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One of the landmarks of epic and, arguably world cinema, Wyler's Ben-Hur holds up well today.
It was conceived by MGM as an eventual follow up to the success of Quo Vadis? (1951). Almost
four hours in length, including substantial overture and entr'acte music by the redoubtable Miklos
Rozsa, the film garnered 11 Oscars in its year - a feat echoed recently by Scott's Gladiator,
to which unsurprisingly it bears some resemblances. (The return of the wronged, or the cathartic role
of the arena for instance.) But there are vital differences, principal of which is the fact that,
while Scott's epic is a pagan film predicated around the expectation of glorious death, Wyler's work
is deeply Christian: "a Tale of the Christ" as the titles announce, hinging on the
acceptance of eternal life.
Ben-Hur has a very considered structure, following Juden Ben-Hur's life and reconstruction, interposed with scenes from the life of Christ. In the first half we see Ben-Hur's fall from wealth and influence as a merchant, onto his fortunes as galley slave, rescuer and friend of a roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), then successful charioteer before returning to Judea to claim his vengeance. The second half includes the climactic chariot race between him and his enemy Masala his confrontation with his mother and sister's leprous condition and, finally, Ben-Hur's witnessing of the Crucifixion.
In any long film it is difficult to maintain the audience's interest. Thanks to spectacular scenes such as the galley battle, the entry into Rome and, not least, the 20-minute chariot race (which took three months to film), attention in this mammoth epic rarely flags. Having said that, the first half of Ben-Hur has more energy than the second, an issue that primarily springs from the source novel. Wallace, its author, had planned his story so Ben-Hur's bitterness peaked just before the great race. Once the competition set piece is over and Massala dispatched, longer contemplative scenes inevitably follow as Ben-Hur broods on injustices. Like the leprosy of his relatives, he has a sickness (?) albeit not physical, which must be cured, while in terms of action, his rage has effectively exhausted itself.
As a man of peace, forced to violence and retribution, Ben-Hur is a man of contradiction. For instance, although he has no whip during the chariot race, eventually he snatches Massala's to returns his blows. During the slave stage in his life, as Arrius says, "hate keeps a man alive," almost as positively as does the hand of God. Ben-Hur, while surviving three years in the galleys, is willing to attack and threaten Romans but also saves the life of a drowning consul (this contradiction noted by Tiberius). The Jew's anger and propensity to violence lasts until he sees the crucifixion, a spontaneous change that gives him an interesting moral unpredictability. But, after witnessing the death of Christ, he says "I felt his words take the sword from my hand." Ben-Hur, lead away from his angry path, has become one of 'the saved', returning to the disavowal of violence he had expressed to Massala at the beginning.
As the principal male hero, Ben-Hur is one half of three strong male relationships in turn (Ben-Hur/Masala, Ben-Hur/Arrius and Ben-Hur/Sheik Ilderim). Although the relationships are fraternal, Ben-Hur's unmarried status, as well as the closeness of these associations with other single males (Arrius's wife is dead and Ilderim's remain curiously unavailable) are enough to raise a vague question mark, at least in the minds of modern audiences. Kubrick would explore the homosexual elements prominent in ancient cultures more explicitly in Spartacus a year later). In the more conservative Ben-Hur the closest we get to the homoerotic torsos, which mark the peplum cycle from Italy, born on the back of such successful films as this, is the sight of an oiled and pampered Massala accepting Ilderim's bet with his fellow athletes and colleagues. By remaining unmarried, enslaved, and lost to his country, Ben-Hur remains a curiously emasculated figure in the first third of the film.
There are other awkward moments in the film centred on Ben-Hur's character. It is hard, for instance, after seeing him as the mature and successful head of a large household in the film's opening scenes, to find him then reborn as Arrius' 'son' three years down the line. At the same time, Ben-Hur's sudden (and un-illustrated) rise to prominence as a charioteer in Rome feels like a lame device to further the plot, clumsily preparing us for his necessary skill in the big race later.
Lew Wallace conceived Ben-Hur as a didactic work as much as one of historical adventure, key moments in the life of Christ to be viewed in connection with those of an aggrieved man of action. Understandably, the film makes more of the possibilities of action, and less of the religious message. One result of this is that it is noticeably successful in communicating reverence without boredom, a fault of several other 1950s epics. Always difficult to portray, Christ is never heard speaking directly, his face never seen. Instead we witness the impact he has on people's lives. Instead of Christ the man, we have the events he occasions: the Passion is treated as an event of political significance to Judah and his family. The socialising of the Christian message is in evidence. But once Massala is gone, Christ's continuing 'unavailability' to the viewer reveals a dramatic lack: we miss a necessary balance to Ben-Hur's strengths and convictions, where another rounded character might have stood. Ben-Hur's conscience fights on, but in a campaign vacuum as it were, and he becomes weaker because of it.
Interestingly, although Rome as an invading force is decried by Ben-Hur, apart from the harsh life of slaves and some enforced tax collecting there is very little to criticise in the Imperial occupation of Judea. Messala's twisted sense of justice is clearly a personal aberration, springing from his ambition. Both Tiberius and Pontius Pilate (who offers the Judean his citizenship) appear as reasonable men. Christ's trial is presented very briefly and then seen only at conclusion. One Roman even admits that Christian dogma is "quite profound really." Ben-Hur perhaps implicitly accepts the value of Rome as much, accepting the role of Arrius' son, even appearing before Massala in a toga. If not quite a tacit acceptance of 'what have the Romans done for us', Ben-Hur could be far more condemnatory towards those fighting the fledgling religion of the Jews. Truly the film takes Christ's words "They know not what they do" as understood.
Ben-Hur then, is that rare creature, the restrained epic. Perhaps because the source is a novel than taken direct from the Bible, it manages to balance the sublime and ridiculous into a still-satisfying whole, balancing great spectacle on the one hand with subtle veneration on the other. Wyler's direction, Heston's tailor-made presence, Rozsa's grand score and a cliché-free script still make Ben-Hur first.