Friday, 3 April 2015

Ben Hur




Are Judah One?

Ben Hur 
USA 1959 MGM
Directed by William Wyler
50th Anniversary Blu Ray Box 
Region A/B

You know, I actually bought this super duper, “everything and the kitchen sink” new Blu Ray remaster of Ben Hur to watch and review for last Easter. However, rather than taking their customary small amount of time to get it to me, Amazon actually took many weeks to deliver this one so, by the time it had arrived, the Easter period was long gone. So I saved it for watching this year instead.

I’m not really a religious person and Ben Hur is a film I discovered fairly late in life (I’ve only been properly watching it the last 20 years* or so) and, like lots of other movies I seek out, it was all due to the musical score that I got interested in it. Miklos Rosza’s monumental score for this epic picture is an absolute masterpiece and, because it was always included in the top 5 polls of greatest soundtracks ever written, I figured I should definitely have a listen. And, of course, once I’d heard the score to this I really wanted to see how it supported the film itself... like many of my later filmic discoveries (see my upcoming review of The Car for a similar musical entry point).

The film is the second of only two movies shot on a special camera used by MGM called Camera 65 (the first being the 1957 movie Raintree Country) and, depending on how the print is being projected, it gives you one of three, extremely wide aspect ratios: 2.66:1 when processed on Super 8 film, 2.76:1 on 70mm and 2.55:1 on 35mm. I’m never quite sure which version is being put onto the various home video versions of the film I’m seeing (I have this movie on VHS, DVD and now Blu Ray) but it’s certainly a lot of a longer frame than the standard 2.35:1 Cinemascope ratio most people are familiar with these days (not to mention the standard 1.85:1 ratio most movies post mid-1950s are made to be projected at). This, of course, contributes to the epic feel of the film and matches the emotional splendour of something which is often touted as being, to quote its sometimes used subtitle and borrowing from the 1925 version of the film, A Tale Of The Christ.

Well, I have to say that, although it certainly hypes itself as being a tale of Christ, and it certainly owes the deus ex machina style ending to the crucifixion, it’s actually more a revenge story and it uses the little dips into the periphery of Christ as impetus for fulfilling it’s own story needs, more than anything else. It’s also a very slow and rambly film in some ways and I imagine a lot of younger audiences wouldn’t really want to put up with a stealthily paced, sprawling Biblical epic like this, these days, but... you know... there’s definitely gold in “them thar hills”.

The film deals with the fall from grace of Judah Ben Hur, played by a fairly young and slightly spindly version of Charlton Heston, at the hands of his once boyhood chum but adult antagonist Messala, played by Stephen Boyd. Messala ruins Judah over an unfortunate accident by sending him to be a slave on a Roman Galley while his mother and sister are left to rot in a dungeon. The two ladies are eventually released back into the world when it is discovered they have both caught leprosy. The film certainly sounds like a standard revenge flick in this way... and it truly is, actually... but once you factor in Rosza’s six minutes plus of Overture before the movie opens and a short sequence detailing the birth of Christ, it’s actually around about an hour into the film before Heston is even sent to the galleys, encountering Christ as a man, who kindly defies the Romans to give Judah water when he is being trekked across the desert to his shipboard destination.

After this, we follow Judah, and pretty much only Judah, on his course for revenge as he escapes the galley and, through a strange twist of fate, becomes a citizen of Rome to finally return to his home town to ride against Messala in the film’s fateful and infamous chariot race (although the stories about fatalities in the filming of this sequence in various versions of the film seem to be an exaggerated myth, it turns out). And then, once all these boxes have been ticked, there’s a lengthy end game to the film where everything ties back in to Jesus, leading up to the film’s final solution in the crucifixion scene... but I’m not going to tell you what happens here. I’m not even going to tell you who wins the chariot race either... if you want to know you can find out by watching the movie for yourself.

Although it’s based on the book by Lew Wallace, it’s actually quite a bit different from the novel, as far as I can remember (been a while), which I seem to recall was as much about Judah Ben Hur raising an army to fight the Romans in the name of Christ than the tale as it is presented here but, whether it’s a good adaptation of the original novel or not, it’s certainly a spectacular looking movie. The action scenes are few and far between but the dialogue is quite interesting in places and it’s definitely a movie about the broad strokes in terms of story... jumping a year or three at certain points until it brings itself back to the bits it needs to get to, in order to fulfil its own end game.

It’s nicely and clearly shot, which is just as well because it consists of very long takes for a lot of it and, while there are certainly a lot of shots which incorporate a fluid camera movement, there’s a lot of the film which is purely static shots so, the fact that they are composed and lit well certainly helps. There are some nice transitional shots too... such as going from a shot of the open mouth of a cave to the open shape of an archway. Stuff like this is all good but, like I said, if you’re not that into the music, then you might find certain pasages of this film to be fairly slow.

There are some nice roles, some of them very small, for great character actors like Andre Morrel, Jack Hawkins, Finlay Currie, Sam Jaffe, Hugh Griffith... even a role for Dad’s Army’s Sergeant Wilson, John Le Mesurier, in a scene showing the direct aftermath of the chariot race. Fans of spaghetti westerns, Italian giallo and other films of that ilk should also note that a pre-famous Giuliano Gemma also makes an appearance as a Roman officer in the scene where Judah escapes from Messala’s dungeons and confronts him in his office... once you know he’s there, he’s really not hard to spot. Italian movie fans might also like to know that one of the Assistant Directors on this movie was the legendary, director to be, Sergio Leone... although there is some doubt as to whether he actually had as much to do with the chariot race, as he claimed.

