About the movie Ben-Hur (1959), which I saw last week in a movie theater.
Could a film that won eleven Academy Awards be considered underrated?
Yes, if in the years since its release it’s been consistently disrespected and downgraded by film critics.
(For instance, the American Film Institute rates it #100 of its top 100 American movies. In 2012, the Sight and Sound poll of film critics conducted by the British Film Institute ranked it #588 on their list. Only two critics voted for it. One of them, curiously, was Camille Paglia.)
When objectively examined, Ben-Hur belongs in the TEN Best list of American films. The problem is that from the beginning, the closed-mindedness of many important film critics toward religious themes prevented them from understanding what Ben-Hur is about. They failed to comprehend why it’s an artistic triumph, and why it’s important.
First, the superlatives.
Ben-Hur has a very literate script. The dialogue is resonant and tight (except for a couple missteps toward the end). It concisely expresses the story’s theme of Community against Empire; Judea versus Rome. This is noteworthy in the words of the Roman characters played by Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, and Frank Thring; advocates if not fanatics for their Imperial cause. They’re in no way stereotypes. The script was the product of intelligent writers Christopher Fry, Karl Tunberg, and Gore Vidal. The words show a thorough knowledge of life, society, and the world. The competing views presented are well balanced.
Ben-Hur is a spectacular, awe-inspiring viewing experience.
The movie is masterfully directed by William Wyler operating at the top of his form. Note the perfect compositions from the beginning, with the manger scene, or the line of goats viewing the intrusion of Messala and his Roman legions into their peaceful world.
Or note the variety of camera angles. Early, when he betrays his friend, Messala is viewed from above, which gives him the appearance of a toy soldier isolating himself from the world. At the finish of the chariot race, Messala is viewed at ground level, emphasizing how he’s been knocked down, his deeds come full circle.
Or, the framing device of the cave during the final storm; and a quick shot of Jesus on the cross, the reflection of the cross in a puddle; the montage comparison of Jesus’ hand with the hand of one of the women. The storm-and-miracle sequence shows great artistry. It’s great cinema.
Ben-Hur contains what remains, especially when viewed on a big screen, the most exciting action sequence in film, without a single CGI effect, and with stars Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd doing most of their own stunt work.
Ben-Hur contains the best galley-slave montage sequence ever, for whatever that’s worth.
The musical score by Miklos Rozsa, of prime importance for the overall effect—which is operatic—may be the best film score ever composed.
Above all, Ben-Hur, by the time it concludes after nearly four hours with intermission included, is an cathartic artistic experience, of a kind seldom equaled. Director William Wyler specialized in conveying the emotion of families (see “Best Years of Our Lives”). He was the perfect choice to direct this film.
How have film critics for fifty years been consistently wrong?
The three most influential film critics of the day, Dwight MacDonald, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael, hated Ben-Hur. They hated everything about it. You’d think they’d at least have enjoyed portions of it. The cinematography or music. The solid and subtle acting of Boyd, Hawkins, and Thring articulating the more “adult” words in the film. At least, certainly, the chariot race. Merely watching the competing horses racing in a perfect line, four white horses alongside four black ones, is a picture both thrilling and beautiful.
That these esteemed critics hated all of the movie (Sarris called it “unendurable”) says more about themselves than the film.
From the start, Ben-Hur is nakedly religious. The cynicism of the critics couldn’t accept this. One sees them viewing the perfectly composed manger scene with utter scorn.
A second problem is that the three critics were consciously intellectual. This was their identity—experiencing the world and the things of the world through the trained analytical mind.
But art at its best is about more then the intellect. It reaches into the individual’s heart. It provokes the soul.
The three critics had to have hearts of stone not to be moved by the last thirty minutes of the movie. How do we explain it? They had to have already walled themselves off from every part of the movie experience of Ben-Hur.
That they did, ironically, caused them to miss as well the intellectual elements of the story, which are there, layered within the images, music, and drama.
Several story threads take place at once.
First is the overall “Tale of the Christ,” providing the film’s framework, from Jesus’ birth to death.
Fitting within this framework is the story of Judah Ben-Hur; his struggle to make himself and his family whole.
Within both threads—integral parts of them—is the larger theme of Empire versus Community; Rome against Judea.
The movie has a complex yet unified structure, which ranges in viewpoint from the most personal (family) to the broadest (the interplay of social and historical forces).
It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Charlton Heston in the lead role. Not because of his performance. Heston is at times acted off the screen, by friend and foe—which is the point. Heston is perfect for the part because he’s square, good, honest, upright—attributes integral to the character of Ben-Hur, and which the actor embodies.
From start to finish Judah Ben-Hur is a strong but passive presence in the movie. He’s there to be acted upon. His soul is the prize to be won by various competing forces. Male or female. Pagan or monotheistic. Sybaritic or domestic.
Messala wants to win his friend over to his own Imperial fanaticism. He promises that his friend will rise with him. Ben-Hur is too stolid and simple, or virtuous, to buy into the plan.
Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) likewise sees Ben-Hur’s strengths and engages in his own tug-of-war with him. Circumstances help him win Ben-Hur over, briefly, to Rome. Despite pagan allures, greater are the other forces tugging at the Judean prince.
Ben-Hur must be persuaded by an Arab sheik to seek his revenge on Messala via the chariot race. “There is no law in the arena.” Even in the race itself, Messala is the one attacking the other and not the reverse, though Ben-Hur is the one ostensibly seeking revenge. His very presence causes resentment. (Stephen Boyd’s performance as Messala is near perfect.)
Charlton Heston has a strong enough film presence to endure plot-and-performance fireworks from all sides, from actors, actions, and miracles, yet by presence alone carry the film. A lesser actor would’ve been obliterated.
The final tug on Judah Ben-Hur comes from three women: his mother, sister, and would-be wife. Only via the new pacifist creed of Jesus, and accompanying miracle, is the character able to put aside both Rome and revenge. The women triumph.
Critic Dwight MacDonald at the time found Ben-Hur to be overly bloody and violent. How times have changed! Today it appears subtle and tame—especially when compared with the nonstop sadism of films like Passion of the Christ, whose scenes of torture obscure what Jesus was about.
Ben-Hur, on the other hand, shows the barbarity of the arena to show the barbarism of Rome. It’s a necessary part of the message, one kept in balance by the rest of the film. The violence is used as contrast to the pacifist message of Jesus. Jesus is an escape for Judah from the violence and tragedy of the world—the message an escape as well for the audience.
Hundreds of movies have been made since 1959 far more violent and bloody than Ben-Hur; most if not all of them lacking any balance to, or escape from, the carnage.
As Balthazar urges him to, at the end of the story Judah Ben-Hur chooses life over death. Domesticity and the nuclear family—and religion—win out. Roman power and sensuality have been presented as inevitable temptation, but the wrong choice. The movie’s theme is politically liberal but socially conservative. One can see how atheistic film critics disliked the choice given them by the film. They saw or feared themselves placed on the wrong side of the equation, and reacted by blocking the dilemma (and the artwork presenting the dilemma) entirely from their heads.
The movie continues to be relevant. The dilemma, the choice, remains an impossible one for most of today’s film critics. Which means, that though it’s an intelligent film, an overpowering sensory experience, and a moving work of art, Ben-Hur will continue to be egregiously undervalued by the intellectual community, if not by the broader public.
(COMING UP: A comparison between BEN-HUR and the current movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA, WINTER SOLDIER. I’m tentatively titling the piece, “New Rome and Old.”)