BEN-HUR stands like a colossus over the Era of Epics, its megalithic grandeur and thundering victory lap in 1959 had class-A director William Wyler and his esteemed cohorts finesse a bridge over the taste and skill divide between the reigns of DeMille and Lean. Their modern look at ancient times justified an imperial outlay with a titan’s earnings that were heaven-sent to a praying MGM, carrying off a chariot load of 11 Academy Awards. “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it. Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”
Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ” outsold every other book but the Bible and was blessed by Pope Leo XIII. Stage productions ran for a quarter-century around the globe, and included live chariot races, the sets reinforced to hold as much as 30 tons of horses, men and machines. The first screen go in 1907 was all of 15 minutes in length; that flickering elder had New Jersey firemen driving their quadriga on a beach, with William S. Hart playing the villain. Moving way up in 1925 was the 143-minute version starring heart-throb Ramon Navarro, costing a whopping $4,000,000 (this was when Calvin Coolidge was President). The average film budget of the day was $158,000; filmed over two years in Italy and California, this was the most expensive silent movie ever, the 2nd-biggest hit of the 1920s. One of the assistant directors on the race scene was a 23-year-old German immigrant go-getter, Willy Wyler (not yet deemed ‘William’). *
26 A.D. Jerusalem, then part of the ever-restive Roman province of Judea. Wealthy prince ‘Judah Ben-Hur’ (Charlton Heston) rebukes childhood friend-now-Roman tribune ‘Messala’ (Stephen Boyd) and an accident has Messala’s pride-piqued wrath come down on Judah and his family. Slavery is eventually aborted via fortuitous combat and fatherly intervention from a Roman Consul, ‘Quintus Arrius’ (Jack Hawkins). Freed from certain death, the wronged hero seeks lost family and found vengeance. He finds both and more.
The inspired wedding of a personal human story with momentous historical personages and exciting action sired a universal drama of betrayal, conviction, and redemption, revenge, love and compassion. Clocking in, with Overture (essential) and Intermission, Wyler’s Hur ran a prodigious, generally enthralling 3 hours, 22 minutes, highlighted by a bloody ancient sea battle, a breathtaking life-or-death arena race and a full-on Biblical salvation miracle for a fitting emotional climax.
The whopper success of 1951’s Quo Vadis started producer Sam Zimbalist on years of preparation for something even bigger. Meantime, Biblical films continued a power-run with the skillful David And Bathsheba, The Robe and Demetrius And The Gladiators dwarfed by the spectacle of The Ten Commandments. That audience arrester (bowser quality notwithstanding, we blaspheme) firmly planted rangy oak Charlton Heston, who then made enough of an impression on director Wyler in Wyler’s western epic The Big Country (Chuck was very good in that favorite) to cast him as Judah. Heston’s about as Jewish as Wisconsin, but his stolid bearing and powerful frame made him glove-fit for larger-than-life heroes, and he’s on camera for 121 of the 212 minutes. A sturdy and impressive 35 here, buffed by all that oar-pulling, he looks great and does a fine job. It’s the role most associated with him, but his Oscar win is up for one of our tally-ho reviews. **
Jack Hawkins’ likewise imposing presence and marvelous voice work to strong effect as Arrius, an early model for tough-but-fair. As ‘Esther’, the film’s love interest (well, one of them), luminous 27-year-old Israeli beauty Haya Harareet had but two credits and was unknown outside her home; her sensitive work here brought her fame yet she never became a star, doing just six more pictures over the next 15 years. After building a resume in a dozen films, Stephen Boyd, also 27, did become an international draw thanks to his passionate portrait of the vengeful (some venture ‘spurned’) Messala, a classic bad guy of formidable intensity who convincingly flips from offering an engaging smile to wielding a glower of sinister menace. They’re all quite good, though maybe the most accomplished performance—and certainly the most fun, the only one with humor in this dead-serious saga—comes from Welsh wild man Hugh Griffith, having a grand time playing endearingly devilish as ‘Sheik Ilderim’, with his beloved quartet of white Arabian horses (actually Andalusians).
Thanks to a gifted quintet of writers, the literate screenplay has a depth and polish most epics of the sort lacked (Quo Vadis and Spartacus were also blessed that way), though there was much kerfuffle about credit, which only went to Karl Tunberg. The other scribes: Christopher Fry (Wyler and Heston said he penned the lion’s share), Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman and last but not least, postscript hissing from the balcony, the 33-year-old latter-day patrician Gore Vidal. ***
As effective as Wyler was piloting the massive overall enterprise and intimate moments, its greatest impression and lasting success owed at least as much to 2nd-unit directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, who shared glory for the still-thrilling 10-minute chariot race around that vast 18-acre set: one of the truly immortal action sequences in movie history, choreographed, framed and edited to elicit at least some measure of awe from anyone with a pulse. Beyond the speed, thundering sound, spectacular setting and dangerous stunts, it aids immensely that Heston and Boyd are clearly driving their own teams, and pretty fast. The horses are gorgeous, especially in shots of the matched white and black pairs of hero and villain neck & neck. Watch those blades!
Shamefully uncredited was longtime MGM workhorse/craftsman Richard Thorpe (Ivanhoe), who did most of the richly atmospheric, testosterone-laden galley scenes that lead into the desperate, rousing naval battle, a mix of superior model work, matte shots and full-scale mockups, a quite graphic melee for the day. The superb Robert Surtees manned the cinematography assignment.
