"This year, I made the picture that may or may not be the best I'll ever make, but it'll certainly either press me into the thin, airless reaches where the supernovas drift or demonstrate conclusively that my orbit is a different one. ... Whether the film I made turns out to be memorable or not, I know the year we spent making it will be...and Rome will mark us all forever."
December 31, 1958, entry in his production journal
When it was released in 1959, the New York Times declared William Wyler’s Ben-Hur “by far, the most stirring of the Bible-fiction epics”; an accolade richly deserved. For Ben-Hur was, and remains, an untouchable among screen classics – a huge thing, full of lusty, iconic performances and glittering spectacle; in hindsight, the culmination of everything Hollywood had learned about crafting the Roman epic since it first endeavored to bring such resplendence to the silver screen back in silent era. It is a film that goes well beyond the mere quality a titanic budget of $15 million (then, the largest ever allotted a single picture) could deliver, or even a studio’s sweaty-palmed blind faith in its director. A familial saga of Biblical proportions – literally; Ben-Hur was well worth all the colossal backstage machinations it took to will it into existence. Setting aside the brouhaha over screenwriting credit (the official nod to Karl Tunberg challenged by Wyler, as, at intervals Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal, Maxwell Anderson and S.N. Behrman all had their crack chiseling away at the adaptation), the picture throbs with a striking sense of contemporary exoticism and raw human emotion – the latter, affectionately dubbed ‘the Wyler touch’ and cutting through Edward C. Carfagno and William A. Horning’s impeccable art direction, superbly photographed by Robert Surtees and immeasurably complimented by Miklós Rózsa’s exhilarating score. “I often wonder what we could achieve if only there were more time,” Rózsa would later suggest. Indeed, scoring this almost 3 ½ hr. sundrenched behemoth in a little under two months was nothing short of a Herculean task.
But the makers of Ben-Hur need not have concerned themselves with such statistical details unfolding half way around the world far away from Culver City. Even before the world premiere, the rough cuts viewed back home already confirmed Ben-Hur as one of the finest films yet made; Wyler – a humanist, at heart – plying his craft to a peerless roster of professionals toiling in front of and behind the camera; populating a full-sized recreation of the infamous Circus Maximus with 60,000 extras: just one of the many modern marvels achieved. Arguably, Ben-Hur is renowned, and will always be remembered, for its chariot race – fifteen minutes of exhilaration arguably unparalleled in the history of movies, still a mesmerizing feat in full-scale stunt work, largely staged by second unit director, Yakima Canutt. Canutt, who began his career as a bronco buster at the tender age of eleven, then bit player in the silent era with a penchant for doing his own stunts, eventually became one of the most celebrated Hollywood stuntmen of his generation; his death-defying leap off a runaway carriage, pulled by six horses, in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) turning heads and stomachs simultaneously; an early feat Canutt would continue to use as his calling card during a long and illustrious career.
For Ben-Hur, Canutt put both Charlton Heston and co-star, Stephen Boyd through the paces as proper Roman charioteers. And although, Heston did as told – and became very accomplished during the five months of rehearsals – as time drew nearer the actual shooting of this colossal sequence, the star had his misgivings. “Chuck,” Wyler reportedly explained, “Just you stay in the chariot, I guarantee you’re going to win the damn race!” One of the most impressive aspects about the chariot race is that it is all full-scale; Heston and Boyd doing almost all of their own racing; Canutt, cheating only periodically for the more dangerous stunts, using his son, stuntman, Joe Canutt, as Heston’s double. This proved a blessing when one of the maneuvers called for Heston’s chariot to jump another ahead of it. Disobeying his father’s advice, Joe Canutt loosened the reins, the extra slack causing him to fly over the chariot’s safety rail, narrowly averting serious injury. Not wanting to let a good stunt go to waste – even moreover, a happy ‘accident’ that looked spectacular on film – Wyler had Heston perform the tail end of the same stunt in close-up; a reverse shot to convincingly suggest he had been the one to go over the embankment.
