Ben-Hur (1959)

Dir. William Wyler. Starring Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet

This is weird for me to say about him, but Charlton Heston was the right man for the job. Judah Ben-Hur spends the vast majority of this movie, which is probably about as famous for being long as it is for anything else, planning to avenge himself on his onetime best friend, the Roman tribune Messala (Boyd). Ben-Hur is more Edmond Dantès than Jean Valjean; hatred transforms him, and Charlton Heston was not necessarily handsome. His nose and chin are too long. His eyes flash where another man’s might sparkle. His leer is excellent. Even his halting, thick voice is right for the part, like his mind is on something else besides clear enunciation. Arrius (Jack Hawkins) singles out the slave who has been in the galleys three years and lived on hate the whole time. Hate “gives him strength,” according to the consul, and it turns out to be proof of Arrius’ keen eye. Heston was never capable of serious depth as an actor, but as a guy who bares his teeth and makes angry noises, he does enough to be a quality focal point. Maybe that’s damning with faint praise, but at the same time it’s remarkable that a cast as studded as this one only has a couple of players who can even keep our attention.

William Wyler does most of his best work in this movie when people aren’t talking. The dialogue is either forgettable or repetitive, even in the hands of some of the movie’s better performers. Stephen Boyd as Messala is, as we’ll see, probably the most essential single element outside of the title character, and yet his dialogue rapidly falters into “Boy, Rome is great, don’t you think so!” territory and never recovers. Even closeups are practical as opposed to meaningful or emotional. For Wyler, the meat of the movie is in landscapes or in the perspective that great distance allows. The hand-to-hand combat of the naval battle between the Romans and the pirates is confused, but there is tension and excitement when the camera pulls back and gives us a sense of the scale of the fight. The battle is set at twilight, with what appears to be a genuine tempest forming above the thin line of orange on the horizon. The models are obviously models, but they are beautifully made so as to match the picturesque (and yes, equally constructed) setting. Compared to the obvious models of more contemporary naval vessels in other movies of the ’50s and ’60s, there’s even a reasonable amount of realism in the triremes.

Even the interiors of the trireme, down below where the slaves propel these enormous ships with their oars, we get our best understanding of the heat and sweat and effort and pain when we get rows upon rows of shirtless men pulling. Individual looks at chained feet, perspiring faces, and fainting bodies feel obligatory as much as anything; we knew what we needed to know when the movie emphasized group suffering in the first place, and the suffering of individuals beyond Judah Ben-Hur is sad but passed over by the movie itself.

The movie chooses to make the irregular appearances of Jesus (the uncredited Claude Heater) an integral piece of its focus on distance, and it becomes more effective as the movie progresses. We never do see Jesus’ face, which I find entirely appropriate given how personal our imaginations become on the subject of his countenance. Instead we view him from behind, from below, from thousands of feet away. Our first glimpse of him comes as he wanders through the countryside; we keep a respectful distance, maybe fifty feet behind him, far enough away that someone trying to get his attention would have to raise their voice. We see his hands as he gives Judah a drink of water. We are positioned to see his face as he walks the Via Dolorosa, although his face is obscured by the crowds or by his hair. For a movie (based on a book) subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” it’s almost a little funny how little we catch of him. But Jesus and Judah are set up as character foils for Judah’s benefit. Where Jesus was a primarily peaceful man, Judah relishes the violence of a chariot race and occasionally prophesies the coming of an armed Israelite uprising against Rome. Where Jesus preaches a message of forgiveness, Judah is entirely given to his entirely reasonable grievances. And when Jesus preaches what we surmise to be the Sermon on the Mount, we can see the vast physical distance between them symbolizing the distance between their minds. Each one is visible to the other, but barely; this is where Wyler’s vision shines most.

Claude Heater, despite not having any lines or a face, for that matter, forces us to pay attention. Charlton Heston does so, more or less, although I think his teeth do most of the work for him. Jack Hawkins is good as Quintus Arrius, even if he’s really playing the same guy he played in all his other movies. Stephen Boyd, despite not having a whole lot to reckon with in Messala, is the MVP of the picture. Without him, this movie goes entirely off the rails. Interludes with Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) are just interludes. (Hugh Griffith has been thoroughly browned up for this role, rather like Heston was to play a Mexican in 1958’s Touch of Evil. Aside from the obvious inappropriateness of the makeup, it’s also deeply confusing. Why is Ilderim the only person who requires this sort of racial coding? It’s like proof that the filmmakers knew Jesus lived in the Middle East…and if Griffith has to deal with that makeup choice, why wouldn’t the rest of this equally white cast?) The three women the movie invests time in are a dead end as well, which is predictable but sad all the same. Esther (Harareet) is in love with Judah and he with her, although the movie doesn’t exactly bend over backwards to explain what a man’s slave sees in the man. Judah’s sister and mother, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) and Miriam (Martha Scott) are scenery until they’re lepers, and when they’re lepers they are a brick around the movie’s neck. It’s not that we don’t feel for them—the injustice that they suffer through is at least as great as what Judah suffers, and lacks the redemptive glamour of saving a consul from drowning—but that the movie really doesn’t have any idea what they would think about if they weren’t thinking about Judah. Suffice it to say it is a great waste of O’Donnell in particular, who is probably the best actor the movie had to work with.

Thus Messala, who provides the movie with the villain it needs to work. (Leprosy, alas, is not much of a villain.) When a piece of tile from the Ben-Hur estate has the bad fortune of slipping off the roof and nearly killing a Roman dignitary in front of half of Jerusalem, the Ben-Hur family is arrested posthaste. But Messala goes to inspect the roof and finds that the villa is crumbling from the top down; he knows that his childhood best friend (and, let’s be real here, the love of his life) is innocent. Yet he knows that keeping as influential a “patriot” as Judah around to foment dissatisfaction with Roman rule is career suicide, and so he turns away as the galleys and the deepest dungeons await. His death at the end of the movie’s justly famous chariot race forces the movie to break stride with what was otherwise a fairly satisfying plot, and denies us the chance to sink our teeth into a more cathartic conflict between Judah and Messala. Gladiator is not even as interesting a movie as Ben-Hur, but at least it had the sense to keep its primary antagonist alive for the majority of the movie, and so it gives us someone to get riled up about. Without Messala, the movie is shadowboxing.

For a movie that is as stately as Ben-Hur, at least it does have that chariot race, which is still thrilling cinema. Every inch of speed is made clear to us, and the danger of the race (and of the filing) is as real as those warships were fake. Watching dummies get run over by honest to goodness horses moving at honest to goodness gallops is terrifying because you have to remind yourself that those aren’t real people being trampled; it deserves that high praise for films which know they must fabricate and in so doing appear to make facsimiles. (Of recent movies, only one other comes to mind as having a similar effect on me, and that’s Mad Max: Fury Road.) In a little shy of ten minutes, the movie gives us all of the stimulation we could hope for in that time, using the chariot race as a way to give Judah and Messala their showdown ninety minutes before it would have been most effective. Indeed, the chariot race is the best part of the movie and also an instant dose of anticlimax. Even before Judah’s horses cross the finish line first, we know the movie cannot top this spectacle.

There’s a Sub Titles podcast episode about this movie’s queer subtext! If you’re interested in listening to that episode, click here.

3 thoughts on “Ben-Hur (1959)

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