In the ears and minds of any movie lover, the word "Ben-Hur" resonates like the quintessential Hollywood classic oozing respectability in every inch of celluloid but the same respect we owe to an old relic. In our cynical modern world, who would enjoy a pompous-looking big-budget swords-and-sandals religious epic when you have Tarantino and Appatow?
I saw "Ben-Hur" for the first time in fourth grade, it was part of our history course and being an Asterix buff, I loved watching real-life legionaries, galley slavery not to mention the chariot race, the film also enlightened me on Christianity and on Judaism (when my only religious reference was monotheism number three) and scared the hell out of me with leper. It worked on a cinematic level as much as educational, I guess even in its TV-sized crappy 80's VHS look, we kids enjoyed "Ben-Hur" especially the rivalry between Judah (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd).
I never watched "Ben-Hur" after that but nor did I have any doubt over its status as a colossal masterpiece. Watching it again a few years ago and then a few days ago, I was surprised by how engraved in my memory "Ben-Hur" was, and how the moments that stood out were still having the same effect. When Ben-Hur and Messala meet after many years, I'm always anticipating that first breech in the fortress of their friendship when the young Roman tribune will have one word too many about Ben-Hur's people, taking for granted their friendship and Judah's nobility as marks of submission. The second encounter is even more thrilling because it's like watching a shaking edifice waiting to collapse.
It was a nice call from the director Wyler to mark the feud between the two ex-friends at the second encounter, hence putting more gravitas around their relationship, that screenwriter Gore Vidal tried to impregnate with homoerotic subtext. The story is known by movie buffs, Vidal wanted to make the interactions look as the two rivals were former lovers, the subtext works even more when you look at Stephen Boyd's "enamored" eyes toward Charlton Heston. But 'Chuck' never knew the trick and was annoyed about it, I guess I prefer the way their hatred epitomize the conflict between Romans and Jews sealing as one of the most memorable rivalries in history of cinema, with the most heart-pounding climactic face-to-face (or should I say wheel-to-wheel).
I had positive feelings about "Gladiator" but "Ben-Hur" is the masterpiece that dwarfs any contemporary masterpiece, a sweeping revenge story that doesn't rely at all on fake CGI and special effects. It took William Wyler's expertise built up in three decades of experience to make "Ben-Hur" equal the reference of the time that was Cecil B. De Mille's 1925 version. As a matter of fact, "Ben-Hur" has been blockbuster material from the start, ever since Lewis Wallace's best-seller of the late century, it was played on theaters and not with modest budgets. A revenge story, with galley combats, a chariot race and an oblique take on the greatest story ever told, with a hero going from idealism to anger, from revenge to love, all wrapped up in a subtle religious conversion, "Ben-Hur" was an instant classic Hollywood couldn't ignore.
If 1925 had the race and the thrills, the 1959 one had a bigger scope, bigger budget, the colors, the talking and all the determination of a big studio like MGM to prove a 50's audience that TV wasn't yet the pinnacle of spectacular entertainmnet. When I hear my Dad talking about going to the movies, like "Ben-Hur", "Spartacus", "Guns of Navarone" or "Taras Boulba" you would think he went there, inside the screen. And right now, I can't imagine the eyes of people staring at the screen during the chariot race, there comes a moment where you stop watching the moment as a plot element, but as a real race, and it never, never suspends your disbelief, it's like at any new viewing, Messalah can finally win.
There are so many classic moments that filled the three-hour-and-half journey that you're never in a state of non-anticipation, when the new inquisitor's parade starts, you keep an eye on that loose roof tile, the one that started the whole chain of events. In the desert, you wait for the 'greatest cameo ever made', in the galleys, the big fight and Ben-Hur rescuing Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and it goes on and on. I must reckon after the chariot race, the film gets a tad too long, but only because you can't just sweep off such a rich epic with a five-minute resolution, and Charlton Heston, in his greatest role, contributed a lot to the everlasting appeal of the film, I don't think he gets the credit he deserved, he brings to his Judah Ben-Hur a dimension of emotional vulnerability that could have been laughable from a lesser actor.
Other cast members include Oscar-winning Hugh Griffin enjoying his role as Arab sheikh and Judah's mentor, Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther, Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell as Judah's mother and sister... the film is served by a solid cast, editing, directing, having swept off all the major Oscar by breaking the record of 11 wins, only to be matched in 1997 with "Titanic" and "The Return of the King" and oddly enough, these titles could somewhat apply to "Ben-Hur".
I haven't seen the 'original' and I'm in no hurry for the remake, but I don't get I'll be in a minority if I say that this is the ultimate version. I didn't see it many times in my life but it's always present in my memories as if it wasn't about the number of times you watch it but the intensity of each experience. And let's not forget the name of the director: William Wyler who outdid himself by making his masterpiece, which is saying a lot, given his previous streaks.
"Ben-Hur": A Christ Tale, a tale of vengeance, in fact a tale of all tales...