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Popcorn and Inspiration: Ben Hur: William Wyler Whips up a Spectacle

G | 3h 32min | Drama, Epic | 1959

Imagine youre a 23-year-old Jewish assistant director and production manager to 51-year-old director Fred Niblo. The entire year is 1925. Youre in Rome, shooting an MGM epic in regards to a Jewish prince, predicated on a screenplay by probably the most influential ladies in Hollywood at that time, June Mathis.

Thats how it starts for a William Wyler. Over 30 years later, predicated on Karl Tunbergs screenplay and work by skilled writers Gore Vidal, S.N. Behrman and Christopher Fry, Wyler remakes the initial and his film wins 11 Oscars. Wylers film is, needless to say, Ben Hur, the epic of epics, inspired by Lew Wallaces book Ben Hur: AN ACCOUNT of the Christ.

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(LR) Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, and director William Wyler on the group of Ben Hur. (MovieStillsDB)

Beneath the dark clouds of the Roman Empire, a carpenters son, Jesus the Nazarene, shapes the fates of two men. Wealthy Jew Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) reunites after many years with Messala (Stephen Boyd), his childhood friend, whos a Roman. But as Rome crushes Judean resistance, their friendship fractures, then breaks.

When Judahs sister Tirzah (Cathy ODonnell) accidentally cracks a roof tile, you hear its fateful fall on the Roman parade below and suspect that its not only their roof thats falling apart. And its own true: Thefalling tile kills a high-ranking Roman official andspiteful Messala tears to their family and their world. Judah eventually ends up a galley-slave, and his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and Tirzah are thrown into secret dungeons. Judah comes home for revenge and bides his time.

Feast for the Senses

Decades before CGI appeared in movies, production, set, costume, and art design teams sweated it out. Here, they mobilized over 100,000 costumes, 10,000 extras, a large number of suits of armor, and a huge selection of camels, horses, donkeys, and sheep. This is all to create that Judeo-Roman world comes alive: the march of a legion, the roar of a crowd, the sweltering heat of a Roman-occupied village, the bestiality of the arena.

You hear every sound: the rattle of a soldiers sword against his belt, the rustle of a governors tunic, or the rusty turn of an integral in a dungeon gate. And you also almost smell the stench from the concealed prison cell.

Because the galley-master growls at slaves, his drumbeat dictates the pace of which they need to row: raise oars, down oars, strike oars, battle speed, attack speed, ramming speed!

You lose yourself in the splendor of a Roman palace. You flinch at seeing the Valley of the Lepers almost just as much as the forbidding scarves lepers use to shield their blighted features.

The Race

The famed chariot race is really a filmmaking masterclass, but mirrors excellence through the entire film.

Wyler takes his time, showing us as much as nine charioteers in a solemn parade. Horses bearing charioteer standards ride yards ahead; their ceremonial hoof-marks will be the first you see on the smooth sand before racing-wheel and racing-hoof marks ravage every inch. You almost have the hot breath of horses on your own face, and their edginess at the starting block. As excited crowds spill over arena stands, trumpeters herald the arrival of Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) who presides.

Wyler and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees cannily swivel cameras between dots of fierce pace (two chariots astride or several together) and utter stillness (a mountainous statue staring up in to the Roman sky). They mix this up with fleeting concentrate on the flow of pace; every once in awhile, the camera stares at upright dolphin figurines, inverted in sequence to mark the finish of every lap.

Unit directors, led principally by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, used car-mounted cameras to remain prior to the horses. Yet, repeatedly, over that third-of-a-mile stretch, the horses outran the cars. Canutt then brought racier cars in and gave them a head start. The horses outrun them too.

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Charlton Heston as Judah Ben Hur in the chariot race that kept audiences on the edge of these seats in Ben Hur. (MovieStillsDB)

Perhaps its to find the best. Wyler secures breath-taking footage: four fiery manes charging past a beleaguered chariot or eight manes turning the giant corner, together. The horses themselves, all European, certainly are a sight to behold, standing or speeding. Milk-white Andalusians at Judahs chariot and Lipizzans at others, including gorgeous glossy blacks at Messalas.

