Lost in the Movies: Ben-Hur


Around 1991, when I kicked off my video collection in earnest (the few kids' films I owned up to that point didn't really count towards a self-conscious canon), Ben-Hur was one of the first VHS tapes I purchased - or that my father purchased for me anyway; at 7, I didn't have much in the way of a disposable income. I remember seeing the case in a video store somewhere in Boston - around Easter, I think. I was impressed by the grandeur of that iconic poster on the cover, with the title chiseled out of the hard rock of a canyon face, against which a Roman statue leaned while tiny chariots raced around the huge letters. I was spurred on too by the bulk of the video package - remember that at this time, long films got two cassettes, creating a hefty physical size to match the scope of the movie within.

Ben-Hur quickly became one of my favorites - it had so much going for it. First, the story - an epic tale of betrayal, revenge and determination, with Jewish aristocrat Judah Ben-Hur losing his home and his family and vowing revenge on childhood pal Messala, grown drunk on ruthless imperial power. Then the stirring score, the "wandering narrative" adventure, and the appeal of the exotic locale. Growing up Catholic I always had a fondness for films set in the rugged deserts and hardscrabble villages and cities of the Holy Land: a sparse but spiritually pregnant landscape. Meanwhile, on the less lofty level, despite its improbable G rating, the movie had ample action and violence; my macabre friends and I would slo-mo the brutal tramplings in the Circus. And of course I dug Charlton Heston's intensity through it all...as a kid he was probably my favorite actor for a while.

I'm not sure when I noticed that, visually, the film seemed to be...missing something, on the edges. Or that the characters' faces bore a striking relation to Stretch Armstrong. I did notice that when the chariot race began, black bars grew on the top and bottom of the frame. Only much later would I deduce that, rather than cutting off the picture, this was actually enlarging it. I just knew that the black frames were rather distracting. Eventually, of course, I realized that the Ben-Hur I'd watched and loved so many times was maybe about 1/3 of the actual movie, picturewise anyway.

With an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, shot both anamorphically and on 70mm, Ben-Hur is one of the largest movies ever made. So for the video transfer, trying to fit the film into a TV frame, Ben-Hur not only lost its edges (as did most widescreen films) it had to be squeezed, artificially elongating faces and decor. Having this in mind, the VHS tape eventually became unwatchable. Yet the eventual DVD version never felt like a huge improvement. Yes, it was the full picture, finally, but what was gained in information was lost in scale. Suddenly the whole picture was there, but I was stuck with only 1/3 of the TV frame - sort of like watching the movie through a peephole.

Meanwhile, I began to grow weary of the movie itself. It still had sentimental, nostalgic value but in comparison to the fleet films of old Hollywood or the French New Wave it began to seem somewhat stodgy and static. Next to a wildly inventive and at times abstract film like Lawrence of ArabiaBen-Hur's use of the desert landscape seemed sort of stingy. And the (what Andrew Sarris would call) "strained seriousness" of the storyline and the religious themes didn't resonate with me quite as much anymore. When I encountered the usual attacks on Ben-Hur, I tended to concede the point intellectually but plead for emotional mercy from the critical court.

Last year, one of my blogger buddies (Bob Clark of Wonders in the Dark) wrote about seeing the film on the big screen during the New York Film Festival. His astute recap of the visual experience is worth quoting at length:
"There’s all sorts of reasons to walk into Ben Hur with a kind of modern cynicism that makes one immune to all the dated mannerisms, aesthetically and dramatically, when watching it on television. It has an arch, dramatic stiffness at times that doesn’t translate well to the small-screen, even when broadcast in widescreen format, which gives you all the details of the picture but crunches them down so small you don’t feel as though you’re looking through a letterbox as much as peering at a postage stamp.

