After a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend in 1st-century Jerusalem, he regains his freedom and comes back for revenge.After a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend in 1st-century Jerusalem, he regains his freedom and comes back for revenge.After a Jewish prince is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend in 1st-century Jerusalem, he regains his freedom and comes back for revenge.
Long. Epic. Beautiful.
Is it also ponderous? Maybe--especially if you have seen other Biblical era epics ("Greatest Story" or "Spartacus") or if you don't quite click with the material. Is it what you would call a good movie, or a great one? It has the credentials, including Best Picture. But it also is filled with secondary actors to support the dubious leading man, Charlton Heston (who gives one of the performances of his life, for sure, and has openly credited the director for that).
The director is none other than the consummate professional, the ever-versatile and polished William Wyler. And he takes a huge story with grandiose necessities and makes it really watchable. And epic. And with cinematographer Robert Surtees (look at that man's film list!) it's certainly an exquisitely beautiful movie, and very very widescreen, shot with double sized 65mm film, the IMAX of its day.
The story is of a Jewish man named Ben Hur who survives persecution from the Romans, including his boyhood friend, and becomes a master chariot driver and a believer in the peaceful ways of his contemporary, and upstart Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, the movie is supposedly about Prince Hur but in fact it's all aimed at illuminated Christ, always indirectly, but in the end with surprising power. We only see Jesus from behind, or from a distance, or in small part (his hand is shown nailed to the cross, for example), yet we feel his aura in the few scenes where his is present. His affect on Hur in their brief encounter is touching and pointed.
We need to see that Hur himself is a kind of Christ figure, but a flawed one, a secondary man by comparison (which elevated the primary one further). Hur says early on that he rejects violence, which was not an especially contemporary attitude, especially as the Romans are occupying his home town. He then goes on to show mercy to the very people who want to abuse and kill him (that is, he turns the other cheek). He wins in the end not by killing, but by setting a good example, by being deeply good in the face of unfair hardship. It isn't clear he is a believer in particular, other than his deep rooted faith in his people, the Jews.
Context matters here, just a decade or so after the defeat of the Nazis. The Romans are presented as the evil colonizing empire, greeting each other by raising their arms in what I grew up calling the "Nazi salute." Their colors and even their symbolism (a big eagle) are Nazi echoes. And the victims of the Nazis and the Romans equally are the Jews. Take this an important step further, and we see that there is a not-so-subtle subtext that the contemporary inhabitants of this area, recently named Israel, belong there. Hur even reminds his Roman friend to remember that the Jews lived there before the Romans ever came along.
The movie works best as a story of power, of virtue, of Christian morality, of individual triumph. It also works as a visual and visceral epic. Scene after scene is stunning to just look at, and I'm sure in a big theater (remember going to movies in a full sized theater?) it was a true spectacle movie. We forget how important the venue is in "getting" the movie in spatial, visual terms (that's one reason Westerns survived so well into the 1950s and are not thriving now).
The themes of love, romantic as well as family love, are important here but are thin, filled with empty clichés and total lack of chemistry (perhaps on purpose for a movie with religious intentions). The writing is solid but lacks magic. The editing might be faulted for being a bit indulgent at times, letting scenes roll for their pageantry when we might rather get moving. And ultimately the acting is often more functional than inspired. In a way I respect Heston for pulling off a role burdened with stiff archetypes of the wise hero. Many of the actors are doing their level best with a script that has a message, and you can't quite get the drama directly when the message is itching to be heard, too. Some of the acting is actually a hair lame (Cathy O'Donnell, who I adore in other movies like "They Live by Night," is really awful once you notice her, which is really a casting problem more than anything).
So I resort to nitpicking because somehow as wonderful and impressive as it all was and is, I wasn't swept away. It's not a completely gripping and moving film.
Yes, there are ways of approaching this weighty classic other than saying its a dated religious picture or that it's a profound late-Golden Age masterpiece. It's neither, and both. And it's definitely worth seeing if you have a long long evening for it.
- Dec 23, 2012