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Thursday, May 9, 2013

William Wyler's Ben-Hur

A broadside for the 1901 Chicago production of the play.
The same scene as above in 65mm from the movie.
Monumental artwork.
Operating under the premise that the greatest works of art of the 20th century were not painted on canvas but on celluloid, during the days when I taught school, I included in the course of study at each level a unit I called "Movies as an Art Form." Among the dozen or so films I taught (rather than merely showed) was Selznick's Gone With the Wind, Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai, and William Wyler's Ben-Hur. In the case of the last one, I figured any story that had been translated to film four times (five, counting the 2003 animated version) deserved the classroom time to be treated as a great work of art. In the case of Ben-Hur especially, it's important to mention the director in that there are several versions, some good, some great, some horrible. There was even a Canadian TV series, not to mention a very technically advanced stage play which opened on Broadway in 1899 and played for some twenty-one years in theaters all over the world.

General Lew Wallace, 1862,
Matthew Brady
The first version of the story was, of course, Civil War General Lew Wallace's 1880 novel. Until Margaret Mitchell came along with GWTW, it was the number one best seller after the Bible, which it closely resembled. Ironically, when Wyler's 1959 Ben-Hur was in the height of its cinematic glory, the book was re-published (it has never been out of print) and regained it's number-one (except for the Bible) best-seller ranking. The stage play followed, then came the unauthorized 15-minute silent film (all film adaptations at the time were unauthorized copyright infringements). To say the least, the medium was not up to the task and the task was so enormous it would be more than fifty years before film making would eventually measure up to the creative and technical enormity of the undertaking. The 1907 film concentrated only on the chariot race, filmed on a beach in New Jersey with local firemen (and their horses) in the starring roles.

Steamy and unseemly, the 1925
Ben-Hur, had a decent chariot
race, but otherwise...
Fred Niblo (who?) made the next silent attempt in 1925. Film making had come a long way in eighteen years. Unfortunately, not far enough. The film starred Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman, neither of whom made much of a dent in Hollywood film history. The movie is perhaps best known as being the only film in which the "extras" in the crowd scene (the chariot race) were better known than the film's "stars." The list reads like a "who's who" of Hollywood at the time with names like Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Sam Goldwyn, Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman, and Douglas Fairbanks.

The Ben-Hur naval battle is almost forgotten as compared to the horse race at the end.
British actor Jack Hawkins flawless portrayal of Quintus Arrius is aptly understated.
For a galley slave, Charlton Heston appears somewhat overfed.
So, what made the 1959 version such a major work of cinematic art? MGM's producer, Sam Zimbalist, was the dictatorial guiding light every such film demands. He shepherded the project from its conception in 1952 until the completion of post-production work in July, 1959. Undoubtedly the director, William Wyler was outstanding, having a good handle on the project. You'd damned well better have when you're spending $15-million riding herd on the most expensive film ever made up until that time ($118-million in today's cash). Filming blockbusters is not a game for wimps. Moreover, Wyler had been one of the thirty assistant directors on the 1925 film. Charlton Heston, fresh from his stint as Moses in DeMille's Ten Commandments, couldn't have been more heroic, and was rewarded with an Oscar for his time and effort. Stephen Boyd was memorable as Messala (Richard Burton was first choice for the role, but turned it down). Miklos Rozsa's musical score is still the longest (and one of the best) ever composed for a film. Otherwise the cast was merely adequate, a casting director's walk in the park.

The stars: William Wyler (director), Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Joseph Vogel (MGM President), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Sam Zimbalist (producer),
and Haya Harareet (Esther, seated)
The real star of the movie was the book itself, that and the production crew who, by the late 1950s, had finally managed to rise to the magnificence of the material. The script went through twelve revisions. The screenwriting team which, at various times included Max Anderson, Gore Vidal and three others knew the book, but just as importantly, they knew the medium, and respected both its potential and its limitations. GWTW had pushed the patience of its audience to three hours and forty-three minutes. Ben-Hur added five minutes to that record. The chariot race was a mere nine minutes, but took five weeks and one million dollars to film. For every foot of film used in the race sequence, 263 feet ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Yet, as iconic and spectacular as it was, the thirty mile-per-hour chase was not the climax of the film. How do you follow the emotional roller coaster of a deadly chariot race? How about a crucifixion?

Wyler's crucifixion...downright immaculate as compared to Mel Gibson's version.

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