Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ben-Hur (1959 film)




Based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur is the story of a Jewish prince from Jerusalem who is enslaved by the Romans following an accusation over an assassination attempt. Directed by William Wyler and screenplay by Karl Tunberg (with additional contributions by Gore Vidal, Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, and S.N. Behrman), the film is a sprawling epic that explores a man trying to defy those who enslaved him and become a champion of the people as the titular character of Judah Ben-Hur is played by Charlton Heston. Also starring Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, and Haya Harareet. Ben-Hur is a tremendously rich and intense film from William Wyler.

The film revolves a Jewish prince from Jerusalem who is betrayed by a friend who is a Roman tribune where an accident involving a Roman governor has him and his family become slaves forcing the man to try and seek vengeance against his old friend. It’s a film that explores not just a man who would suffer because of a simple accident his sister made but also to see if he can do anything to help his people as well as those who have been oppressed by the Roman empire. At the same time, he watches from afar as he sees the journey that Jesus Christ would take as the two men would have paralleling storylines. Especially where Judah Ben-Hur would have encounters with Jesus Christ as questions about faith would emerge in Ben-Hur’s own journey as he tries to find his mother and sister.

The film’s screenplay starts off with Jesus Christ’s birth and minor events that preceded it as it relates to the rule of the Roman Empire. It then plays into the paralleling story of Christ doing his own duties for the world while Ben-Hur is inviting an old friend in Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has become a tribune for the Roman council, as he asks Ben-Hur about any Jews that have spoken against the empire. Ben-Hur refuses to name names where a parade in welcoming a new Roman governor ends with a simple accident when Ben-Hur’s sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) was looking from the roof as some tiles slipped and fell on the governor’s head. Tirzah and her mother Miriam (Martha Scott) would be sent away somewhere else while Ben-Hur is sold to slavery under Messala’s orders. Upon working as a rower at a galley for a Roman consul member, Ben-Hur copes with betrayal and suffering until the ship is attacked where he would save that member in Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) who would reward Ben-Hur by giving him his freedom and the chance to be adopted by Arrius.

While the journey that Ben-Hur would take from slavery and freedom would be fulfilling, there is still that conflict about who he is and his own faith which would prompt him to leave Arrius on amicable terms to try and return home. Even as Ben-Hur is more concerned with wondering what happened to his mother and sister as he would encounter more individuals such as Balthasar (Finlay Currie) and Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) as the latter learns of Ben-Hur’s reputation as a chariot racer who wants him to challenge Messala in an upcoming race. For Ben-Hur, it’s a moment of temptation to get revenge yet a reunion with an old servant’s daughter in Esther (Haya Harareet) would prompt him to think about what happened to his mother and sister as it leads to a climatic confrontation as well as an aftermath involving Jesus Christ. It is there that Ben-Hur not only copes with his faith but also in his questions into what God wants from him.

William Wyler’s direction is truly spectacular in terms of not just the scope of the presentation but also in how big the film is in its approach to the story. Shot partially on location in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios with additional locations in Libya and North Africa, Wyler goes for something that plays into a period of time where it is this conflict between the power of the Roman Empire and a simple community of Jews and Arabs. Much of the direction is presented in a very vast and wide canvas to play into how big the world was in those times where the sets of the cities such as Jerusalem and Rome are part of a world that is very unique. Wyler’s approach to wide shots help play into how vast it is. Even in some of the interiors of the sets where Wyler’s use of medium shots help play into how big things were including the galley ship where Ben-Hur was a rower for Arrius.

The direction does have some unique ideas of close-ups as it relates to the drama such as Ben-Hur’s love for his family as well as the growing attraction between himself and Esther. Yet, it’s in these extravagant sequences such as the film’s climatic chariot race scene that is among one of the film’s major highlights. Especially into what is at stake where the camera is capturing all of these moments as it features some second-unit work from Sergio Leone. It is a sequence that is very gripping where it’s also very dangerous into what Ben-Hur is trying to do. Yet, it is followed by events that play into not just what Ben-Hur was trying to look for but also some truths as it relates to his faith and what he had lost in his enslavement. Even as he would have more encounters with Jesus Christ as Wyler never shows that man’s face but rather as a mere presence that plays into Ben-Hur’s own journey to find himself and his questions of faith. Overall, Wyler creates a very sensational and enthralling film about a man who endures suffering as he tries to find a sense of hope through his devotion towards his faith.

Cinematographer Robert L. Surtees does amazing work with the film‘s cinematography that is filled with gorgeous colors for some of its exteriors in day and night as well as the interiors including some low-key lights for scenes where Ben-Hur returns to his house in its decayed form. Editors John D. Dunning and Ralph E. Winters does excellent work with the editing with its approach to fast-cutting for the film‘s chariot scenes along with other dazzling rhythmic cuts for some of its intense moments such as the battle on the sea. Art directors Edward C. Carfagno and William A. Horning, with set decorator Hugh Hunt, do brilliant work with the set pieces from the look of Ben-Hur‘s family home as well as the Roman prison and its palaces along with the vastness of the chariot stadium.