And what about that chariot race? It’s quite spectacular, even now. Fast and dangerous and you can tell that Heston and Boyd were really driving those things at speed around the circuit. There was no way to fake the medium close ups and long shots in those days like you can now and Heston used to get up every morning of the shoot to practice with the horses for a few hours. It really shows in the final product and the stunt men in certain scenes, headed up by stunting legend Yakima Canut, who was second unit director on this, all do stellar work. Canut’s son doubles for Heston in the race, including that really dangerous tumble that Judah takes when he gets thrown over the front of the chariot and into the horses and clambers back in while it’s still speeding along... that was pretty much unplanned and could have been the end of Canut’s son right there but, since he manages to quite impressively come out of it and back into a controlling position... it’s left in the film and Heston is only seen in close up to finish off the final climb back into the chariot. It’s truly jaw dropping stuff.

The chariot scene itself took five weeks to film (it shows... it’s amazing) and, since it was filmed at Cinecitta, which is notoriously next to an airport, it was filmed silently and the sound was all dubbed in later. Itself quite an achievement, when you think about the noise and fury of the arena in this sequence. Interestingly, the decision was made to leave the film without music during the entire chariot race and it really gives the sound effects a raw power of their own. This is an idea composer John Williams later used for George Lucas’ own version of the chariot race in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (reviewed here), only bringing in music towards the end of that particular sequence to heighten the effect of a specific incident (for more about the way Williams’ cue works, read my review of the Liam Neeson thriller Run All Night here).

The score, of course, it truly magnificent and, in addition to the background cues, which are left full on in the mix and loud on the soundtrack like they should be, we have Dr. Rosza’s opening titles (which only start up around a quarter of an hour into the film after a load of other cues), his overture and also his Entre Act music for the lead in after the intermission... all lovingly preserved on the Blu Ray and I’m thankful that MGM had enough sense to leave this stuff on the home video versions. Considering you can now even get a beautiful five disc version of the score, courtesy of Film Score Monthly, which is an improvement on even the old two disc book version from Rhino (in terms of content, not necessarily packaging design), I was surprised by how many passages in the film were actually left unscored. Even so, there’s a lot of score to get through (I think Rosza might have taken a year to write it all... if memory serves) and it’s all pretty amazing stuff... just the kind of film Rosza was born to compose. I say that particularly because I find some of the films Rosza has leant his incredible talents to, especially in later years when the stylistic trends in film making were a lot different to what they were in the 40s and 50s, seem almost overscored and old fashioned in ways that don’t always serve the best purposes of the films... but movies like Ben Hur are made all the more magnificent for his astonishing, in your face compositions.

There’s a couple of things I noticed this time around that I’d not noticed before... so I think I’ll finish up this little review by sharing those with you.

The first thing is specifically down to the new Blu Ray transfer, I think. When Judah’s boat is rammed by the enemy of his captors and he throttles the overseer to get the keys and release the slaves drowning in the deck below, one of those coming up through the hatch is missing his left hand. It’s all gory on the stump, like it’s been lost as a consequence of the other ship crashing through the hull. I’d never noticed this before and I then realised that the only way to achieve this effect was to actually have a man without a hand playing that role. Sure enough, when I was looking up a few facts of the film, it turns out that Wyler spotted that one of his extras was without a hand and another without a foot... so he made good use of these two by doctoring their stumps to make them look like ghastly injuries for their scenes. Still haven’t spotted the guy with the missing foot yet but... I’ll maybe catch up with him next time around.

The other thing I noticed on this viewing was, although the story is quite rambling and sprawls four years (three decades if you include the post-overture, pre-credits sequence), it's quite economical with the use of characters. That is to say, once a character has served his purpose - Andre Morrel briefing Messala on the situation in his new posting, Jack Hawkins making Judah a citizen of Rome and a son to his family, Hugh Griffith providing the means to take on Messala and progress Judah’s vengeance on Messala - the characters simply drop out of the narrative asides from, if they’re lucky, a mention or two later on by other characters. There’s no lingering around with them once their story purpose has been achieved... which I find kinda interesting, actually, considering the size and scope of this movie. It may be a little long winded in some sequences but it does make use of everything on screen to push forward a little more in the narrative stakes, it seems to me. Not necessarily my favourite attitude towards crafting a film but certainly a time honoured Hollywood one used more and more these days and an attitude which, obviously, has a long legacy.

And that’s about all I can say about this film except... maybe this one last little nugget, since it doesn’t seem to be mentioned on the IMDB section on the film and it’s one of my favourite little facts about the movie...

My understanding is that Wyler had been filming the classic western The Big Country the year before, with Gregory Peck playing the dashing lead and with Charlton Heston in a more villainous role. In the movie the two have a fist fight in some rocky terrain and, well, by the time Ben Hur was filming, Wyler realised he didn’t have all the footage required to make the fight scene work in The Big Country. So he had Gregory Peck fly out and he and Heston donned their costumes for that film and took some extra swings and tumbles for the fight scene in a rocky terrain (presumably some closer/tighter shots so they matched somewhat) in between takes on Ben Hur, so Heston was technically filming two films while he was out doing this one... which I always find an amusing item and makes me look at the fight scene in The Big Country in a different light every time I see it.

So there you have it. Ben Hur. Religious epic and instant Easter classic. Brilliant acting (although Heston gets a little ropey in a couple of scenes in this, I fear), magnificent sets, wonderful costumes and a drop dead gorgeous musical score. Not much not to like here, to be honest. Definitely a big solid recommendation from me and one that no lover of cinema should not have seen. Ben Hur... Judah man!

*Don’t worry, the movie is not actually 20 years long, 
although I’m sure it might seem that way to the less 
appreciative part of the audience. 

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