WolfmanOz at the Movies #70


A Tale of the Christ

There are some films that make a lasting impression when you see them for the first time, and Ben-Hur (the 1959 version) is one such movie for myself.

I first saw it on a re-release in the early 1970s when my parents took the family to see it on a huge cinema screen, and for one young lad the experience was simply mesmerising. Awe and wonder filled me as I watched this story of shocking betrayal, revenge and forgiveness unfold on screen, and by the time the heart-stopping chariot race was over, my fate as a future movie addict was sealed. 

Despite its 212 minutes running time, this is storytelling at its finest that knows how to entertain; as we follow the story during the time of Jesus of a Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, who is betrayed and sent into slavery, whilst his family is imprisoned, by his Roman friend Messala. He regains his freedom and returns back for revenge. His dramatic journey just never lets up and immerses you completely.

It’s hard to imagine anything more cinematic: if ever there was an epic that was meant to be seen on the big screen in all its bombastic glory, it’s Ben-Hur. And even now, after I’ve seen the film many, many times, I feel like this story has a certain sense of greatness to it that is touching (and I don’t just mean that in a religious sense).

What’s not to love about Ben-Hur ? It’s a film that tells an epic story in an epic way, filling every shot with artistry and colour until the screen overflows with splendour, which is all enhanced by Miklos Rózsa’s magnificent score. Despite the lengthy running time, the pacing never flags. The episodic structure of the storyline works in the film’s favour, ably chronicling the adventures of the lead character as he undergoes a thrilling journey to hell and back.

It has Charlton Heston playing his most famous role and being incredibly heroic and strong in it. It has a cast of seasoned performers in support, not least Jack Hawkins as a sympathetic Roman general and Stephen Boyd as the villainous Messala. And, of course, it has the most spectacular and complex action sequence ever put on film in the shape of the chariot race, which is just as thrilling and breathtaking as it was when it was first released in cinemas.

The film was directed by William Wyler, one of Hollywood’s greatest directors from its Golden Age period. He was able to steer a huge production and keep his sanity and perspective whilst showcasing the human emotions amidst the spectacle.

Wyler’s handling of the religious scenes where Jesus appears is both sensitive and touching; and, in the following scene where Judah and the other slaves are marched to the galleys they stop in Nazareth to water the Romans’ horses. Judah begs for water, but the Roman commander refuses. Judah collapses but is revived when Jesus gives him a drink. It is masterfully directed.

https://youtu.be/–VCohWzNUc

The chariot race in Ben-Hur was directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, filmmakers who often acted as second unit directors on other director’s films. The chariot arena was modelled on a historic circus in Jerusalem. Covering 18 acres, it was the largest film set ever built at that time. Planning for the chariot race took nearly a year to complete. The chariot scene took five weeks (spread over three months) to film and required more than 320 km of racing to complete. The end result is simply one of cinema’s greatest set-pieces that will never be surpassed.

Unfortunately, YouTube won’t allow me to show the chariot race as one clip, however I can show it all as two clips.

https://youtu.be/wgxiKbuIBdo
https://youtu.be/mDSZ77FfzmM

Finally, it’s a film that engages the senses and the emotions. It never forgets, amid all the glory and the epic wonder of the scenery and action, that this is a human story about real people struggling with their lives. There’s a message there for any viewer, Christian or otherwise, and that’s the reason why Ben-Hur hasn’t dated a day since it was first released. It’s a true classic for a reason.

Ben-Hur is nothing like the many sandal and sword or Bible films of that era; it is (at least to me) the ultimate film epic. With its touching story and fantastic action sequences, Ben-Hur is among the milestones of its era and part of film history.

Enjoy.

and the tease for next weeks post . . . The ultimate man of conscience.


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eb
eb
May 11, 2023 7:18 am

Next week… “A Man for All Seasons”?

calli
calli
May 11, 2023 7:48 am

Naughty eb! You should have said something cryptic, like Climate Change and the Reformation.