Remarkably, Heston had not been Wyler’s first, nor even second choice to play the part. Names bandied about included every major star of the day, from Paul Newman to Rock Hudson; Burt Lancaster to Marlon Brando – the latter, I do concede, likely just as good as Heston in the part; having already broken free of his ‘great mumbler’ status as Mark Antony in Joseph Mankiewicz’s gripping big screen adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1953). But Wyler was sincerely stumped in casting the lead until his wife suggested he had already worked with the perfect actor to fill Ben-Hur’s formidable acting requirements. Charlton Heston began life as a nude male model to pay his way through school; the acting bug biting early and sticking with him throughout many an early professional setback. By the mid-fifties, Heston had built up enviable acting credits, including two pictures for preeminent director and Paramount cofounder, Cecil B. DeMille: as the caustic circus manager in 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth and Moses in 1956’s The Ten Commandments. Miraculously, not even this latter excursion into antiquity was enough for Wyler to sit up and take notice. But Wyler had had the good sense – and even greater fortune – to see what Chuck Heston was all about firsthand, teaming up to make The Big Country together in 1958. The picture, rightfully regarded as a classic western today, was not a success when it premiered. But Heston made an indelible impression on Wyler.
Today, Heston’s career has been blackened by the pall of his conservative political views as well as his support for the NRA. But, for a time, and quite simply without question, at least, in retrospect, and in my estimation, Charlton Heston remains a very tough act to follow; his ability to play larger-than-life figures – from historical to saintly – as people first, with a mind and a soul, has been too readily overlooked by his contemporary critics and even more easily – and regrettably – discounted by many reviewing his body of work today. Heston could perhaps see the writing on the wall for this archetypal renaissance man of action, commenting in 1989, “More and more we see films made that diminish the American experience and example…sometimes, trashing it completely.” How progressively truer still since Heston’s passing – and, indeed; how utterly, clairvoyantly tragic. And yet, merely landing the title role in Ben-Hur did not guarantee Heston his success in the picture. In fact, only two weeks into the shoot, Wyler pulled Heston aside to suggest “You gotta be better in this part, Chuck.” When Heston inquired ‘how’ he might improve, Wyler simply bowed his head, shrugged his shoulders and walked away, leaving Heston anxious, but even more determined to give the old master what he wanted. I will simply go on record with, it is a very brave man who can don a toga with laurels in his hair, or sport a breast-plate and Caesar haircut, and not come across as effete and/or ineffectually compromised under the weight of such period costuming. To anyone questioning this assessment, consider Paul Newman’s feeble attempts in similar garb in The Silver Chalice (1954) – a major blemish on his career, and one that caused the actor to publicly remark, “Never again will I appear in a picture where I am expected to act in a cocktail dress!” Yet, Heston has always been at home living in these past lives of proud men imbued with a sense of honor not of their time and writing their own destiny with an uncompromising vision for the future.
More or less, the rest of the cast fell into place by happy accident. Israeli actress, Haya Harareet, whose career was short-lived, though nevertheless memorable, proved an exotic servant girl, as Esther. Despite a very good screen test, Leslie Nielsen forfeited the role of Messala to Irishman, Stephen Boyd; an enigmatic baddie whose blue eyes had to be masked by contact lenses after Wyler suddenly realized all of the olive-skinned ‘Romans’ were cast with non-Mediterranean blue-eyed actors. Martha Scott, who had previously played Heston’s mother in The Ten Commandments, once again assumed the role of matriarch, despite the fact she was only eleven years Heston’s senior. Family nepotism played its part in the casting of Judah’s kid-sister, Tirza; a role appropriated by Wyler’s niece, Cathy O’Donnell and imbued with a rare virginal naiveté. Welsh character actor, Hugh Griffith would win Best Supporting Oscar as the heavily pancaked and equally as lusty Sheik Ilderim; with other noted supporting parts going to Jack Hawkins (the enigmatic Naval General, Quintus Arrias), Findlay Currie (as one of the surviving wise men, Balthasar, in search of the adult Christ) and Aussie, Frank Thring (a venomous, Pontius Pilate).
