Ben-Hur (1959)
December 28, 2017 12:43 PM - Subscribe

Judah Ben-Hur, a Palestinian Jew, is battling the Roman empire at the time of Christ. His actions send him and his family into slavery, but an inspirational encounter with Jesus changes everything. He finally meets his rival in a justly famous chariot race and rescues his suffering family.
posted by frimble (5 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Third of four (so far) filmed versions of the novel.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:21 PM on December 28, 2017

Hmm, I have mixed feelings on Ben Hur. I enjoy it well enough, but find it a bit empty all things considered and that's even in comparison to other religious epics, a genre I'm actually quite fond of in a way.

It's scale works against it in some sense, where the more interesting elements of its theme and story are the lower key elements, but the attention is drawn to the big set pieces like the famous chariot race. That kind of scale worked for The Ten Commandments, where the over the top elements fit the excesses of the story, characters, and director well. Wyler though is no DeMille. I'm a big fan of Wyler's, thinking him a strangely neglected artist in a way, in part I suspect because of the attention Ben Hur gets in his body of work, making him seem more showman than he was, and in part due to the dislike shown Wyler by some influential critics like Manny Farber who used his movies as exemplars of "white elephant" filmmaking.

I generally don't hold with that assessment of Wyler or the values behind it entirely, but for Ben Hur I think it is a bit apt more because the scale doesn't suit Wyler's interests even as his ability is more than ample to handle the scope of the project. For me, the more interesting elements of the story are in the relationships established in the first third or so of the film, with the more spectacular elements distracting from those character interactions. I'm not sure any director could balance those two elements well given the story, which may indeed be the real heart of the problem I have with the movie. Grandiosity, like that in The Ten Commandments, can be fascinating if the entirety of the work is fit to that measure. Wyler doesn't quite do that with Ben Hur, leaving some of the interpersonal elements at a more human scale.

It's the imbalance that leaves the movie, for me, feeling a bit cold, where the professionalism involved in the making is satisfying enough in the moment, but it siphons the kinds of excess in emotion that would provide longer lasting pleasure. Overall it's a lesser Wyler and mid-tier biblical era epic for me, comparable more to many of the blockbusters films of today than fitting with my favorites of the past. Still, some of the performances are quite enjoyable taken on their own, and the craft of the film is sometimes impressive so its not a film I actively dislike or avoid either.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:31 AM on December 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just watched this for the first time a few months ago. The imbalance you mention, gus, is embodied for me in the chariot race. That is an amazing, absolutely must-see scene. The rest of the film felt much less must-see, good character moments notwithstanding. It's kind of like how Jack Nicholson's character was the focus of marketing/buzz/jokey pop-culture references from A Few Good Men, but he has comparatively little significance to the film overall.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:27 AM on December 29, 2017

Yeah, the chariot race overshadows everything else to an unfortunate degree. The rest of the film really needed something more to balance that out a bit better.

Oh, and I should perhaps add one subtextual anecdote that casual movie viewers may not know. According to Stephen Boyd, Wyler had him play Messala as being in love with Judah Ben-Hur, something that they didn't mention to Heston. That element did, I think, add something to Boyd's performance, making him, if not sympathetic exactly, then at least more relatable. As Wyler also directed two versions of Children's Hour, the second under that title, the first as These Three, lends some sense to the feeling being more of depth more than added villainy as might be expected from some films of the time in suggesting homosexual desire. At least that's how I felt about Boyd's character.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:26 AM on December 29, 2017

Not to derail, but I would say that Nicholson's character is extremely *significant* in A Few Good Men, but has relatively little *screen time*.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:08 AM on December 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

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