Exception

A.O. Scott‘s 50th anniversary appreciation of’ William Wyler‘s Ben-Hur (which actually opened 49 years and nine months ago, in November 1959) is a bit too gracious. Being the kind of film they don’t make any more doesn’t make it particularly special. What makes it special is Miklos Rosza‘s music. Eliminate the chariot race and it’s mainly a film that accompanies the score rather than vice versa.

On top of which Scott doesn’t address the central Ben-Hur conceit, used to sell stage and screen adaptations of Lew Wallace‘s book since the mid 1800s, that it’s “a tale of the Christ.” It’s actually a good revenge story — ambitious Roman guy screws over princely Jewish guy whom he loved on some homoerotic level as a child (and vice versa), Jewish guy survives years of incarceration, returns and beats Roman guy in a chariot race. Ben-Hur doesn’t exactly fall apart after the chariot race, but it’s certainly marking time.

  • http://fromthefrontrow.blogspot.com Matthew Lucas

    Thank you!

    I’ve never been a big fan of “Ben Hur.” The chariot race and music are certainly impressive, but I’ve always found the surrounding film to be a bit turgid.

  • TheCahuengaKid

    Re: Heston & co-star Haya Harareet…

    Loved Ben – hated her.

  • JohnCope

    “Ben-Hur doesn’t exactly fall apart after the chariot race, but it’s certainly marking time.”

    What? Only if you don’t give a shit about Ben-Hur’s other driving motivation: his sister and his mother. No matter how often I see it the final ascent up the stairs absolutely devastates me. Of course I can barely watch Sokurov’s Mother and Son for similar reasons.

  • CitizenKanedforChewingGum

    It’s not perfect, but I do enjoy the Ben-Hur…along with Spartacus and Schindler’s List, it was pretty much a staple at my Catholic H.S. around the holidays, when there were too many people absent to teach anything worthwhile.

    Also, anything A.O. Scott recommends, I’ll get onboard to at least attempt.

    Especially with the recent firings, there aren’t many intelligent and adventurous American critics remaining…he’s easily one of the best left standing.

  • Rich S.

    Well, since we all worship the Oscars around here, and it’s got 11 of ‘em, I’d say that makes it one of the three best movies ever made.

    Seriously, though, it’s Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in one of the great costume epics of all time. In addition to the chariot race, it also has the great sea battle, Jack Hawkins, guys in blackface and lots and lots of sweat. It’s not the perfect Velveeta that The Ten Commandments is, but it’s still pretty damn great.

  • Jeremy Fassler

    Ben Hur is not a great movie, but it’s hard not to enjoy it. I agree with Jeff–the score is hands down the best part.

  • Gaydos

    CitizenKanedfor ChewingGum: I especially dug this A.O. Scott shoutout of a few weeks ago –

    http://video.nytimes.com/video/2009/01/12/movies/1194836873951/critics-picks-two-lane-blacktop.html?scp=1&sq=blacktop&st=cse

  • http://lipranzer.blogspot.com lipranzer

    I don’t consider BEN-HUR a great movie, but it’s an honorable one – it and SPARTACUS are the only sword-and-sandal movies I can stand from that time period, because they avoid the Cecil B. DeMille route of trying to show sinful behavior and then lecture us on enjoying it, and there’s a minimum of howlers in the dialogue. BEN-HUR has taste and craftsmanship (while SPARTACUS has irony and intelligence), rare qualities in most big-budget spectaculars from Hollywood, then and now. And yes, the chariot race is exciting, and the gay subtext is handled well without being leering. Of course, I’m not a big fan of Heston in general, and I’m not a fan here, except in the scenes where he shows off his athletic prowess. Certainly, in a year of great performances by James Stewart (ANATOMY OF A MURDER), Jack Lemmon (SOME LIKE IT HOT), Laurence Harvey (ROOM AT THE TOP), among others, Heston didn’t deserve the Best Actor Oscar, nor does the film itself deserve the Best Picture Oscar, especially the year Hollywood produced three of its greatest entertainments (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, RIO BRAVO, SOME LIKE IT HOT). But again, it’s a decent film that holds up for the most part.

  • CitizenKanedforChewingGum

    Nice, Gaydos.

    A.O. is really quite good. He’ll go out on a limb sometimes for his recommendations, and I fucking love him for it.

  • Edward

    “The great sea battle” Rich S? Maybe it was great in it’s time, but looking at it today it’s laughably bad, it’s so obvious they’re models. I loved it in it’s day, but it really hasn’t aged well.

  • Marty Melville

    Heston winning over Lemmon’s stupefyingly wonderful turn in Some Like It Hot is risible… and Ben-Hur taking it over either SLIH or North By Northwest is nonsensical.

    But the chariot race and that extraordinary shot near the end tracking the blood flowing from the cross into the river as Rosza’s music climbs the mountain could make anyone a believer.