That Ben-Hur became the most-honored of all Oscar recipients (an accolade it well deserved and one it would continue to hold the record for – with 11 wins, including Best Picture – until James Cameron’s Titanic 1997 tied it) is a testament to every level of craftsmanship poured into the picture’s creation; time-honored practices, as much a part of that ancient flower in old Hollywood under the last gasp of the studio system, as a crowning post-war achievement for Cinecittà; Rome’s preeminent studio, built under the auspices of Benito Mussolini’s fascism; renown as ‘the home’ of Federico Fellini and other Italian neo-realists, but increasingly a hub for international productions, eager to capitalize on its cheaper labor and Italy’s tax incentives. By the mid-fifties, so many American movies were being shot at Cinecittà, the studio had earned the moniker, ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. Staggering were the figures trumpeted by Metro’s PR department: 14,000 cubic feet of lumber, 14,000 tons of white sand trekked in from Mediterranean beaches, a million pounds of plaster and two-hundred and fifty miles of metal tubing alone going into the construction of the Circus Maximus. Equally as impressive; Elizabeth Haffenden’s costuming, employing a veritable army of 100 seamstresses and leathersmiths to create 142 costume changes for the principles alone, to say nothing of the more than 80,000 costumes needed for crowd scenes. As Wyler and his crew arrived in Rome with a lavish glad-handing to promote the picture to the Italian press, only one thing was missing: the script. Over the decades, MGM had acquired no less than forty adaptations on which the studio now expected Wyler to simply ‘piece together’ his masterpiece. Alas, none of the aforementioned satisfied the director.
Today, many forget Ben-Hur had already been made once before, as a gargantuan silent screen colossus, begun for Samuel Goldwyn, but ultimately inherited by Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and, the newly amalgamated MGM, directed by Fred Niblo in 1925. Even before this early cinematic incarnation, Ben-Hur thrilled audiences in a series of lavishly appointed stage productions presented by Broadway impresarios, Klaw and Erlanger, utilizing conveyor belts and live horses for the climactic chariot race. The brainchild of Civil War veteran, successful attorney at law, and, Governor of New Mexico, Gen. Lew Wallace, in hindsight Ben-Hur is an ingenious re-purposing of the crucifixion, climatically used as the backdrop for this fictional tale. Wallace, a highly moral man, intended Judah Ben-Hur’s plight to parallel that of the Christ. In fact, the novel – as well as the film’s full title is ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’; more than a little apocryphal, since only twice do the paths of this defrocked Judean prince, betrayed in his boyhood friendship to the newly appointed tribune, Messala, cross with the likes of Jesus of Nazareth. The 1925 version of Ben-Hur, while cheered to the rafters by audiences, had been an unmitigated disaster for Niblo, once again shooting in Italy on full scale sets, resulting in injuries, the death of several horses, and, at least two documented near death experiences for the picture’s star, Ramón Novarro; a largely forgotten matinee idol today, more infamously recalled for his own grotesque murder in 1968 (asphyxiated with a lead phallus – a present given to Novarro by Rudolph Valentino) by a pair of gay hustlers.
By comparison, Wyler’s 1959 remake had an almost spotless safety record; save one oversight during an early run-through of the chariot race when at least, six teams of horse and riders slammed into one of the large MGM Camera-65 cameras mounted onto a platform; effectively destroying a fairly expensive piece of equipment, though mercifully, without any animal or human casualties. Wyler likely felt the blood-pressure levels rising on the Culver City backlot, as MGM, now under the command of Joseph Vogel, had already begun to suffer from the first obvious death throws that, by 1960, would mortally cripple the company. Indeed, L.B. Mayer would not witness these ‘glories of ancient Rome imprimatur; ousted from his seat of power in 1950 and dead of leukemia by 1957 – the year his successor, Dore Schary, was deposed. But there was little anyone managing the company either in California, or tugging at the purse strings in New York could do about Wyler, who continued to shoot at a breakneck pace, his supremacy behind the camera as a master storyteller left virtually unchallenged. And then, of course, there is the ‘Wyler touch’. One of Hollywood’s most respected and eclectic film makers by the time he agreed to helm Ben-Hur, Wyler’s fascination with the project stemmed from an innate curiosity. “I wanted to see if I could make a Cecil B. DeMille’ picture.” Moreover, the director was equally as intrigued by the prospect of doing something new with the conventions of the Bible-fiction epic. Throughout the 1950s, others had delved into antiquity, yet always with a rather stifling reverence to these ancient texts, resulting in a highly static series of moving tableaus – perhaps fearful, anything less than strict adherence to blind faith would infuriate purists and religious scholars alike.