Franklin Miltons sound engineering and recording team switch every couple of seconds between relative silence in a single spot for, say, ground-handlers clearing an injured charioteer or perhaps a broken chariot, and deafening galloping-wheeling in another. John Dunnings editing storyboards the action so seamlessly that you forget that the complete sequence took at the very least per year to plan, so when long as 90 days to shoot. And Miklos Rozsas score is really as majestic since it is moving.

Enduring Power and Life

Wylers film overflows with symbols. A respectful crown on Judah and a shameful one on Jesus, signifies Romes frivolity. Water here doesnt just quench thirst; it heals aswell.

The film argues that temporal power is not any less real because its fleeting: a masters power over his slave, a rulers over his subjects, an armys over its rivals. It has real and lasting consequences. It hurts, it enslaves, it kills. But theres an electrical that transcends it: the energy to love also to forgive without regret or rancor. It, too, has consequences. It heals, it sets free, it offers new lease of life.

The narrators opening lines talk of Judea desiring a redeemer wholl deliver perfect freedom, hinting at imperfect freedoms throughout. As soldiers march by way of a Jewish village, some Jews fall into line in awe, others in fear. A person asks the carpenter Joseph (Jesuss father), still at the job, why he isnt watching, too. Joseph answers, Weve seen Romans before. The person nods wearily, Yes, and we’ll see them again.

The film doesnt promise the disappearance of persecution however the appearance of a fresh strength and a renewed faith. In addition, it shows how often we mistake life for death, or how frequently we misread forgiveness as loss, when its actually victory.

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(LR) Cathy ODonnell as Tirzah, Haya Harareet as Esther, Martha Scott as Miriam, Sam Jaffe as Esthers father Simonides, and Charlton Heston as Judah Ben Hur in a lobby card for Ben Hur. (MovieStillsDB)

Wylers women characters are scarce, but strong. Judah loves Esther (Haya Harareet) who doesnt hesitate to reduce his affection if he wont quit vengeance and join her in a Christ-inspired path of forgiveness. Miriam and Tirzah would prefer to linger in agony, and also have Judah believe theyre dead than have him see them wretched outcasts.

Leprosy this is a metaphor for the grip of sin; those that contract it are as effective as dead to others. Those that get away from it gain new lease of life. Judahs spirit of vengeance is really a leprosy of sorts, hence, Esthers insistence he get away from it to get new lease of life.

As usual, Heston brings acting presence instead of prowess to the screen and, with this score, delivers as few actors do. Having said that, he posesses princely bearing with an increase of ease than he does an air of revenge. Boyd, however, carries his malice effortlessly. Even though hes oozing charm, you suspect he isnt inside it completely. Theres part of him held back, even from Tirzah whom he fancies, almost like hes looking forward to something ominous to occur, or even to cause it, if it doesnt.

In another of probably the most rivetingly written and enacted scenes, both men recall their days as boyhood friends in Judahs sprawling estate. Suddenly, Romes ambition rears its head and Messala confronts Judah, hoping to win an influential ally wholl expose Jewish rebels plotting against Rome.

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Pictured with this lobby card (LR): Massala (Stephen Boyd) meets his boyhood friend Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) in a tense conversation while confirming their friendship. (MovieStillsDB)

Its a four-minute scene, every second of it gripping. Watch their eyes, trying to find weakness, their shoulders occur resolve, their hands raised in warning, their jaws clenched in contempt, the veins on the necks bursting with rage, their powerful voices booming in the peaceful courtyard. Wyler didnt have to bring lions set for his Roman epic. He already had them.

Another Wyler masterstroke may be the way he reveals Jesus, by hiding him. He shows us the person, never his face. Wyler knows his audience. Whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish, he knows that the faith-conscious wont see his religious narrative as a waste of time. So he goes ahead along with his Old and New Testament references and makes a nearly four-hour movie.

Wylers single-mindedness helps him tell the story he really wants to tell, with the nuance he intends, free from the self-consciousness that plagues other filmmakers whove handled Biblical films. His unsparing intensity creates an overtly religious world sympathetically that still astonishes audiences, believers or not.

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Promotion ad for Ben Hur that tells a tale what sort of carpenters son, Jesus the Nazarene, shapes the fates of two men. (MovieStillsDB)

Ben Hur

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Martha Scott, Cathy ODonnell

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 3 hours, 32 minutes

Release Date: Nov. 18, 1959

Rated: 5 stars out of 5

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