Spread out on the big screen, however, all that changes. The picture comes alive and swallows you whole in ways that can’t be approximated on the most expensive of home-viewing set ups. All those fetishistically crafted sets that can appear like diorama miniatures on television breathe more fully when projected larger than life, letting you see the expressive tendencies in the subdued range of colors and set-design throughout, the kind of direction that would lead to Ridley Scott’s world-building spectacles. All those overlong takes take on a more generous dimension sitting in the theater, daunted by the sheer scale and majesty of the film’s recreation of ancient Rome at the height of its colonial powers, and gives added weight to the subject of Imperial rule and the question of how to deal with it from the perspective of the conquered. It’s a question that is put expressly into dramatic form as Charlton Heston’s heroic Jewish prince suffers betrayal at the hands of his boyhood friend, turned Roman occupier, and survives the slavery of the galleys and the do-or-die races of the Circus Maximus to win freedom and justice for his family. These are the stakes and scopes that the epic form were meant for, and this is by far the way these epics were meant to be seen, at a scale that for two or three hours at a time positively dwarfs anything else in your field of experience."

With this in mind, I was intrigued to see the film with fresh eyes, or rather on a fresh scale for my eyes to take in: spread out like a tapestry across the screen of a huge movie theater, where it was meant to be seen, and where the old critical complaint (can't remember who said it) that watching Ben-Hur was like "watching a freight train pass by" might almost seem like a compliment. My opportunity came sooner than expected - literally on the eve of Easter, the grand Egyptian theater (where Ben-Hur actually premiered back in 1959) unveiled a sharp HD print of the film with a restored soundtrack. I headed into Hollywood, found free parking (metered would not do for a 4+ hour movie), and settled in for a memorable cinematic experience.

It certainly was. I relayed my initial impressions in a Google chat with Bob soon after:
"ironically, the big screen didnt so much amplify the visual experience for me (i mean it did a bit, but not as much as i expected - there were only a few moments of spectacle where i felt the full breadth of the screen viscerally) as the dramatic content, reminding me of why i liked it so much as a kid. that sequence where he crawls through the low-ceilinged leper colony comes to mind. thats actually a great use of the horizontal span - using the wider frame to ironically make the image more claustrophobic. and i love all the stuff on the galley. for all the sentimentality surrounding its reception and dismissal its a pretty hard-hitting, stoic film much of the time.

yeah, they get off in the end, but its kind of like its a wonderful life - the happy ending doesnt really mitigate the sobering repressed angst simmering for the rest of the running length - at the very least it feels justified by it & the digital projection was pretty damn impressive."
A month out, my takeaway from the experience is that, in its solid, somewhat conventional, and occasionally tedious way, Ben-Hur offers a powerful narrative and visual experience - with the visual subtly reinforcing the narrative. Despite the scale, this isn't really a spectacle in the sense that the visuals lead. Yet the most memorable moments definitely have a pictorial power: the gruelling galley routine as Judah and his fellow slaves row their masters through endless seas, cramped and confined in a wooden prison as the waves beat around them (with Jack Hawkins' dialogue providing a memorable parallel to the tough despair we see before us); that leper colony I mentioned in which the vast panoramic frame manages to feel claustrophobic rather than limiting, creating a true sense of a netherworld to which our hero has descended; and of course, the chariot race in which the theme of the film - physical suffering as a form of justice (more masochistic than sadistic) - finds its logical expression.

Above all, I realized how - despite its stark visual differences from a deep-focused, compositionally rich film like The Best Years of Our Lives - Ben-Hur still nestles snugly into director William Wyler's oeuvre. Most don't really think of Wyler as a full-fledged auteur, preferring to see him as a very capable craftsman. Yet there is a thematic consistency to much of his work. When I reflect on the subjects he ended up executing (the wild passions of Wuthering Heights, the intricate blackmail and murder of The Letter, the poignant disappointments and quiet joys of The Best Years of Our Lives, and the slow-boiling, muted ferocity of Ben-Hur are the four films that instantly come to mind) I realize that many of his best films dealt with a kind of purification through pain - physical sometimes, but always emotional. The films aren't always downbeat (even the tragic ones feature a kind of cathartic deliverance) but they all have a sense of weariness and determination which feels quite real.