By contrast, Ben-Hur is a deliberate departure from these time-honored precepts. The characters who inhabit Karl Tunberg’s screenplay are flesh and blood; earthy, lustful and flawed. Likely, Gen. Wallace would not have agreed with this contemporizing slant; his purpose in writing the novel, and, the social mores carried over from its turn of the century trappings into the 1925 silent epic, telescopically focused on Judah’s conversion to Christianity. Determined to achieve a more secular appeal, Wyler’s 1959 remake greatly tempers this epiphany; the bulk of the narrative centered on an adult betrayal of boyhood friendship, so described by Gore Vidal as a ‘lover’s quarrel’ between two lifelong friends, Judah (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd). In later years, Wyler would staunchly deny even the hint of an improper homoerotic relationship between Judah and Messala. Nevertheless, Vidal’s writing of the famous ‘confrontation’ sequence, in which Judah spurns Messala’s inquiry to get him to betray his people, for ‘ole time’s sake’ is undeniably fraught with inklings of a deeper understanding between these two butch Johns; one determined to make the other beg for redemption, his heart irrevocably turned to stone. Alas, Gore Vidal and Wyler were to have a bit of a falling out after Vidal walked off the project, having heavily re-written Karl Tunberg’s original prose right up to the chariot race. Calling in British playwright, Christopher Fry to pick up the pieces, Wyler would later go to bat for both Fry and Vidal to share co-authorship screen credit. Alas, arbitration with the Writer’s Guild eventually settled on the rather erroneous sole credit afforded to Tunberg; a decision Wyler publicly attacked in Variety and other Hollywood trade publications to make Fry and Vidal’s contributions on the picture known. The result: although Tunberg was Oscar-nominated for Ben-Hur he did not win the award.
Ben-Hur is immeasurably blessed by ‘the Wyler touch’ – the director’s uncanny knack for extracting poignancy from the personal, rather than the awe-inspiring. Unquestionably, Ben-Hur has plenty of both to go around; from its opening ‘star of Bethlehem/birth of Christ’ sequence to its thrilling sea battle and exhilarating showdown in the Circus Maximus, the remake is nothing short of a mighty achievement. Yet, it is firmly anchored in Heston and Boyd’s girded performances; the former, withstanding martyrdom to his people, the latter, destroyed by his insidious devotion to Rome – herein, represented as a corrupting influence on its citizenry. The most readily criticized sequence in Ben-Hur is the sea battle; shot in a vast tank at Cinecittà with very large miniatures, navigated on various collision courses, towed by underwater tracks. At least two full-scale mockup barges were built for the closer combat battle sequences. Perhaps, the old regime at Metro was still reeling from its nerve-racking recollections of the similar battle sequence in the 1925 original; real sea-faring vessels set upon the sea; their lit oil drums, fanned by a strong coastal breeze, causing two of the ships to be engulfed by fire while frantic extras – many unable to swim – nevertheless, hurled themselves into the deep and choppy waters to escape their own incineration. None of that in the 1959 remake; and none of the visceral excitement generated for most of the above deck action photographed in long shot; Wyler, once again proving his capacity as an expert in the medium by cutting to tight shots for the hand-to-hand combat set against rear projection to offset these shortcomings.