Costume designer Elizabeth Haffenden does fantastic work with the period costumes from the uniforms that the Roman soldiers wear to the robes that both the men and women wore at the time. The special effects work of A. Arnold Gillespie, Robert MacDonald, and Milo Lory is pretty good for some of the background effects for the scenes such as the naval battle and a few scenes that involve the opening sequence of Jesus Christ‘s birth. The sound work of Franklin Milton is terrific for the sound effects that are created as well as capturing some of the moments in the chariot race sequence. The film’s music by Miklos Rozsa is phenomenal for its bombastic and soaring orchestral score to play into the sense of adventure and action along with lush, string-based themes for some of the film’s dramatic moments as it’s a major highlight of the film.

The casting by Irene Howard is marvelous as it features notable small roles from George Relph as the Roman emperor Tiberius, Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate, Sam Jaffe as Esther’s father Simonides who is a loyal servant to the Ben-Hur family, Claude Heater in an un-credited appearance as Jesus Christ, and Finlay Currie in a terrific performance as Balthasar and the film’s narrator for its opening sequence. Martha Scott and Cathy O’Donnell are wonderful in their respective roles as Ben-Hur’s mother Miriam and sister Tirzah as two women whom Ben-Hur cares for as they were victims of a simple accident caused by Tirzah. Jack Hawkins is excellent as Quintus Arrius as a Roman consul who was intrigued by Ben-Hur’s appearance in his ship as he is later saved by the man whom he generously thanked while being one of the rare Romans that Ben-Hur cares for.

Hugh Griffith is amazing as Sheik Ilderim as a comical figure of sorts who invites Ben-Hur to his camp and support him in the chariot race as he is also a caring figure who wants to create an alliance between the Arabs and Jews. Stephen Boyd is fantastic as Messala as an old friend of Ben-Hur who later betrays him as he becomes a man devoted to the Roman Empire and later challenges him in the chariot race. Haya Harareet is brilliant as Esther as a former servant who had always been in love with Ben-Hur as she hopes to help him after his return as she also helps find out what happened to his mother and sister. Finally, there’s Charlton Heston in an incredible performance as the titular character as Heston brings a lot of intensity and humility to his role as a man who is betrayed and sold to slavery as he later tries to maintain his sense of faith in a trouble world as it’s one of his iconic performances.

Ben-Hur is a sensational film from William Wyler that features a towering performance from Charlton Heston. Along with a great supporting cast and amazing technical features, the film is truly an epic that lives up to its name and more. Even as it manages to do much more as it tells very compelling stories about faith and a man being tested for his devotion. In the end, Ben-Hur is a magnificent film from William Wyler.

William Wyler Films: (Straight Shootin’) - (Anybody Here Seen Kelly?) - (The Shakedown) - (Hell’s Heroes) - (A House Divided (1931 film)) - (Tom Brown of Culver) - (Counsellor at Law) - (Glamour (1934 film)) - (The Good Fairy) - (The Gay Deception) - (These Three) - (Dodsworth) - (Come and Get It) - (Dead End (1937 film)) - (Jezebel) - (Wuthering Heights (1939 film)) - (The Westerner) - (The Letter) - (The Little Foxes) - (Mrs. Miniver) - (Memphis Belle: A Story of Flying Fortress) - (The Best Years of Our Lives) - (Thunderbolt!) - (The Heiress) - (Detective Story (1951 film)) - (Carrie (1952 film)) - Roman Holiday - (The Desperate Hours) - Friendly Persuasion - (The Big Country) - (The Children’s Hour) - (The Collector (1965 film)) - (How to Steal a Million) - (Funny Girl) - (The Liberation of L.B. Jones)

© thevoid99 2015

5 comments:

Wendell Ottley said...

Ben-Hur is a true example of an epic. Everything about it is larger than life. And man, that chariot scene!

Ruth said...

YES!! I'm glad you finally saw this one Steven. Amen to all you said here, it's truly a thing to behold, a feast for the eyes, heart and mind. It's a rich and intense film indeed, I love the parallel storyline of Christ & Judah. Glad you mentioned about how Wyler never showed Jesus' face throughout the film, but you definitely feel His presence. Despite not looking even the slightly bit Jewish, I think Heston was fantastic here but I LOVE the supporting cast. I esp love Boyd, Griffith, Harrareet and even Frank Thring as Pilate.

There are sooo many memorable scenes here but that chariot scene is simply phenomenal!

thevoid99 said...

@Wendell-It sure is. I don't understand the need of a remake. It's already a perfect film.

@ruth-I usually don't buy Heston as anything he really isn't but he totally did sell that performance as it is one of his best. I love that chariot race as it is true filmmaking at its best.

Rodney said...

Stands alongside Lawrence Of Arabia as one of the all-time greats, and rightly so. Nice review, man.

thevoid99 said...

@Rodney-While I think Lawrence is the better film, I would definitely have Ben-Hur in the top 5 epics.