Starting it off with a 100-piece orchestral blast that immediately declares “EPIC!”, the undisputed master of imagining the notes and tones of ages long, long past, Miklós Rózsa sums up his stellar career in this majestic score, 150 minutes of wonderful soundtrack accompaniment. Deeply emotional love themes, pounding passages of pageantry and action, it’s one of the best scores ever written, and was one of the most popular released on LP. Back in Quo Vadis, the composer basically “invented” Roman music, and he would revisit the period with Julius Caesar, King Of Kings and Sodom And Gomorrah. In his words: “I do write music for people, not for computers… I believe in music as a form of communication; for me it is more an expression of emotion than an intellectual or cerebral crossword puzzle…I am a traditionalist, but I believe tradition can be so recreated as to express the artist’s own epoch while preserving its relationship with the past…I have tried always in my own work to express human feelings and assert human values, and to do this I have never felt the slightest need to move outside the orbit of the tonal system. Tonality means line; line means melody; melody means song; and song, especially folk song, is the essence of music, because it is the natural, spontaneous and primordial expression of human emotion.”
Thousands upon thousands of extras were employed in shooting in Italy, 7,000 alone cheering in the stands for the chariot race. Producer Sam Zimbalist, 54, after years of work on the project, died of a heart attack halfway through. By the time the 200-days of filming and the months of finishing touches were applied, it was, at the time, the costliest film ever made: $15,900,000 to produce and shoot plus $14,700,000 for prints & ads and another $16,500,000 for distribution costs. Far and away the #1 pic of its year, the eventual box-office take, with re-releases came to $196,200,000. Factor inflation and it still stakes out as one of most-seen stories of all time. ****
With Finlay Currie, Frank Thring (an interesting take on Pontius Pilate), Sam Jaffe, Martha Scott (just ten years older than Heston, playing his mother), Cathy O’Donnell, Terence Longden, Andre Morell, Marina Berti (she had a nice role in Quo Vadis, but just a glimpse here), Robert Brown. Another of the assistant directors was Sergio Leone.
The 2016 remake is a CGI fiasco. Finally, “Ben-Hur”, “Messala” and “Quintus Arrius” are just totally cool names.
* The 1925 version was the 2nd-biggest grosser of the 1920s (only The Big Parade, that same year, earned more). 1925 was a boon yield all-round, with classics The Thief Of Bagdad, The Lost World, The Phantom Of The Opera, The Merry Widow and The Gold Rush. Among the bright young hopefuls and sporting industry bigwigs playing excited extras in the ’25 version: John & Lionel Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters, Douglas Fairbanks, Sid Grauman, Sam Goldwyn, Carole Lombard and Harold Lloyd. You’d think they would have found a toga for Calvin Coolidge, though it’s hard to imagine him cheering.
** Oscar payload. The script was nominated but did not win, losing to the acid bath yuck of Room At The Top. Wins: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Heston), Supporting Actor (Griffith), Cinematography, Music Score, Film Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound and Special Effects. You could make a good argument for the un-nominated North By Northwest at the top slot, as well as for Hitchcock’s direction, plus there were the likewise un-nominated Rio Bravo and Some Like It Hot in each category. Heston is strong, and I don’t subscribe to the boorish kneejerk disdain the guy dutifully gets from most critics and fellow libs, but Jack Lemmon should have taken it for Some Like It Hot. Both un-nominated Cary Grant in North By Northwest and John Wayne in Rio Bravo did better as well. But— in all the other categories, Wyler’s monument earned its statues. Once again, busy playing in the backyard, I was not consulted by anyone within 1200 miles of Price-Waterhouse. Two of my earliest movie memories, just shards, are from seeing this at a drive-in (I must’ve been five). All I can recall is a vision of Stephen Boyd, mangled and bloody from the race, and a likewise dim picture of the “Valley of the Lepers”. Now, I feel older than the Colosseum.
*** Chuck v. Gore: Heston and Vidal had a long public sparring match over how much the brilliant provocateur contributed, especially over the supposed homosexual subtext beneath Messala’s affection-rejection of Judah. On one hand, it sure looks like Messala is extra-fond of his old pal (the Internet is filled with gay-themed commentary delighted by this apparently fascinating assertion); on the other, an insistently stinging wasp like Vidal could find it vexing that straight men might have great affection for each other without secretly wanting to bed down together. Who knew? Wyler denied this whole distracting, over-hyped angle, and ultimately it’s a tempest in a cracked urn. Wyler did originally want Heston for Messala. Lancaster, Newman, Hudson and Brando either turned down the lead or were unavailable. Rock was miserably stuck with A Farewell To Arms. How would Rock’s Hur have fared with Vidal crossing the Hudson? We can only…not care less.
**** By Eros & Mars!–let’s toss in Wyler’s comment: “I thought that this picture would make lots of money and, you know, maybe I’ll get some of it. Which I did!” With an 8% slice of the gross, Ben-Hur made Willy Wyler rich as an old Roman aristocrat. Coins of the realm: flanking the feuding Judah & Messala in 1959 were the successful silliness of Solomon And Sheba (#14), the profitable dullness of The Big Fisherman (#26), and from abroad a tide of daffily entertaining sword-swingers: Hercules Unchained (#34), Goliath And The Barbarians (#54), Hannibal (#56) and The Giant Of Marathon (#64). Next year would see the glory of Spartacus. “Bobby, do you like gladiator movies?” Well, yes I do, but I’d rather eat oysters with Jean Simmons, if that’s okay with the Empress.