Our story concerns Judah Ben-Hur – a Jewish prince, reunited with his boyhood friend, Messala after a period of some years apart. Messala has just been made a Roman tribune, assigned to oversee the management of the Province of Judea; known for its radicals against the state. Judah assumes that with Messala’s return, their adolescent friendship may be rekindled. Alas, Rome has changed Messala. More than ever, he is ruthlessly determined to etch a career for himself out of making a fanatical success of this appointment. Hitherto this endeavor, Messala expects Judah to betray his people for the sake of their friendship; to point out to him the troublemakers, thereby acting as a stoolie for the government. This, Judah categorically refuses to do. When a tile falls from the house of Hur, striking the newly appointed Roman governor, Messala seizes upon the opportunity to make an example of Judah and his family to assert his authority over the province. He imprisons Judah’s mother, Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister, Tirza (Cathy O’Donnell) in the Citadel where they later contract leprosy. He also exiles Judah to a seemingly endless pit of despair as a chained slave oarsman inside one of Rome’s warships; a hell from which it is presumed he will never return. Yet, on his fateful trek through the desert, Judah, having collapsed from heat exhaustion, is given water and the strength of his convictions by a compassionate Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, Judah’s faithful servant Simonides (superbly realized by Sam Jaffe) rushes to his master’s defense, along with his daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet), whom Judah had earlier set free from her bond to the house of Hur as a wedding present after her betrothal to a never seen traveling merchant. Alas, Messala’s revenge knows no boundaries. He imprisons Simonides merely for his association to the house of Hur, leaving Esther to fend for herself in the abandoned ruins of the once great and prosperous household. Judah’s slave galley is presided over by a harsh commander, Quintus Arrias (fiery, Jack Hawkins). After an epic sea battle sinks much of the armada and also the vessel on which they are both sailing, Judah saves Arrias from drowning aboard a makeshift raft; later, preventing the old campaigner from taking his own life because he naturally assumes his defeat is a disgrace. Sometime later, however, the pair are rescued and taken aboard another Roman galley. Humbled, Arrias is informed, although his ship was indeed lost, the armada was nevertheless victorious over its foe. Arrias returns to Rome to be decorated by the Emperor. His gratitude genuine, Arrias insists Judah accompany him through the streets in a lavish processional. Shortly thereafter, Arrias petitions Tiberius Caesar (George Relph) to pardon Judah for his ‘crimes against the state’. As permission is granted, Arrias now holds a lavish house party for the gentry to announce his decision to adopt Judah as his son.
Judah is made a Roman citizen. But his heart is still bent on avenging the injustices he has endured; also, to learn what has become of his mother and sister in the intervening years. Now on equal footing with his arch nemesis, Judah confronts Messala. Unprepared for Judah’s inquiry, Messala soon learns Miriam and Tirza have become lepers while enduring the dank conditions in the Citadel. The women are exiled to the Valley of the Lepers, returning a short while later to the house of Hur where Esther is presently residing. Sworn to secrecy by Miriam over their predicament, Esther lies to Judah that Miriam and Tirza are dead. Alas, Judah now vows to destroy Messala, a downward spiral into hate. While travelling abroad, Judah meets Balthasar (Findlay Currie) – one of the three wise men in search of the adult Christ – and Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), a fiery Arab, training a team of white stallions to race in the Circus Maximus. Judah and Balthasar accept the Sheik’s gracious invitation to dine and hospitality at his camp. Ilderim is most impressed with Judah’s command of the horses and suggests to him that both their purposes might be best served if Judah agrees to be his charioteer in the Circus against Messala’s black Roman stallions.
Judah accepts the challenge. But Balthasar cautions there are many paths to God – revenge, alas, not being one of them. Judah and Messala race to the death inside the Circus. Despite employing every underhanded trick to secure his victory, Messala’s chariot is destroyed during a perilous hairpin turn; Messala, trampled to death beneath the hooves of an advancing chariot. Before he dies, Messala confides in Judah. Miriam and Tirza are disfigured exiles residing in the Valley of the Lepers; thereby ensuring Judah’s hate for him will endure long after his death. Against Esther’s strenuous objections, Judah seeks out his mother and sister in this desolate valley. Having already experienced a religious conversion through Christ’s teachings, Esther implores Judah to listen to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; also, to take Miriam and Tirza to the city to experience his miraculous healing. Regrettably, their pilgrimage comes too late. The newly appointed Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) has decreed Jesus to be crucified. Judah and his family arrive just in time to witness the spectacular degradation of the Christ, paraded through the streets as a common criminal, bearing the excruciating weight of the cross on which he is to be crucified, his brow bowed by a bloody crown of thorns. Knowing nothing of the Christ, Judah nevertheless recognizes Jesus as the man who gave him water along the desert road so very long ago.
After Jesus falters on his journey, Judah rushes to his aid, attempting to reciprocate his act of kindness, only to be forcibly restrained by a Roman Centurion. Esther, Miriam and Tirza begin the arduous trip back home. But Judah follows the procession from the city where he witnesses firsthand the crucifixion, along with Balthasar. Aside: if for no other reason, Charlton Heston deserved his Best Actor statuette for this singular moment; his eyes welling with controlled, yet tormented tears; his panged facial expression caught between a child-like bewilderment and abject adult sense of horror and disbelief. On the road home, darkness falls. A violent storm shatters this artificial night sky, forcing Esther, Miriam and Tirza to seek refuge inside a nearby cave. As thunder and lightning tear apart the heavens, mother and daughter experience a miraculous restoration of their flesh. Drained of all bitterness, Judah returns home to discover his mother and sister cured of their earthly ailment. Ben-Hur concludes with a shepherd leading his flock past the hill where Christ’s body once clung to the cross; a groundswell of Rosza’s uplifting score soaring to new heights as the screen fades to black.
