Sunday, June 6, 2010

# 100 Ben Hur (1959)

So Ben Hur. First off I would like to say that a beginning overture and an entr'acte or intermission are the best and should be used in any film over two and a half hours. I think it's sad we don't see them anymore. By listening to the music, the overture not only gives you a moment to find your seat and enjoy some popcorn, but helps you get into the right mindset for the movie you're about to watch. The intermission gives the viewer a physical and emotional break. We have time to visit the restroom, grab a beverage, or just take a deep breath. Both of these are sad casualties of the modern theatrical film market. Okay now that I've got that off my chest.

I know that most of the attention that this film gets is that is big, it's epic, and it has an awesome chariot race. Well that's all true. The scale of this film is incredible. The story moves from Judea to Rome, and follows Judah Ben Hur, a jew who lived during the time of Jesus. This film has remarkable sets and at a time long before you could build them in your computer. In the chariot race, when someone is shown being dragged behind their chariot, it is probably an actual person. It is definitely not a computer generated double. Though every thing about this movie was larger than life, what I found really compelling were the scenes that were smaller in scale. Scenes between only two characters. Scenes such as the scene early on when Judah welcomes back his old friend Messala, now the newly appointed tribune of Rome. This scene between two people establishes an old and dear friendship, the way the two are still some similar and how they have grown apart. It also points to their developing conflict, which is the main conflict in the story.

There are also a number of these scenes that involve Judah and Esther, and establish or build on the love story. Part of the reason why these scenes work and are believable, is that they are allowed time to breath and play out. Most of the scenes maybe small in scale, but each is long. So we can see Judah as he struggles with Messala's militance and desire to stomp out rebellion, and we can see that Judah is torn by Esther's engagement to a man in Antioch. By giving the scene and character the time to develop, the viewer is not shocked when Judah tells Messala that he is against him and his plans, or when Judah positions himself for a not-so-goodbye kiss from Esther. It would be easy to cut these scenes down in order to get a cut of Ben Hur that is two hours and forty-five minutes, instead of it's three and a half hours, but it would utterly destroy the film. This film is really long and really great, and that's the way it has to be.

Jesus is in this movie, but he's here in a really compelling way. Not with the heavy handedness that a modern focus group or megachurch would most likely insist upon, but with a subtlety and gestural grace that is remarkable. We don't see Jesus cast a wizard performing miracles here and there. What we do see is a character that comes in at specific times throughout the story, and we watch as the other characters react to him, and are changed. There is a little Deus ex Machina going on with some of the emotional transitions that occur when Jesus is around, but when you put God in your movie, that's probably gonna happen. Still most of the scenes are so distinct from the rest that they are weighty and powerful.

We have a number of different ethnic groups in this film, and though Jew may not be played by Jew, or Arab by Arab, each of the characters is strong, proud and veers sharply away from bald stereotype. For a film from 1959, it needs few excuses made for it.

I really only have one thing to say about the chariot race. George Lucas, if you're going to ripoff er I mean pay homage to this chariot race in Episode 1, then please do it right. You have the blueprint right here, and there is none of the unnecessary teeth gnashing, annoying announcers, or fart humor of your tragic representation. Done. Now watch Ben Hur's chariot race and be blown away with awesomeness.

This is not a film to start after 7 or 8 pm, but make sure you get a viewing in at some point.


  1. It is really great the way you can articulate a film into words. After watching this with you (or at least the first half), I agree with what you have to say. I really got a sense of the characters from the intimate scenes and think you explain the importance of this perfectly. I am NO movie expert, but I definitely got emotionally drawn into the character of Ben Hur. I will finish the second half today.

  2. I think you need to pose some question(s), philosophical, technical, or moral in nature that will bring about commentary from your adoring fans, me being one of them, even if they haven't watched the film with you.
    With that said, I think you've got some valid points. Pacing in older films is something you must prepare for, but are there current examples of this type of pacing in modern films? See? Thats a good question.

  3. Seth, I already said that I would just write about the film. I did not make any assertion that I would ask probing, thought provoking questions. Instead I will look to you, my faithful reader, to do this on each of my postings.

    To your question. I think that There Will Be Blood, or Inglorious Bastards, both spend time focusing on style and tone as well as story and character. It is harder in a market of fast consumable media to make a film that has slow, deliberate pacing, but it is not impossible. I would expect it to become more and more rare, though.