It's not surprising then that the film ends not with Christ's rebirth but with his death. It's a redemption (Judah's) colored by stoic suffering (Christ's, echoing our hero's earlier in the film). Philosophically, the film feels much closer to Roman stoicism than Christian optimism - whatever its explicit narrative development. With this in mind, and with the visual scope finally living up to the intense emotional edies I'd always sensed beneath the experience, Ben-Hur the film was reborn for me on this memorable Easter eve. Like its protagonist (that would be Judah, not Jesus), it returned from the wilderness more powerful than before - and I gladly welcomed it back into my private, personal collection.


Mike said...

Woah, this is weird. I saw this movie for the first time a day after Easter this year. Pretty good film, but I can't say it held my attention span for the whole 222minutes. Maybe I'll revisit it when I'm older.

Sam Juliano said...

It's probably the most intimate epic of all-time, and the one film above all others of it's kind that sustains a deep emotional resonance. As you note, the hook was set for you at a young age, when the epic story of betrayal had you wholly riveted. I certainly can echo those findings, and the film is so dear to my heart, that I would hesitate to say it's the grandest epic, Wyler's finest film in a storied career, and one of the best films of the 50's. Among others spectacular accomplishments is the extraordinary score by Miklos Rosza, which most can immediately recall on reflection. It's regal and ravishing, perhaps the most beautiful music ever written for an epic, and as a stand alone one of the truly great scores of all time. I can go on and on and on, but as I have been officially assigned to do this film for the William Wyler blogothon in late June, I'll be taking notes.

You are back in top form here with a wondrous recall, of a film I know you have also revered since childhood, and your references to Bob Clark's big-screen experience also hits home.

Jon said...

Great write-up Joel and nice to see you writing again here. I love Ben-Hur, but yes it's hard to watch on tv. I wish I had the opportunity to see it like you've just seen it. Regarding Wyler, I've just seen Dodsworth and The Heiress for the first time and was blown away in both cases. Yes I'm not sure of the auteur aspect, but he actually seems to bear something similar to Sidney Lumet, in that he knew how to create great dramas and wring the best work from his actors. Maybe I'm not correct on this assertion, but I think these two directors had similar talents perhaps.

Joel Bocko said...

Mike, yeah it's defintely an Easter film - or perhaps more accurately, a Good Friday film. Did you see it on TV or in a theater? I'm guessing TV since the prints, HD or otherwise, don't really make the rounds too often. If you ever get the opportunity to check it out on the big screen sometime do, though. I generally like great movies as much on TV as writ large, but this is one where size definitely makes a difference, albeit in subtle ways.

Sam, thanks for the kind words. I look forward to your piece on it! I remember you wrote a bit on it years ago for Wonders - I think that was one of the first pieces I commented on over there. Btw, they were raffling off a full several-CD set of the Rosza score that night at the Egyptian - I entered but did not win.

Anonymous said...

Delighted to read your - and Bob Clark´s - post. I also had the opportunity to see this on a big screen lately.
Most memorable wasn´t the visual experience, I kind of expected this, but the emotional one:
people around me were thrilled, stunned and simply taken by it.
(2 reasons: the use of sound/sound effects and of course its score, the movie´s heart.)

A short time after sea battle someone shouted out loud:
"I never knew what a WILD film we´ve been watching!"
Not a freight train at all.


Richard Bellamy said...

As a big fan of this film, I was glad to see your treatment here. I still enjoy watching it on the latest DVD edition which has enhanced the color in a stunning way, but I grew up on Ben-Hur as a big screen experience. I saw it when it came out in 1959, and I made a hobby out of seeing it on big screens whenever I could find it - notably at the Castro in San Francisco and at the Wang Opera house in Boston where the chariot race made the floor boards quake. To me, Ben-Hur is what movies are all about. A while back I posted my own tribute on my blog.

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