Ben-Hur was only one of two features shot in the studio’s patented MGM Camera 65. An ultra-wide anamorphic 65/70mm precursor to modern-day Panavision, MGM Camera 65 and its immeasurable contributions on Ben-Hur bear some brief discussion herein. In essence, the print dimensions of Camera 65 are identical to traditional Todd-AO with a 1.33:1 anamorphic squeeze added in shooting, later reversed in projection to create a dramatic 2.94:1 image on the screen. Essentially, Camera 65 was MGM’s response to other widescreen formats the studio considered inferior, though nevertheless embraced to compete in the widescreen race throughout the early 1950’s: Cinemascope – with its inherent horizontal stretching (affectionately known as ‘the mumps’) also, marred by a slight warping along the farthest edges of the screen; and Todd A-O – its’ non-standard 30 frames per second preventing duplication of reduction prints in standard 24 frames per second in Cinemascope for the smaller markets’ general release prints. The die for this new process was cast when MGM’s Chief of Research and Development, Douglas Shearer, approached Panavision President, Robert Gottschalk, with a query to create a new ‘hi-def’ system with enough information on its 65mm negative to extract a superior 3-strip Cinerama work print, but also produce an exceptionally high quality 35mm reduction print as well as a true 70mm derivative, complete with six tracks of stereophonic sound.
The endeavor would prove costly, Metro providing Gottschalk with unprecedented access to their development labs to make the necessary tests. In the end, both parties could boast success of a kind; MGM achieving a rare clarity on the screen that truly set Ben-Hur’s production apart from virtually all but one other; Panavision using the knowledge gleaned from these experiments to launch their own 35mm anamorphic process. The first movie shot in the new process, 1957’s Raintree County, and its implosion at the box office did not bode well for the future of MGM Camera 65. But on Ben-Hur, the rechristened Ultra-Panavision unequivocally lived up to those high standards Shearer imposed on Gottshalk’s organization. Given the ‘newness’ of the process, one is even more impressed by William Wyler’s command of its ultra-wide proportions. Indeed, if we are to take Vincente Minnelli blunt sarcasm that Cinemascope’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio “is only good for photographing snakes and funeral processions” to heart, then Wyler’s compositions on this infinitely wider 2.94:1 canvas are nothing short of breathtaking. While a good many ‘widescreen’ movies from this vintage are understandably enamored with the proportions of the screen, Wyler’s instructions to cinematographer, Robert Surtees treat the more expansive screen its more standardized predecessors: the results – complete involvement between the audience and the image; an emersion with excellent use of close-ups (often feared in Cinemascope) to punctuate dramatic uncertainty and/or highlight a thoughtful moment of genuine human emotion.
In accepting his Best Actor statuette, on Oscar night, star, Charlton Heston reserved his most heartfelt thanks for producer, Sam Zimbalist – the man who had championed making the movie in the executive boardroom at a time when MGM could scarcely afford to take such a grand risk. For Zimbalist, Ben-Hur was his second trip to, arguably, the same well; Zimbalist responsible for MGM’s staggering investment in Quo Vadis (1950); the toga party that kicked off Hollywood’s second coming of the Bible-fiction epic. But in 1958, the studio was still reeling from the disastrous implosion of 1957’s southern epic, Raintree County (the film that ended Dore Schary’s brief reign at the studio with a decidedly sour thud). Metro increasingly teetered on the brink of complete financial ruin, thanks to its inability to change with the times. And Zimbalist’s proposal had all the ear-markings of either becoming a phenomenal hit or the picture that would close MGM’s doors for good. What to do? The charismatic Zimbalist pressed on and won his cause. He would remain Ben-Hur’s guiding hand until a fatal heart attack midway through production; remembered on Oscar night by Heston, as the man who “gave more than any of us”, and, tragically, did not live to see the fruits of his labors come to be celebrated.
