messala is bent in half by a chariot. Messala ends up dragged by his horses, churned under the hooves of another team of horses, and then rolled under the wheels of a chariot. The masterstroke of this classic sequence is the absence of an accompanying musical score. We hear the thundering hooves, the panting horses, the rumbling wheels, the slashing and snapping of the whip. It is a symphony of sounds of motion and violence.

Messala’s death sequence is an intense one. The Roman’s “smashed” body is as gory as it could be made in 1959. We see Messala’s head and torso, glazed with dried blood, his lips cracked and black, little bites of flesh missing from his chest, arms scored with red slashes. “There’s enough of a man here left for you to hate.” The extent of Messala’s injuries is delineated by dialogue. “We have to go to work now.” “I don’t receive him with half a body.” And Messala’s last, long expiring breath is the most dramatic note of death in any film I have seen. “The race is not over…” All this leads up to the final death – the crucifixion of Jesus. The beams of the cross are thick with red. The blood runs down the post of the cross into the bloody pool of rain. The miraculous stream of salvation is a red one.

Ben Hur is a masterpiece of lighting. The sea battle makes the most of its models by floating them in sinisterly dark green water under a grim gray sky streaked with yellow on the horizon. We never get a close-up of the dying Jesus, but we get glimpses of the carnage in lightning flashes that light up nailed hands and – at the foot of the cross – a pool of water that reflects the cross and turns red with blood. Similarly, the miraculous curing of Miriam and Tirzah is seen in brief lightning flashes breaking the foreboding blackness. The most masterfully-lit sequence comes when the leprous Miriam and Tirzah appear at night in the inner courtyard – which is turned into a dark, ghostly place, alternately monochrome gray or black, the floor covered with skittering dead leaves – in sharp contrast with the bright, clean place it was before the fall of the roof tile. “That tile is still falling.” In ash-gray rags that make them look like mummies, mother and daughter reveal themselves to Esther, but they hide, blending with the haunting shadows, when Ben-Hur crosses the courtyard. When they reveal their diseased scars to Esther, their faces appear in patches of light as they rise out of the darkness. Similarly, dark lighting is crucial in the dungeon sequence. “East section – lower level.” A circle of torchlight illuminates the slick walls and the muddy floor. The stones themselves look diseased. “Lepers!”

Thematically, the film is a story of darkness and light. Clearly, Messala is the bad guy. Later, Ben-Hur will blame Rome for Messala’s submission to the dark side. The evil empire is to blame! But in the beginning Messala is clearly the villain. “You are evil.” “No, Judah, I am not evil.” Nevertheless, Messala’s betrayal and his treatment of Ben-Hur’s family breed a smoldering hatred and lust for vengeance within Ben-Hur. “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one.” He seeks an end to vengeance in the chariot race, but this competition’s carnage brings no closure. “It goes on, Judah. The race is not over.” Even Esther, the woman he loves, cannot keep him from thoughts of revenge. “It’s over.” “Over? Over?” The tight, pained tone with which Heston intones this simple repetition marks one of his best moments in the film. Later, when there seems to be no hope, Esther delivers the clincher that adds an eerie tone to the film: “Hate is turning you to stone. It’s as though you had become Messala!”

I saw Ben-Hur for the first time at the Orpheum in San Francisco in 1960. I was eight years old. For me, it was that youthful cinematic experience that impresses itself indelibly on your memory. (For later generations, that memorable film might be Star Wars, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Jurassic Park, Titanic, or The Lord of the Rings.) I saw it again when it was re-released in 1969. During my college years, my younger brother and I made a hobby out of seeing it wherever we could find it playing. Notably, we saw it on the huge screen at the Castro in San Francisco. My best viewing, however, was on a massive screen at the Wang in Boston. My wife and I sat in the balcony and felt the floor shuddering during the chariot race. Now, for the most part, your only option is a DVD, but I encourage you to check it out. Before its 50th year is over, pop Ben-Hur in the DVD player, watch the whole thing, or check out some of its most dramatic moments. If you’ve got a big screen, put it to good use and watch that chariot race. “This is the day, Judah. It’s between us now.”


Joel Bocko said...

You first saw Ben-Hur in a big movie theater in 1960, I first saw it around 1990 on a grotesquely squeezed pan-and-scan VHS. Yet we were both eight, and it worked its magic on me too. Since then, I've had cause to wonder if its critics are right about it, but I've always retained a fondness for the film. Perhaps I'm like St. Peter and you are the rooster crowing thrice before dawn to remind me of my betrayal.

I'm sorry Chuck, Willy, and Gore (though he apparently didn't think much of the film)! You were right - Ben Hur is a classic! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...!

Wonders in the Dark reviewed Ben-Hur recently, and there was an interesting discussion in which I took part (scrolling the comments I see some fascinating-looking ones that I must have missed before; I'll have to check it out again too).

Richard Bellamy said...

You know, there is an exchange I read on a blog - now I can't relocate it - and it trashed the film as one of the "worst Oscar wins" in Oscar history. One of the worst? That's saying a lot. And over the years I have wondered why critics are hard on it. One aspect is always religion, but I think the film is in no way heavy-handed on that topic. Another element is Charlton Heston bashing. Yeah, he was abhorrent post-Columbine, and I am not a member of the NRA, but, damn, he's great in some movies and he's great in this one. I never consider an actor's politics or public behavior when it comes to the movie. If the performance is great, it's great. Similarly, in the 60s, John Wayne was bashed for his sexism and warmongering. Now critics are seeing his artistry. I was always faithful.

One time I had Ben-Hur playing while I worked on my computer, and I caught myself thinking, yeah, this scene would be way shorter nowadays, and I hope the chariot race gets going soon - but then I looked. The volume was really low. And I noticed how beautiful and dark and moody it is visually.

Thanks for the comment.