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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

AFI FIlm Review: Ben-Hur

As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.



Grade A

If there were one reason, and only one reason, to give Ben-Hur an A, it would be that my wife didn’t fall asleep during the film. No, I’m not doing bits from my 1990’s standup routine, I’m acknowledging that a three and a half hour film kept the attention of a person who recently fell asleep during Fast and Furious 7 (in the theater, on opening night) which is probably, sadly, as close to an epic as we are going to get in 2015. I wouldn’t have thought that Ben-Hur was going to do it for me; Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago (both of which I will write about later, again, sadly) were boring, at least to me and my spouse snoozing on the sofa next to me. From what I had seen of epics I had low expectations for Ben-Hur even if the chariot race sequence that I watched back in film school had been really interesting.




So what makes Ben-Hur so compelling? I’m tempted to point to the familiarity with the aspects of the story: Romans, Jesus, lepers, wise men, Charlton Heston, etc. A lifetime of Anglo-Saxon indoctrination makes it difficult to miss the cues given in the film. The star in the east and the three wise men and their gifts and the messiah in the manger and all the iconography were very well placed. Furthermore I could appreciate the shorthand of these images to convey the much longer story of Jesus’ life. Using this shorthand quickly and succinctly was a great device to tell the biblical story and shift the focus away from it and to Ben-Hur, where the plot really excels. My wife didn’t know any of the Christian iconography in the film (she’s from China), but she was completely invested in the film. She was outraged by the fall of Ben-Hur, saddened by the troubles that befell his family and incensed at Messala’s betrayal. The story may differ from the original novel (That’s the novelist’s picture above. Your beard isn’t as cool as his.) and it might have taken one hundred writers to complete and it might be a little heavy on the Christianity at the end of the film, but before the denouement, the story is compelling and the film is loaded with the spectacle that made (makes?) films great.

Let’s once again discuss that triumph of modern cinema, Fast and Furious 7. At this point the F&F franchise has turned into pastiche. They’ve found a workable formula and they’ve upped the ante with each film: The Rock is essentially playing a superhero (bursting out of casts, denting steel walls), Vin Diesel can drive cars out of penthouse suites and survive, and the entire crew is able to parachute out of the back of an aircraft…in cars…the cars were wearing parachutes! And honestly, it wasn’t any more exciting than Ben-Hur. The chariot race and the sea battle were every bit as exhilarating as anything in F&F, which isn’t a knock on those films (they’re fun), its high praise for a 60-70 year old film that can’t compete in terms of special effects. Watching Ben-Hur it’s obvious and easy to distinguish special effects: the sea battle is done with miniatures and the chariot scene is done on a recreated Roman circus. It doesn’t diminish the sea battle to know that the boats in the wide shots are a fraction of the size of real boats because the audience is completely invested in the film, moreover the sequences inside the boats, as the prisoners struggle to escape, are as dizzying and mesmerizing as anything you can find on film. The chariot scene on the other hand benefits from the knowledge that there must have been painstaking amounts of labor to recreate that Roman circus. Of course I verified all of this information later, but the truth is as a modern first-time viewer I could see the details of the film straight off. If I were alive when this movie first came out I probably wouldn’t have noticed it.

Apparently nobody liked Charlton Heston’s acting in the film. This is perhaps another folly of time, but I thought it was okay. I’ve also had to live through Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Charlton Heston NRA spokesperson; compared to those performances this one was exceedingly tolerable. I’m not crazy about Hugh Griffith in brown face playing an Arab Sheik or Charlton Heston playing a Jew, but I guess it was a different time. William Wyler, who is Jewish, directed the film and he must have felt okay with casting Charlton Heston. I guess there weren’t many Jewish leading men in those days and besides, what Jewish person would want to star in a film in which they eventually accept Jesus as the true messiah? Overall the acting was good; most of the actors seemed to be working actors, skilled in the craft of acting, and not movie stars in the film for publicity and a payday.


They are apparently remaking Ben-Hur because, you know, lack of ideas and the hope that the name is still present enough in the collective consciousness to attract a mass audience. I’m positive that it won’t surpass the first one as a classic. Positive. I’m also positive that it will use much better effects and much more money to attempt to make a film that is a bigger spectacle, on the surface, than its original. In that regard it will fail as well. Ben-Hur is a film, and spectacle, for the ages.

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