Ben-Hur’s release, at a particularly precarious financial period in MGM’s history, was offset by its monumental box office intake and by the overwhelming accolades bestowed upon the picture that helped catapult it into the hall of fame as an overnight classic. “All that would have been a parking lot if Ben-Hur hadn’t performed as it did,” Charlton Heston would later comment. Even more impressive, at least in retrospect, is William Wyler’s deft handling of the more religious moments in the picture. As stated earlier, Ben-Hur is curiously not ‘a tale of the Christ’ – Wyler applying due diligence and a modicum of mystery to Claude Heater – the actor portraying Jesus (only glimpsed from behind; his face kept a secret from the audience; his impact on the characters in the movie played in silence with the camera pausing to focus on their reactions towards him). Ultimately, Wyler’s approach would prove far more effective than the reincarnation of Christ as actor, Jeffrey Hunter in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961); unceremoniously panned and given the moniker, ‘I was a Teenage Jesus’ by the critics. Ben-Hur’s overwhelming financial and critical success managed to stave off the specter of financial ruin for the studio. Moreover, it did much to elevate MGM’s sagging reputation as ‘the king of features’. Alas, there was also backlash to this heady success; chiefly incurred by the blindsided-ness of executives and mismanagement of huge sums of money poured into several ‘landmark’ pictures made throughout the 1960’s. More often than not, these weighty tomes failed to earn back their initial investment and, once more, put a terrific strain on the studio’s ability to procure and produce even more lavishly appointed entertainments.
Even so, like the studio’s acquisition and re-issue of Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939), in the many lean years to follow, Ben-Hur would remain a benchmark of excellence virtually all could look back upon with considerable pride. Today, Ben-Hur continues to rank among the ‘top ten’ on many critics’ lists of all-time greatest movies ever made. Such accolades, while superficial, and, in no great way the barometer of any picture’s greatness, nevertheless speak well of its enduring popularity and appeal. Arguably, Ben-Hur ushered in a new approach to making big screen epics, more equally balanced in story and action. And, at least for a time, its’ success ensured more valiant attempts in the genre would continue to be made. Yet, Ben-Hur stands in a class apart from the rest, mostly as a testament to William Wyler, Charlton Heston and MGM’s blind faith, wholly committed to making ‘good pictures’ far surpassing, as well as setting the standard. Though not readily resurrected as a Christmas classic, Ben-Hur decidedly gets my vote as one of the more easily digestible and emphatically entertaining movies about Christianity, perhaps because Christianity itself was never the intended focus of the movie. Regardless, here is one hell of a great story to hold the mind captive while gingerly tugging at the heartstrings. Movie art in any genre is rare; in the Hollywood epic – arguably, almost impossible to achieve without the bloat of squandered monies turning up to eclipse the storytelling with a spellbinding blast of spectacle. Wyler’s movie remains the exception to this rule; carefully nuanced and expertly played. It should be seen and seen again by every man, woman and child; for it speaks to a higher code of ethics, appealing to both the devout and non-secular alike and does so without ever devolving into camp or preaching from the pulpit. A good story is a good story – period…and Ben-Hur is one of the best.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is flawless. The 1080p hi-def image is lush and spectacular, yielding a palette of vibrant colors and a spectacular amount of fine detail throughout. A meticulous frame-by-frame restoration has eradicated virtually all age-related artefacts. The image is smooth and clean. Gorgeous doesn’t begin to describe this visual presentation. The audio is 5.1 DTS with a bombastic bass. Miklos Rosza’s score is the outstanding benefactor here. Warner gives us a handsome packaging of extras including the exclusively produced ‘Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur’ feature length documentary with interviews from family and friends to provide a personal back story to the making of the film. The rest of the extras are all imports from previous DVD incarnations and include; Ben-Hur: The Film That Changed Hollywood, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, and Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures – a sort of music video-esque travelogue through a series of still images set to Rosza’s underscoring. There are also outtakes and screen tests, the 1929 silent version of the movie (alas, only presented in 720p), an audio commentary, and theatrical trailers. Warner’s padded bling includes a hardcover booklet with stills and factoid information, as well as a reproduction of the original shooting schedule diary with Heston’s footnotes included. Bottom line: Ben-Hur is a film with few – if any – equals. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf. It is a must have, must see experience.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)