Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.
-Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, to a seriously pissed-off Judah Ben-Hur.
Awesome, a word oft bandied about with little consideration for what it actually means and frequently applied to movies of dubious quality such as INDEPENDENCE DAY, TRANSFORMERS and the loathsome ARMAGEDDON. Well lemme tell ya, bunkie, you ain’t seen awesome until you’ve seen William Wyler’s 1959 epic-to-end-all-epics, the truly motherfucking awesome BEN-HUR. There were cinematic epics before and after BEN-HUR, including a silent version of the same story, but none of them stands as prominently in the hearts and minds of movie-lovers as this Charlton Heston landmark of widescreen spectacle. I’m a huge fan of the historical/biblical epic genre, and while I favor Cecil B. DeMille’s eye-popping and mind-blowing THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) I am only a certain type of hair away from ranking BEN-HUR as number one in the field (with SPARTACUS coming in as a close third). Believe me, I totally understand the point of view of those who hold it as the end-all, be-all of the form, and I understand it more fully after having had the pleasure of seeing it projected at Lincoln center yesterday afternoon with my Marvel Bullpen brother and dear friend Big Black Paul, a lover of classic cinema whose encyclopedic knowledge of movies far eclipses my own.
For those of you who somehow managed to miss it, BEN-HUR (subtitled “A Story of the Christ”) begins some twenty-six years after the birth of Jesus (which we witness during a pre-credits sequence) with the arrival of Messala (Stephen Boyd), the new Roman tribune of Jerusalem, at his new post. Assigned to quell the local dissidents, especially some pain-in-the-ass carpenter, Messala seeks the aid of his boyhood friend, wealthy merchant and local nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston in all his tooth-clenching, nostril-flaring glory).
The two meet with joy, but their happiness turns sour when Ben-Hur flat out refuses to betray his own people and fink on those who oppose the Empire’s stranglehold on Judea for the sake of Messala’s political career; the refusal shocks, disappoints and angers Messala, him having counted on unquestioning support from his former best friend and all (it’s also quite clearly alluded to that Messala considers his feelings for Ben-Hur to be a case of “unrequited love;” you could get away with such stuff back in the days, but you couldn’t have Messala plainly state, “Hey, Judah…Ever thought about riding me like the camel you always wanted for Hanukkah?”), so when an unfortunate accident nearly kills the Roman governor during a parade, Messala seizes the opportunity and has Ben-Hur and his family (his mom and sister, to be specific) arrested and thrown in jail, intending to make an example of Ben-Hur by proving he’s gotta be a hard-assed bastard if he’s willing to destroy the life of a close friend, thus scaring the locals into being good little Red Sea Pedestrians.
Ben-Hur’s life turns into a shitstorm of outright misery and awfulness as he’s sentenced to life as an oarsman on a Roman warship, a fate from which people simply do not return, but he vows to Messala’s face (through that famous snarl and gritted choppers) that he’s not only gonna return, but he’s also gonna hand Messala the ass-whuppin’ to end all ass-whuppin’s, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies it’s that if Charlton Heston expresses a desire to fuck you up, you’d damned well better dig a ditch and get the hell in. Messala however, not being around during an era that had the movies, did not learn this valuable life lesson, so he arrogantly waves Judah goodbye and sends him of to his considerably more than three-hour tour. But while making the tortuous march through the desert to the ship, Ben-Hur nearly succumbs to exhaustion and thirst and is shown kindness and given a drink of water by some unknown longhair in a dress whose face we never see, but we do hear a lot of “Aaaah aaaah aaaaah” churchy music, so it’s obvious that it’s the good ol’ Nazarene. In fact, J.C.’s so cool that he even scares off a whip-wielding centurion just by looking at the guy (that scene always cracks me up and comes off like a tough guy stare-down at a Fear show)!
Anyway, that dose of water — presumably infused with some of the Holy Spirit — rejuvenates Ben-Hur and gives him the strength to live, allowing him to survive and grow strong through over three years of rowing as a galley slaves (although I very much doubt the Prince of Peace would have been down with Ben-Hur carrying on solely so he could eventually plant his size thirteen sandal straight up a Roman pretty boy’s tuchas).
