#339. Ben Hur (1959)

So I might be pretty fucked here: I appear to’ve lost a blue-covered notebook in which I wrote response pieces for seven or eight movies from the late-’50s, early ‘60s, and Ben Hur is one of the entries in that notebook. The other entries, like about The Hole or Jerry Lewis’s Nutty Professor or To Kill a Mockingbird, I can re-write, no problem, but the issue with having lost the BenHur piece is that I remember feeling like I’d really struck the right note with it, that I’d landed on something meaningful, and all I remember of my three- or four-page piece is that, while I (and probably lots of other people) grew up seeing snippets, on TV, of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, confusing the two of them at every turning, not least of all because they’ve got the same star (Charleton Heston) and a remarkably vivid wide-screen technicolor presentation, my attitude now is that the two movies could hardly be more different. 

    The reason is because of grit, I think, and because the director of Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille, was trying to create something the whole family would not only love, but revel in, championing the film as a monument to their beliefs and passing it down through the generations.

Now Wyler took on a huge budget for this movie. $15 million. Which, in 2021 dollars, is about $140 million. It went on to earn the equivalent of $1.3 billion.

As was probably expected by whomever threw down the investment.

But still, Wyler took a different approach, and I think the nuance and intent of htat approach is best exemplified in a poignant segment, toward the end of BenHur, where we see the lifestyle of people in a leper colony (incidentally: we’ll be discussing a modern leper colony pretty soon on the blog, in respect to a raw 26-minute Iranian documentary called The House is Black, #394); our main characters, unafflicted by leprosy, visit the colony to confer with a long-lost loved one who is afflicted. 

    It isn’t a fun scene. Not only cuz it’s heartbreaking. I actually think it slows the whole movie down. But still: it changed how I saw the movie.

I realized (or concluded) that Wyler was looking toward this time period with a colder and much more confrontational eye than DeMille; that he was interested in creating large-scale entertainment, of course, but also in communicating just how fucking difficult it was to live a regular life back then. The cavernous disparities between the lives of the rich and the poor. Truly human stuff.

    Did Cecil B. DeMille find something “truly human” in Ten Commandments? Sure. It’s a love story and there’s drama about fathers and sons and faith in the lord and slavery and warfare–all very real human shit. But the slavery in Ten Commandments isn’t depicted as the relentless monolithic horror that Wyler tries capturing here (to the extent that censors or, more importantly, his financiers would allow, given that a whole lotta kiddos needed to be able to see this movie if they were gonna break even). Fraternal rivalries are more complicated than DeMille’s depictions. They hew closer to Wyler’s version.

Director William Wyler

    I suppose history’s verdict is pretty much set in stone: BenHur, if only for its technical achievements and cultural significance, is the capital-G “Greatest Achievement” of Wyler’s career–but it’s followed closely by his other three-hour opus, The Best Years of Our Lives, a baggy monster of a suburban drama about three veterans coming home after World War Two and struggling to fit in with civilian life–especially the young man who got his hands blown off. I don’t think any other major war movie to date, with the exception of The Big Parade, makes an attempt to go beyond the horror of showing us a maimed body, to show us how the person inside that body goes on to live their life. Wyler’s Best Years of Our Lives can be seen, I think, as a passionate precursor to the raging revolutionary war cinema that popped up through the 1970s in response to the legions of young American soldiers being killed in Vietnam.

And one has to imagine it was tricky business indeed for Wyler to show the things that he showed in that movie; by presenting the horrible consequences of a war, he prompted his audience (if only implicitly) to question whether the sacrifices were worth making, which might’ve understandably rub some folks the wrong way. 

    Following that, he made The Heiress, with Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, which is one of three or four period romances from the List that I like–and the reason I like it is because Wyler, again, takes a cold and (if I can say this) “realistic” view of the situation he’s depicting. 

    It looks pretty tepid when you glance at the poster and read the synopsis, but trust me, The Heiress is a solid piece of 90-minute weeknight entertainment. You’ll be thinking about it for days, I promise.

Anyway. I remember my point about Ben-Hur was something to do with Wyler’s willingness to tackle, with a colder eye than DeMille, the ugliness of his story. I also devoted a paragraph or two to the fact that, when the scene of the famous chariot race came up, I was prepared for something soft, with loud heroic music and lots of rear projection, but I was completely wrong. It’s fucking incredible. 

Still incredible.

Go ahead and watch it on YouTube if you haven’t seen it–though frankly I think this movie, even though it’s a little overstuffed, is genuinely worth three hours of your time, and the chariot race is largely so compelling because of the complexity with which Wyler’s imbued the relationship of its main contestants. So the build up is necessary.

And yeah I’m looking over that paragraph and realizing that, since I’m comparing Ben Hur so much to Ten Commandments, and saying that Ben Hur is “actually” worth watching, it suggests that I feel differently about Ten Commandments. Which I suppose I do. 

Unless you like campy ‘50s entertainment, or film history, or you’re a wonk and wanna be conversant on major talking points of Americana, I don’t think you should burden yourself with Ten Commandments. 

Ben Hur, on the other hand, has some real stuff to say. 

And I’m sure we’ll talk more about it when I find that blue-covered notebook.

One comment

  • Comparing Ten Commandments with Ben Hur is interesting and very fitting as they approach the Grand Spectacle from two very different directions.
    De Mille is old school and Ten Commandments is stylistically a silent movie in color and with sound. It is very static, very declamatory, exaggerated in its expression and very literal in its religious zeal. It looks backwards.
    Wyler’s Ben Hur is as modern as films were made in 59. Fast paced (relatively), plot driven and with a human understanding. Also the religious motives so prominent in the novel, is toned down to become more of a background tapestry. It looks forward.
    Sure Charlton Heston stars both, but while his acting style fits the former, he cannot ruin the latter.

    I would pick Ben Hur for a rewatch any day, but not Ten Commandments.

    Like

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