Wolfman, Ben-Hur is my favourite movie. I always watched it with my son as he was growing up – it’s a great boy’s movie, showcasing all the values you want your own son to cultivate as he grows and some of the ones you don’t (we also used to watch the Great Escape). Don’t know whether you noticed, but it was on the telly the other night too.

I read the book years ago – it was begging to be made into a movie, and it has been many…many times. I agree the ‘59 version is the best by a country mile. As you say, the episodic nature of the story is its great strength, little stories within the big Story, the biggest of all.

And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

Good stuff.

Johnny Rotten
Johnny Rotten
May 11, 2023 8:12 am

The chariot race is the best ever. No Computer Graphics and I wonder whether any animals or humans were hurt in the filming.

Rabz
May 11, 2023 8:27 am

Thanks Wolfman – last saw this film when I was about 10 and the only thing that I remember were the dirty tricks employed in the chariot race.

Seems like it’s time to look up a 4K version for watching on the new big screen at home. Presumably the chances of seeing it in a cinema nowadays would be zero.

calli
calli
May 11, 2023 8:30 am

Johnny, a stunt man died in the 1959 filming, and another died in the 1925 movie.

Several horses perished in the ‘59 version (numbers differ) as well as a stunt man. Many more in the ‘25 one and a stuntman. No CGI means that everything you see is choreographed and cut. They left the accident sequence in the film with permission of the family as I recall.

calli
calli
May 11, 2023 8:35 am

Sorry, I repeated myself there. When the film was released in Australia, it came with a beautiful glossy program. Within were lots of “stills” and the production story. My aunt went to see it and kept it as a memento.

One of the “stills” I remember was the end of the naval battle, when the admiral is saved after attempting to take his life. A raft, a fiery sea and a sword. It made a deep impression on me as a child.

Boambee John
Boambee John
May 11, 2023 9:43 am

Rabzsays:
May 11, 2023 at 8:27 am
Thanks Wolfman – last saw this film when I was about 10 and the only thing that I remember were the dirty tricks employed in the chariot race.

Seems like it’s time to look up a 4K version for watching on the new big screen at home. Presumably the chances of seeing it in a cinema nowadays would be zero.

Actually, rather better than seeing another great Heston film, El Cid, anywhere at all.

Lee
Lee
May 11, 2023 12:04 pm

Great film, with the highlight being the chariot race.

Although I wasn’t born when it was first released, I did see it on the big screen at the Astor Theatre, St Kilda, in 1997.

Also saw The Ten Commandments on the cinema screen on re-release in the 1970s (and around the same time Gone With the Wind).

Old School Conservative
Old School Conservative
May 11, 2023 12:16 pm

Brilliant movie and a great analysis Wolfman.

Of course in retrospect Ben Hur was always going to win the chariot race – steering white horses against the baddie’s black; and no use of the whip contrasting to the evil Messala’s extravagant whipping of horses and opponents.

Just one of those marvellous movies I like watching every year even though I know the ending!

Old School Conservative
Old School Conservative
May 11, 2023 12:20 pm

Somewhat off topic but still related to moving pictures:
The Babylon Bee’s 10th warning sign that you are a PATHETIC BETA is “You cried at any point in your life other than the end of Gladiator: We will also accept Saving Private Ryan or Master & Commander.”

duncanm
duncanm
May 11, 2023 12:27 pm

Judah and the other slaves are marched to the galleys they stop in Nazareth to water the Romans’ horses

that’s a great scene, I love the way the tone completely shifts and excludes all the externals as Jesus’ hands tend to Judah.

The main roman soldier is also played very well, with the realisation of shame of the solid flogging he was ready to give Jesus and Judah.

tommbell
tommbell
May 11, 2023 1:12 pm

Let’s not forget Melburnian black skivvy wearer Frank Thring’s role as Pontius Pilate!

