Ben-Hur (1959) Aug 11, 2016 12:38:10 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Aug 11, 2016 12:38:10 GMT -5
Directed by: William Wyler
Directed by: William Wyler
If we're judging Ben-Hur solely on its basis as an epic, then it's one of the most tantalizing epics I've ever seen simply in regards to its visual depth and narrative scope. This is a sprawling, nearly insurmountable film in terms of how much ground it works to cover in a relatively short time frame (not even four hours). It tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy prince in Jerusalem who is sent to work as a slave despite a misunderstanding Messala (Stephen Boyd), one of Judah's acquaintances, could've easily mended. As a result, he loses three years of his life to relentless labor and torment, emerging with only the desire to exact revenge in the form of a chariot race for his wrongful enslavement.
Judah is played by Charlton Heston, who throws himself into a role that demands he be likable, convincing, greatly troubled, though strong-willed, as well as many other things. Heston is terrific here, serving as the film's constant tentpole that keeps the walls of the film's structure, screenplay, and overall narrative from collapsing in on one another. On top of that, despite a daunting runtime, both director William Wyler and screenwriter Karl Tunberg keep the story of Ben-Hur relatively basic on the ability to be appealing to many based on the sole theme of revenge.
There's good and bad with that move. On a more positive note, it makes the film more accessible and less intimidating to an audience not used to these kinds of epic films that detail a wide-variety of ideas, ideology, and thematic specifics. On a more negative note, however, it did stunt the enjoyment of the film for me in a considerable way. When you have a film that's predicated upon a well-traversed and heavily depicted theme like revenge and courage, you inevitably - no matter how good the set design, luxurious the costumes, and immaculate the cinematography - get the feeling of emptiness. Once you address the ideas of revenge in Ben-Hur, there's little else to really focus on that isn't visual and doesn't lead to more admiration than true, overwhelming love.
Having said all that, Ben-Hur is still one of the most visually engrossing films of its era. At the time the most expensive film ever made (with a now-laughable budget of $15.2 million plus almost the same amount for marketing expenses), the film shows off every dime of its budget in its grandiose scale. Robert Surtees's cinematography that works germane to the wide-angle scope of Wyler's camera captures every detail of the sands, the coliseums, and the sweltering desert, almost giving the look and feel of a larger-than-life stage-play. It seems that with every passing scene, and subsequently every little frame, there is something taking place in the background that warrants just as much as your attention as what is taking place in the foreground.
For example, during the scenes when Judah is working as a helpless galley slave, I couldn't help but watch other slaves and other masters work, despite Judah clearly and obviously existing in the foreground. It's as if Wyler doesn't so much create Ben-Hur from the ground up, but simply stops in at the right time and the right moments to film a living, breathing world, reflecting an immense scale that just so happens to tell a very beautiful, if occasionally troubling, story about enslavement and the will to live.
Ben-Hur's legacy as one of the finest and most successful American films - in both financial aspects as well as the obligatory accolades department - is unsurprising; its quality as an epic and general scope as a film are more-so. Its themes may be easily extractable and foreseeable, but its strengths lie in how visceral and layered the film is in a purely aesthetic, visual sense. It's an undeniably beautiful, rich picture.
Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, and Hugh Griffith. Directed by: William Wyler.