Monday, November 7, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 100
Writer: Karl Tunberg (adaptation), Lew Wallace (novel)
Director: William Wyler
Star: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins
For a movie that clocks in at over three-and-a-half hours, I was surprised to find that “Ben-Hur” left several stones unturned in its sprawling, epic story. Huge sections of the title character’s life have been glossed over or take place completely off camera, and the result is a long film that still seems like it’s missing a lot of its major pieces.
We begin with the birth of Jesus, then flash forward a number of years to witness two old friends clashing over religion. Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a Jew, and Messala (Stephen Boyd) is now a high-ranking officer in the Roman army who expects Ben-Hur to sell out his people. Things spiral out of control after Ben-Hur’s sister accidentally drops part of a roof on a nearby General, and soon Ben-Hur finds himself a slave on a Roman war ship. He’s intent on vengeance against Messala, and soon his circumstances change and he finds himself with an opportunity to find out what happened to his family and how to avenge them.
There’s one hell of a lot more, of course, most notably a subplot connecting Ben-Hur’s journey with that of Christ’s. When Ben-Hur is being dragged away, Jesus gives him a sip of water, and the favor is returned when Jesus carries the cross. These bookend scenes are very touching.
As soon as the prologue fades, screenwriter Karl Tunberg makes an odd choice in beginning with Messala’s character and not introducing Ben-Hur until about a half hour in. These scenes would have been better spent developing Ben-Hur’s family so that we really feel something when he’s separated from them. Then there are endless scenes of talk, talk, talk delivered by a cast that is decent, but not overwhelmingly great. Heston is fine when he’s underplaying the role, which isn’t often, but can’t seem to pull off the inner torment of the film’s final act. Boyd doesn’t have much of a presence, such a shame because this could have been a gem of a role in the hands of the right actor (Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, John Gavin).
The movie has two enormous set pieces, a sea battle and a chariot race (which I’ll get to later). In the first, Ben-Hur is a slave who helps to row one of Rome’s great war ships, and has a chance to escape during battle thanks to a small kindness by a Roman General (Jack Hawkins). Ben-Hur then repays the favor by saving the General’s life. I’m sad to say the special effects of the sea battle have aged horrendously, and much of it is laughable now. The balls of fire launched from the ships at one another are obviously fireworks shot from one miniature ship to another, and as a result the scene doesn’t get any real tension.
It is around this point where Tunberg begins to play fast and loose with the storytelling. Blink and you’ll miss the part where Ben-Hur and the General form a father/son bond and Ben-Hur is adopted and becomes part of one of the richest, most renowned families in Rome. Also missing is the fact that Ben-Hur becomes one of the best chariot drivers in the world while hanging around with his adoptive daddy. These are huge developments and affect everything that follows, but apparently there just wasn’t time for it. I feel like this leaves a pretty big hole in the viewer’s understanding of its hero (especially the evolution of his feelings and sympathies with Romans), and wish the film had explored this.
Anyway, not only is Ben-Hur suddenly a great charioteer, so is Messala! What a coincidence. They race one another in the film’s high point. If the ship scene doesn’t hold together at all, the chariot race is even more impressive today, simply because we understand that these are real people in real danger where real accidents could have easily happened. The entire sequence is shot beautifully, filled with edge-of-your-seat tension and the bloody pay-off is shockingly brutal. Ben-Hur defeats Messala, who is also trampled by horses and dies. Wonderful! End of movie, right?
Nope, we’ve still got almost an hour to go. Turns out Ben-Hur’s mother and sister were in prison for years and became lepers and were let out and joined a leper colony which Ben-Hur’s main squeeze knew about but didn’t tell Ben-Hur about but then he found out anyway and almost went to see them but didn’t but then almost did again but didn’t and then got all broody and then oh wow there’s Jesus and now everyone is cured and they all live happily ever after * catches breath * Phew. There are sporadic, wonderful moments in this final hour, particularly the aforementioned scene where Ben-Hur gives Jesus a drink on his way to die, but it’s…just…too…much. The arc of the movie was set up to me Ben-Hur verses Messala, and with him dead there isn’t really a point to keep going. There had to be a way to dovetail the family’s leprosy and the encounter with Christ in with the battle between Messala, but Tunberg doesn’t seem interested.
Director William Wyler guides the film with a steady hand. He shows off when he must, but tries to keep the film intimate on the whole, more interested with the characters than the explosions. This worked for him often in his career of great movies. “The Best Years of Our Lives” is rightfully in the top 100, but there is also “Friendly Persuasion,” “Funny Girl,” “The Children’s Hour,” “The Letter,” “Jezebel” and many more. He’s possibly the most versatile director in the history of film, and I admire what he tried to do with this epic movie even if the actors held him back from succeeding.
I wonder if making the movie longer (gasp!) would have helped, but then part of me thinks somewhere in the three-and-a-half hour film is a crackerjack two-hour action drama. The movie is good, no doubts about that, but it’s uneven and stumbles when it had a real chance to soar. Ah well, the chariot race remains one of the greatest sequences ever filmed, and time has only made it more impressive. “Ben-Hur” needs to be seen if only for that.
My Score (out of 5): ***