BEN-HUR (1959)

Ben_hur_1959_posterThis film came with a reputation – of being, shall we say, a lot. I had never seen Ben-Hur and part of why I delayed watching it was that I knew it would be long. Also, my completist partner in crime wanted to not just watch one version – no, we chose to watch THREE. This included the 1959 film this blog is about, the 1925 silent film, of which the ‘59 film was essentially a remake, and a fifteen minute short from the early 1900s. 

I can truly say I got a good sense for Ben-Hur, though I didn’t read the book or check out the comic. There are a few things that really stood out to me about this drama, which depicts conflict when the Romans in their quest for empire take over Judea, causing tension among friends. Chiefly, we follow the story of Judah Ben-Hur, who is a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant from Jerusalem who becomes ensnared in conflict, along with his mother and sister, because of a misunderstanding around a fallen tile from his roof and his own outspoken nature. He is proud of his Jewish faith in a time when the Romans were having none of it. 

When he is taken in as a prisoner of the Romans, he becomes a galley slave for five years. He’s assigned eventually to the Roman Consul Arrius and saves his life after there is an attack on their ship by the Macedonians. Judah prevents him from falling on his sword (more than just a saying in this cinematic journey!), and to show his gratitude, Arrius petitions Tiberius to free Judah and adopt him as a son. Judah spends a year in Rome, enjoying prestige and learning how to chariot race – eventually being asked by an Arab sheik to return to his home of Jerusalem to race in front of the new governor of Judea Pontius Pilate against his old friend Messala (the man responsible for getting him imprisoned). When I speak of the things that stood out for me, though, there are really two: chariot racing and leprosy. 

It felt so sad and uncomfortable to watch how the characters with leprosy were dealt with and I wondered what form that would take in our world and our time. I suppose there are similar kinds of situations, where people are shunned and pushed to the outskirts, but when it comes to human contact being that impossible, I don’t know if there’s anything that can quite compare. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a loved one in that position, and so I must say I remained fairly fixated on that the whole time. We also watched all three versions of this film to get a good sense of it, including the earliest silent version. I love Judah’s character, and I really liked watching the ways in which the different films handling the Jesus representation – particularly decisions to show his body/face or not in various moments. 

Mouse and I also had a lot of conversations about the chariot racing – namely, about how the animals were treated. Mouse knows more about this, but it is my understanding from him that there were many different approaches to documenting this for the different versions. I mostly kept looking at the horses to ascertain, as a former horse girl, whether or not it seemed they felt true terror. 

Yes, we went for the full-immersion program with Ben-Hur, starting with the forgotten silent super-film, then onto the well known 1959 version with Charleton Heston, before topping off with the 1907 short. (We didn’t think either 21st century version was necessary to our immersive experience.) 

I was especially eager to watch 1925’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. An incredibly ambitious production, by some accounts, it was the most expensive film of the silent era. It has been likened to Titanic, as an exorbitant gamble by the studio- and a troubled production- that paid off upon its theatrical release. It remains as one of the standout pictures of the silent era and put to lie the notion of films of this time of crude, small scale productions. 

Like its successor, the great set piece of A Tale of the Christ (indeed, of silent-era Hollywood altogether) is the big chariot race. Extensively documented in Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (a documentary series highly recommended by this blogger), the chariot race was an almost absurdly scaled production. Being the big event in Hollywood, stars of the day joined the many extras, so that just about everyone from 1920s Hollywood appears uncredited in the hippodrome stands; Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Joan Crawford, Harold Lloyd, Sid Grauman, Samuel Goldwyn, the Gish sisters, the Barrymore brothers, and just about whomever else you can think of. In a delightful bit of connection across time, an assistant director on the scene was a young William Wyler, who would direct the famous remake 34 years later. 

Despite the grand- even grandiose- scale, like most of its contemporary films, A Tale of the Christ is largely forgotten, especially in its being overshadowed by the more well known remake. Almost a century later, it’s impossible to separate the facts from apocryphal tales. Filmed long before modern industry safety standards, the chariot race was definitely extremely dangerous, the crashes likely real, and film historians think that at least one person was fatally infured during filming. There are stories about the ship battle filmed in Italy, with pro-Mussolini and antifascist gangs of extras being set against each other to make the fighting look ‘more real.’ Looking at these images from so long ago, it’s impossible to resist wondering whether or not we’re watching a century-old fatality on screen. 

This also leads into an ethics question, doesn’t it? Are we complicit, even decades later, as viewers watching something like this? I have often wondered about similar risks and how treatment of animals is truly assessed in movies. Then again, our society in general seems very lax in how it cares for animals. I know many films particularly with that kind of use of horses will put up a note of some sort such as “no animals harmed in the making of this film,” but I do get nervous.

I was not aware of the bit about pitting anti-fascists against pro-Mussolini folks, though! Is that part myth or truth? I would truly love to know. Also, if all of those famous people were there, what did they do in the scene if they truly were watching someone die? It almost seems a bit of life imitating art. I shiver. 

I’m pretty sure animal welfare in mainstream movies is pretty well policed, nowadays. But Hollywood in those days was a different world. The demanding, downright dangerous nature of the industry led to the creation of SAG a few years later. Do I feel ethically conflicted about watching them now? I apply the ‘tragedy + time’ formula to the experience, and it works out just fine. 

Now comes the part where I must compare the two Ben-Hurs. Let’s start at the hippodrome. I was surprised that the chariot race in 1959 was so much more violent. Unlike Francis Bushman, who is merely ruined financially, Stephen Boyd’s Masala faces a more gruesome end. The camera really makes you feel every bone breaking as he is dragged along and trampled. I go with 1959’s race. And needless to say, Charlton Heston is my prefered Judah Ben Hur. The sea battle in 1925 is superior to the remake, and the winged helmet worn by Ramon Navarro is hands down the coolest  prop from either movie. Each Masala is perfect for their respective movies, so that’s a tie. And if brevity is a virtue, the prize goes to Ben-Hur (1907), which runs between 10-15 minutes, depending, I suppose, on how fast you run the projector. 

‘Tragedy + time’ goes well with the whole ‘too soon’ thing we so often toss around. Makes sense, and I get your point. I think the 1959 version, while more brutal, was also a lot more engaging. Or maybe I am just a bad part of the demand in the audience membership who pushes for more all the time. I found myself almost dozing off at the other version in 1925. I think I agree with you on the tying Masalas. Both films just left me feeling ache and sadness with the notion of having those you love succumb to leprosy. I am glad that’s not another thing we have to worry about in 2019, at least.

I think people would also not miss much if they skipped the 1907 version, but hey, it’s so short I guess you may as well just watch. 

The 1907 probably doesn’t have a lot for modern audiences beyond historical interest, but there is one thing that distinguishes it from the many other nickelodeon-era shorts: it was the subject of a Supreme Court Decision. Kalem Company v. Harper Brothers established a precedent an important precedent in copyright law concerning cinematic adaptations of literature. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision for the court, whom I doubt anyone predicted we’d mention in this blog. Wikipedia states that the chariot race was filmed at a Jersey Shore beach with local firefighters, but cites no sources. If anyone has any additional info, please tell us!

Can you believe we’ve gotten this far into a blog about Ben-Hur and haven’t mentioned religion? At the 32nd Academy Awards, Ben-Hur took home an unheard of 11 Oscars, a still-unbeaten record that was only tied in 1998 by Titanic (and by Return of the King in 2004). We live in a different world now, where it’s hard to imagine a movie with this type of overt pro-Christian message being so successful at the center of the mainstream. The film is never subtle in its embrace of religion, but it doesn’t bother me. When I look around at many high profile Christians in the real world, I’m reminded more of the haughty and compassionless Masala than Judah. I’m working with an extremely broad brush, here, I know. But the movie ends with Judah Ben Hur, inspired by Jesus Christ, moving to a place of peace and empathy. This is the version of Christianity I’d like to see more of in the world, rather than the version that wants to jail trans people for using a public restroom, or something. 

Also nominated in 1959:
Anatomy of a Murder
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Nun’s Story
Room at the Top

Next film: KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)

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