Cracking a little under the pressure of time, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur remains one of the biggest, boldest statements in Hollywood history.
Revisiting Ben-Hur is like going back to your childhood home and slowly discovering all the cracks in the walls. I’ve seen the film several times, and only now do I see its imperfections. It’s a grand old movie that celebrates Hollywood craftsmanship at its peak, but feel your way inside for a little more and you’re likely to come out with nothing but dust.
No, I’m not saying Ben-Hur is drab and dated. Far from it. But perhaps it’s one of those films that have passed into legend on the back of what everyone saw and appreciated, instead of what they felt. Observe the mighty chariot race, or when the Roman warships clash into each other on the sea. That’s great stuff! Expertly crafted, realised with vigour. But when it comes to the human drama, Ben-Hur is about as malleable as Charlton Heston’s jawline.
When memories of the movie surface now, they’re usually of the famed chariot race, which lasts nine minutes and comes replete with myths and factoids about its troubled shooting. The truth is, the scene works even today because it represented a time in Hollywood history when high-octane action sequences were built from the ground up, with real sets, real props, and actual human beings tossed into the carnage. It reminds me of the enormous sets that engulfed everything around them in D. W. Griffiths’ Intolerance. What a sight that was to behold.
These movies were not given the lazy luxury of computers. They had to physically create worlds and situations that their audiences could believe in, and they did. Here’s a quick test: watch Ben-Hur’s chariot race sequence and then skim through the painful two minutes of Timur Bekmambetov’s remake trailer. Which one makes you more anxious?
Alas, such skill is not present in the dialogue scenes, most of which seem borrowed from a book recital. And the final act of the movie is shoehorned in as a last-ditch effort to uphold the integrity of the movie’s source material title. Yes, “A Tale of the Christ” is what gives Ben-Hur its moral and ethical core, but the denouement is slow and repetitive, especially after the rush of the chariots not an hour earlier. It seems to belong to a different movie.
And yet, the entire endeavour is a resounding success, mainly because of William Wyler’s ability to control an epic that traverses the realms of religion, war and history. If the dialogue seems a little hammy today, and Heston’s delivery as Judah is a touch robotic, the exuberance of the production design and the sheer scale of the project should more than compensate. Kids these days have a tough time piecing together a three-minute student film. Try tackling three-and-a-half hours, and more than 70 horses.
Ben-Hur set the bar for accolades and awards, accumulating an unprecedented 11 Oscars in 1960 – a feat equalled only by Titanic in 1998 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004. The American Film Institute ranked it the second-best epic film of all time, behind Lawrence of Arabia. Is it deserving? I think so. You don’t invest $15 million, 8 months of principal photography, a cast of extras that could populate its own country, and not come away with a few trophies.
But Ben-Hur, with all its little blemishes, is more than a collection of gold statuettes. It is sheer force of will. It is proof that giant pictures can be made and giant arenas can come alive without the need for computerised shortcuts. Undoubtedly, this great beast tells a story that reaches beyond social and religious borders, but its best, most rewarding moment, laid out in that circus, is the one we all remember, even if we haven’t seen it.
Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer