Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ben-Hur Retrospective: The Conclusions

Well, now we come to a point in our program where we do those comparisons.  For Your Consideration, the three versions of General Lew Wallace's epic novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

The contestants are:

The 1925 silent film version.
The 1959 remake.
The 2010 television miniseries

We have a lot of ground to cover, so let us start.


Ramon Novarro
Charlton Heston
Joseph Morgan

You just can't keep a good Jew down...even if he is the in the form of a WASP like Chuck Heston.  It is a sign of the power of Heston in the role that no one else comes to mind as Judah Ben-Hur.  Curiously, Charlton Heston was not among the first choices, or even a major contender for the part.  Paul Newman was offered the role, but after his disastrous debut in The Silver Chalice, he declared he would never act again in "a cocktail dress".  Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson, and Leslie Nielsen were all either offered the role or tested for it (Nielsen's screen-test as Messala is available as part of the Ben-Hur special features). Kirk Douglas wanted the part, and would have been good in it.  However, he was I believed turned down in favor of Charlton Heston, known for his larger-than-life persona and resonant voice.  Douglas in turn turned down the role of Messala when he was not given the lead.

Despite Charlton Heston not being highly considered for Judah, now we simply can't see anyone else as the noble Jewish Prince.

I know many people dismiss Heston as an actor, but I think he was magnificent as Judah.  He dominates the screen both in the epic scenes (the chariot race) and in the more introspective moments (such as when he sees his mother and sister in the Valley of the Lepers).  Navarro today suffers from the typical broadness of silent film acting, and poor Morgan: he scowls his way through the television adaptation, looking as though he thinks he's in Gladiator


Francis X. Bushman
Stephen Boyd
Steven Campbell Moore

Only, my choice of Boyd was not a slam-dunk.  I thought well of Moore's take on Messala, erstwhile Roman friend of the Jewish Judah.  He had a strong motivating factor throughout the television Ben-Hur, and he was a rare bright spot in the Spartacus-fication of the General Wallace novel.

However, Boyd also had a motivation to destroy his friend, and it was how he was corrupted by Rome and Roman power than a desire to strike at his father.  I really think that all of them, even the relatively forgotten Bushman, gave strong performances as Messala.  However, when we see how well Boyd matches Heston, he wins by the thinnest of margins.

Pity about the race, though...


Mitchell Lewis
Hugh Griffith
Art Malik

Here's an unexpected surprise.  In fairness to Mitchell Lewis, I don't think he is remembered even by those who watched the silent Ben-Hur.  Yes, Hugh Griffith won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, but while I don't think it was terrible I also never have been able to shake the idea that Griffith's make-up belabored the idea that this was a non-Arab playing Arab.  Sometimes that kind of casting works, but here it was too distracting for me.  Also, while perhaps it was intended to be a more comic role, I was not wild about it.  Don't get me wrong: I don't hate Griffith as Ilderim, but am not crazy about him either.

I guess because Malik is Pakistani, it lends his performance at least a certain credibility.  Though not strictly Arab, it is closer than the Welsh Griffith. 


Frank Currier
Jack Hawkins
Ray Winstone

Again, I don't recall Currier at all.  That knocks him out altogether.  That brings the contest down to two strong actors.  I think Winstone was miscast as the noble Roman in the television Ben-Hur.  Complicating things was the fact that the script gave Winstone virtually nothing to work with.  He was so remarkably passive, not the arrogant consul who grew to see Judah as the son he had lost.  Hawkins did get that, and made the transition work beautifully.  His scenes with Heston, while short, are so memorable, especially when he formally adopts Judah as the son he lost and found again.


May McAvoy
Haya Harareet
Emily Van Camp

I quickly dismiss McAvoy, who came across as a pretty but vapid little girl.  She suffered from the 1920s view of woman as the sweet child rather than a woman who was caught in slavery and a terrible oppressive world of Roman domination.  I think Van Camp did what she could, and she actually wasn't all that bad as Esther.  However, for me Harareet is the best Esther.  She is beautiful, strong, and a woman strong enough for both Charlton Heston and for Judah Ben-Hur, one who loves him but also can stand up to him.