Louis Litt
Louis Litt
May 11, 2023 1:25 pm

Frank Thring – the greatest villian actor of all time.

calli
calli
May 11, 2023 3:24 pm

Thanks, Wolfman. I love urban myths.

Sitting on my lap right now is The MGM Story, and top billing for 1925 is Ben Hur with Ramon Navarro in the lead role, looking very dramatic as he is held back from fighting Messala. It never recouped the six million dollar cost the story says. Six million.

The sets were built in Rome, but the production was returned to California where Thalberg and co could keep an eye on things. A silent epic. I can imagine all the action set to a live piano in little movie theatres.

Fast forward many…many pages to ‘59 and there it is again, a double page spread of the circuit and the horses racing. This time…fifteen million for the production by Sam Zimbalist (Quo Vadis) that again went back to Rome to complete.

That’s inflation for you.

calli
calli
May 11, 2023 3:57 pm

I didn’t want to mention that other one and thus sully your excellent page. I only lasted 20minutes into it. Grim.

Roger W
Roger W
May 11, 2023 4:10 pm

I believe the Roman soldier in the desert drinking scene was the black and white TV Superman George Reeves, though it’s hard to confirm.

Lee
Lee
May 11, 2023 5:01 pm

I believe the Roman soldier in the desert drinking scene was the black and white TV Superman George Reeves, though it’s hard to confirm.

I don’t know who it is, but it is definitely not George Reeves.

Whoever he is, he appears 0.06 and 1.45 minutes into this scene:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDoyywKt1_0

It is a beautifully directed and filmed scene, enhanced by never actually showing Jesus’s face, and keeping dialogue down to the bare minimum.

Pictures (or motion), rather than dialogue, really do speak a thousand words in this scene.

Damon
Damon
May 11, 2023 5:16 pm

A film you might consider mentioning is The Battleship Potemkin.

calli
calli
May 11, 2023 5:20 pm

I think you’ll find it’s Noel Sheldon, guys.

It’s one of those perfect vignettes that stay with you long after you leaved the theatre…or turn off the tv. Two faces, one in extremis and the other abashed, ashamed. And a pair of hands. Everything else disappears.

Great direction, nuanced acting, tight editing. Worth its weight.

Lee
Lee
May 11, 2023 5:40 pm

According to this, the actor who plays the decurion (not centurion) in the scene with Jesus is Remington Olmsted (no. 20), not Noel Sheldon (no. 27):

http://movie-dude.com/%5BFilm%5D%20Ben-Hur%20%281959%29.htm

Also:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052618/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm

Lee
Lee
May 11, 2023 5:57 pm

Remington Olmsted again:

https://www.thrillingforum.com/phpbb/viewtopic.php?t=738

I have been watching movies for 55 years, but I have never heard of the name before, only seen him in the brief scene from Ben-Hur.

calli
calli
May 11, 2023 6:12 pm

I love all this sleuthing! Well done!

Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
May 11, 2023 9:16 pm

I liked Ben Hur, watched the film twice as I recall. The chariot race is great fun. Charlton Heston is awesome. That is all I think to say right now.

C.L.
C.L.
May 11, 2023 9:34 pm

The most powerful and affecting scenes for me are when Judah finds his mother and sister in the Valley of the Lepers and later when he is reunited with them, now cured. Judah himself has by then been cured of his own affliction – hatred – and with his beloved, Esther, the broken circle is restored.

amortiser
amortiser
May 12, 2023 7:02 am

Nowadays they would say it was the ultimate tribute to white supremacy.

CrazyOldRanga
CrazyOldRanga
May 12, 2023 8:03 pm

Okay, nobody has said it yet so I will.

I like Ben, but I don’t Hur.

I’ll see myself out. 🙂

Enyaw
Enyaw
May 13, 2023 8:18 am

Re.. Remington O ..I remember his face from a Cowboy Picture over 70 years ago , the part of a crook . I am 80.

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