    By the way, it’s cool that these video “reviews” can cut to actual movie clips… but they seem to reduce actual critical evaluation to commentary not far removed from Ben Lyons’ premature ejaculations in their… simplicity. I’d much rather read an essay by Scott than hear him “simplify” for a three minute sound bite.

  • Markj74

    Edward: Who cares of it has aged well or not? You have to appreciate it for when it was made, not 50 years later. it’s certainly more compelling than all that CG garbage in the Pirates of the Carribean films.

  • Rich S.

    Edward: you want to see a lousy sea battle? Check out the Battle of Actium in Cleopatra, which was done in large part with real ships. It’s excruciatingly slow and the tension of whether Antony will win or not never develops.

    Contrast that with the great scenes in Ben Hur on board the ships with the slaves laboring at the oars. And, yes, a lot of the greatness of that scene comes from Rosza’s incredible “duh-DUH-duh-duh” music.

    Old special effects never both me. I can almost always suspend my disbelief sufficiently to put them in context. As markj points out, old special effects show a lot more ingenuity and craft than simply programming a computer.

  • markj

    Edward: Who cares of it has aged well or not? You have to appreciate it for when it was made, not 50 years later. it’s certainly more compelling than all that CG garbage in the Pirates of the Carribean films.

  • raygo

    Heston and Ben Hur winning Oscars, much like the wins for Russell Crowe and Gladiator, remain a puzzling conundrum of the Oscars.

  • bluefugue

    In addition to the chariot race and the galley sequence, I like the brief scenes in Rome (they feel much more colorful and alive to me than comparable scenes in Gladiator), and I have always liked the bit where Judah, returning to his homeland, stretches out under a tree for a nap and is visited by Balthazar. I like the scene for itself, but also for the way it denotes a pause in the midst of a long, epic structure. These quiet, slow moments often make epic movies feel like they truly have a breadth that regular-length pictures can’t match.

    Wyler also makes some good directorial choices in the depiction of Christ, whose face we never see, but whose divinity is reflected in the reaction of others toward him. In particular, I think of the Roman centurion who is driving Judah’s prisoner gang and turns to say something to Jesus, and is suddenly struck mute. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more effective bit of Jesus-mythologizing on film. It’s a textbook example of how, in film, reactions to a thing are generally more important than the thing itself. This is a rule heavily overused by Spielberg, but its essential effectiveness remains.

    Ben-Hur is far from a great film, and is overshadowed by more mature period epics from the ’60s (Spartacus, Man for All Seasons, Beckett, Lion in Winter). But it has its merits.

  • Monument

    Do you guys have any sense of perspective at all? Ben-Hur at the time was an absolute epic, the chariot race alone assures it’s legendary status. North by Northwest is great, so is Some Like it Hot, but it isn’t hard at all to see why Ben-Hur won the Oscar. You’re the same people that still hold a grudge about Dances with Wolves beating out Goodfellas.

  • Dan Revill

    I’ve seen the movie quite a few times over the course of my life. It never ceases to move me. I can appreciate the homo-erotic subtext and the revenge story, but they’re not the point.

    I’ve read the novel also, and it’s pretty straight forward. I think that if you discount it’s subtitle of “A Tale of the Christ” you are not honouring one of the more powerful themes, which is redemption and forgiveness. The whole point in Christianity of the Cross is for those two things in relation to the sins of people. Even when Judah has his revenge on Messala, he doesn’t revel in it. In fact he sees how pathetic it really is. He’s able to forgive the man he had sworn revenge upon. If anything, the only person Judah has a problem in forgiving is himself…and I think that’s probably true for a lot of people.

    All that being said, it’s a fantastic film and while it may not be Lawrence of Arabia, I still dig it.

  • Aladdin Sane

    I’ve seen the movie quite a few times over the course of my life. It never ceases to move me. I can appreciate the homo-erotic subtext and the revenge story, but they’re not the point.
    I’ve read the novel also, and it’s pretty straight forward. I think that if you discount it’s subtitle of “A Tale of the Christ” you are not honouring one of the more powerful themes, which is redemption and forgiveness. The whole point in Christianity of the Cross is for those two things in relation to the sins of people. Even when Judah has his revenge on Messala, he doesn’t revel in it. In fact he sees how pathetic it really is. He’s able to forgive the man he had sworn revenge upon. If anything, the only person Judah has a problem in forgiving is himself…and I think that’s probably true for a lot of people.
    All that being said, it’s a fantastic film and while it may not be Lawrence of Arabia, I still dig it.

  • Edward

    I have to say that I saw Ben Hur when it was first released and thought it was the greatest film I had ever seen at that point. I watched some of it a few years ago on AMC (not the greatest place to see anything) and was surprised by how dated it seemed. Yes, it is far superior to any of the Pirate movies and there are some great things in it, but I had trouble watching it as a mature adult. Maybe it’s me, but it’s not as great as it once seemed.

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