It also helps that Harareet, still currently with us, is Israeli, making her the only actor in any of the versions who has any ties to the Holy Land. 



One thing is for certain: the 2010 Ben-Hur television miniseries has a literal race if by race you mean going from Point A to Point B.  It is not that it is so very dull (which it is), but that it looks so cheap.  It isn't exciting, it isn't a true challenge of rivals between Messala and Judah. 

As for the other two, I find it so hard to choose.  On the one hand, the 1959 version has a simply thrilling chariot race, one that overwhelms you and even its detractors (and yes, I know a few who think the Charlton Heston version is a lumbering bore) admit it is one of the greatest action sequences in film history.  However, when you think that in 1925 you had this equally massive spectacle, one that did something the 1959 version didn't (having shots where they are literally underneath the chariots).  It is especially astounding that in that there was no reliance on special effects but the ones that were used were incredibly convincing. 

Ultimately, I think both film versions have created extraordinary chariot scenes, so while I would call it a tie, I give the slight edge to the William Wyler version.



It is not the fact that Ben-Hur has won the most Academy Awards in history (tied with Titanic at eleven Oscars).  It is not the fact that Ben-Hur is a sprawling epic that runs three-and-a-half hours (though it goes by so quickly one never feels overwhelmed, a credit to William Wyler's direction). It is not the fact that Charlton Heston has become an icon to where when we think 'epic film', it is his face we see. 

Well, it is all that I grant you.  However, it is because within Ben-Hur there is not just spectacle, but an intelligence that makes Ben-Hur the 'thinking man's epic'.  There are ideas within Ben-Hur that make the viewer think.  The struggle between being true to your people and collaborating for security.  The cost of loyalty to one's ideals.  The fight against oppression.  The freedom and peace found in faith.  The need to take pride in one's history.  Judah Ben-Hur could have continued as Young Arrius, son of the Roman consul, found a wife and become Romanized.  Instead, he made himself clear: his name is Judah Ben-Hur, and he will stay true to his heritage.

Moreover, the Christian subtext is brilliantly handled.  At the end of the chariot race, Pontius Pilate awards Judah a crown of laurels, declaring him the people's 'one true God'.  Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Scripture knows that Pontius Pilate will be responsible for bringing another type of crown upon another Judean who is the people's 'one true God'.  The Christianity is not as overt as the 1925 version but not as absent as the 2010 version, and moreover Wyler and the screenwriters did not dilute the religious aspect of Ben-Hur (though they didn't beat you over the head with it). 

I also would be remiss if I didn't mention Miklos Rozsa's score for the 1959 version.  From the opening theme to the love theme and The Parade of the Charioteers, the score is both grand and sublime, capturing the gigantic emotions within the story.

Ben-Hur is a film that all three monotheistic faiths can embrace.  Judah Ben-Hur remains a faithful Jew (before the final race, Judah observes Jewish tradition of covering his head before prayer, and note the Star of David is prominently displayed).  Moslems, though not strictly represented as Islam did not come into existence until long after Rome's fall, have a positive figure in the Arab Ilderim, who gives the Star to Judah (while the Sheik is more comic, he is also in his way wise).  Christians embrace the transformative power of Christ as He fills the story.

It is true: it took a Jew (William Wyler) to make a good movie about Jesus.

Large in scale but intimate in story, the 1959 Ben-Hur remains among the greatest films ever made, one that will be watched and enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.  Cineastes will enjoy the 1925 version and find good things in it.  The 2010 version will be forgotten.

Thus I end my Ben-Hur Retrospective.  I found the 1925 version to be brilliant and which still holds up.  The 1959 version is one for the ages, and is assured a place in the ranking of Great Films.  The 2010 version is a mockery of the source material.

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