During his time in Rome Ben-Hur becomes a champion charioteer in the Circus Maximus (which we are told about rather than shown; I guess the movie was long enough already), but he must fulfill his quest and while on his way home he runs into Arab sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith, in a deservedly Oscar-winning role), a nomadic racing nut who owns a quartet of the most gorgeous horses you will ever see, and the two become pals when Ben-Hur offers his experienced eye in giving the sheik tips on how to maximize his horses’ racing potential. The sheik pleads with our hero to drive his team to victor in Rome, but Ben-Hur declines the offer in favor of finding out if his mother and sister are still alive, even after discovering he’d be racing against that douchebag Messala; the setup is simply perfect since during the race just about any amount of foul play and violence can be gotten away with, but our hero just has to find his folks.
Ben-Hur returns to Jerusalem, nearly giving Messala a heart attack when he strolls in looking like a million bucks after what was intended to be a death sentence, and demands to know the whereabouts of his family when he returns the next day (you’ve gotta see Messala during this bit; I kept looking to the floor for a golden puddle beneath his toga). His family is indeed alive, but they’d been forgotten for years and the filthy conditions of their tiny cell have caused them to contract leprosy. Rather than have him see them in such a wretched state, his mom and sis swear Ben-Hur’s “who cares” love interest, Esther (Haya Harareet), to silence as they leave to take up residence in the Valley of the Lepers. Esther tells Ben-Hur they’re dead, so he sets off to Rome to tale part in one of the most awesome (the term being properly used here) sequences in the entire history of world cinema, the Great Chariot Race, and finally exact his long-in-coming and hard-earned vengeance.
It at this point that the movie just plain goes completely berserk and the chariot race will blow your fucking mind, no two ways about it. In fact all of the genuinely spectacular stuff that litters the flick from start to finish is a visual smorgasbord, and you won’t be bored by any of it. Also in fact, this film is probably right at the top of the heap of flicks that proudly show just how little CGI really adds to contemporary movies. Other than a few matte paintings and a little bit of blue screen work, what you see onscreen is the physically extant performance of actual human beings, both actors and cinematic craftsmen, that brings the ancient world to completely believable and teeming life, and the scenes of marching troops and thronging crowds were real people, the audience for the chariot race including some eight-thousand (!!!) extras. That, along with its strong narrative, is what I mean by awesome, and if you ever get the chance to see BEN-HUR on the big screen you should under no circumstances miss its myriad wonders.
But there’s an interesting thing about this film, and that’s its stated purpose as a “story of the Christ.” When you get right down to brass tacks, it’s the story of one man’s burning hatred and his desire for vengeance against his former best friend, an extremely personal revenge story loaded with highly entertaining action and violence, and Jesus is almost an afterthought. Sure, his gift of water gives Ben-Hur the will to go on, which, if truth be told, is completely necessary for the plot, but after that J.C. is really only there to be sought by one of the wise men who attended the Nativity. Said wise man, Balthasar (Finlay Currie), runs into Ben-Hur a few times and tries to get him to listen to Jesus and put aside his need for violence, so I guess that small bit of good values is how they got away with so much in this film in 1959. It always felt to me that after the chariot race is over the film’s true narrative thrust is over and done, but the movie goes on for about another half hour as Ben-Hur finds his family aren’t dead and he and Esther try to get them to Jesus, only to arrive as he’s on his way to the crucifixion. Of course there’s the expected miracle cure for leprosy and happy endings all around, but it still feels to me like the filmmakers said, “Well, Messala’s dog food, so that’s that! Hey, wait a minute…. Oh, shit! Isn’t Jesus supposed to be in this movie? We’ve gotta shoot some more footage, pronto!”
Call me hard-hearted, but I never bought the romance between Ben-Hur and Esther, coming as it does from seemingly out of nowhere and evincing no trace of passion or chemistry whatsoever, nor did I care about Ben-Hur’s mom and sister; sure their being alive provides a feel-good ending, but to me this is all about Ben-Hur and Messala. But why am I splitting hairs? None of the classic epics are absolutely perfect, and BEN–HUR is one of the true classics of cinema, so I should just shut the fuck up. TRUST YER BUNCHE and see this one for yourself. Seriously, it’s one of the all-time greats and your movie education is sorely lacking for not having experienced it.