Man, can you guys believe they made that cheesy 3D remake of BEN-HUR? From the director of WANTED, of all people? Imagine the nerve of thinking they have to cgi up a Hollywood classic like BEN-HUR. Is nothing sacred? BEN-HUR won 11 Oscars including best picture. Normally we say the Oscars are bullshit but let’s forget about that because in this one specific case they are totally proof that this movie is untouchable. It just really disappoints me that they can’t leave well enough alone.
Admittedly I have never seen the original BEN-HUR, which is a one-reel silent film from 1907. Nor have I seen the first remake, another silent from 1925. And until now I had not seen the famous 1959 version by William Wyler. Okay, the truth is I’m excited to see the new one and I didn’t want to be some asshole who went to see it but hadn’t seen the old one. So I am thankful for this new remake, even if it ends up being boring, because it made me watch the most famous old remake. Turns out it’s legendary for a reason.
The word “epic” is widely abused these days. But BEN-HUR is an epic epic. We know not only because it has an overture and an intermission and giant stone letters on the poster and is spread across two Blu-Ray discs, but because it has the subtitle “A Tale of the Christ” and opens in Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth! I didn’t know that was what I signed up for. Mainly it’s about this other dude, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston, OMEGA MAN), Prince of Judea, who years after that comes to visit his old friend Messala (Stephen Boyd, who looks like Dominic West), who has become a tribune. They go way back, they used to throw spears together, and they do it more for old time’s sake and/or homoerotic symbolism (Gore Vidal, one of the many writers, claimed there was some of that in there). There is some talk about the treatment of Judah’s people, and it seems like some bridging of cultures could go on. But Messala quickly tries to get Judah to be his sell-out Jewish guy to help keep his people in line. The political talk ruins their old friendship, much like happens today with Facebook.
The fucked up thing is the random event that changes Judah’s fortunes. There’s a parade with the governor coming through town, and Judah and his mom (Cathy O’Donell) and sister (Martha Scott) are on a roof trying to get a look when Judah leans on a ledge and knocks a loose brick off and it almost hits the governor and they accuse him of attempted assassination. Can you believe the luck? It reminds me of this:
Instead of just getting shamed like Larry David he and his whole family get locked up. But then Messala checks out the roof and accidentally knocks a brick off himself. Clearly he was telling the truth! Cut to some guards going to Judah’s cell. Phew, that was a close ca– oh, no, they’re just transferring him to the galley without trial. Messala doesn’t say anything because the case is good for him politically. It makes him look like a bad motherfucker to heartlessly destroy his best friend’s life. Who’s gonna mess with him after that?
White people today who don’t understand frustration with the criminal justice system should watch this and imagine what it feels like to be treated like that, and how you would feel about the world while seeing this kind of bullshit constantly going on. Judah sees that it’s built into the system for Messala to not want to do the right thing, and there’s nothing he can do but suffer under it.
So anyway, Judah ends up rowing boats for a living. Or for a slaving. We find him three years later, slimmer, bearded, angry. He does have some job prospects: the consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins, THEATRE OF BLOOD), who is in charge of the boat, wants him to be a gladiator, but he’s not interested. Nah, man. I’m a rower. I row.
Then a beautiful thing happens: the ship is destroyed in naval conflict. Judah manages to survive, like Shine on the Titanic, but he takes it one step further, saving Arrius, stopping him from committing suicide and keeping him alive floating on a chunk of the wreck, much to the boss’s befuddlement. Why the fuck would this guy save me? Judah’s being the better man, which starts to seem like a mistake after they get picked up by another ship in the fleet. As the guy who saved the consul’s life he’s given special treatment, but I think he feels like a piece of shit looking down into the boat where the slaves are rowing. He doesn’t have to join them, and it’s because he actually saved one of the assholes who put them there. What a great humanitarian I am, he must be thinking to himself.
After all this, Emperor Tiberius (George Relph) says it’s cool for the consul to keep Judah as his slave. A few years later he’s living it up as a Roman (when in Rome, I guess), has distinguished himself in chariot battles and become so close to the consul that he’s adopted as his son and heir and renamed Arrias. But Judah/Arrias is like “I gotta be me, Pops” and heads back to Judea. On the way back – this is some good luck to begin the process of balancing out that loose brick bad luck – he casually gives this rich guy Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith from THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES in blackface) advice about his horses, and is invited to take part in his chariot racing venture.
When Judah finally makes it home to confront Messala it’s like a former nerd milking his hotness at the high school reunion. Yeah, I’m free now, and I heroically saved the life of a guy ranking higher than you, and also I’m a war hero and a celebrity circus artist and have a new title and I’m probly better in bed than you and at golf. Now release my mom and sister.
This is another example of the movie’s greatness. Messala isn’t some bad guy sitting around cackling about his evil scheme. He’s worse: a guy who doesn’t even think about what he’s done. He honestly has no idea if Judah’s family are still alive or what. It’s an “oh shit” moment for him where he has to send his guy into the prison system hoping they’re still there. And it’s a long, suspenseful sequence going down levels and dark corridors, deep into the belly of the beast. I was thinking, “Well, at this point I don’t think they’re gonna say ‘Oh, they died years ago!'” But SPOILER instead it’s “Oh yeah, they’re totally alive. But you gotta take them as is. They got leprosy now. Sorry bout that nothing we can do peace out.”
Judah’s old flame Esther (Haya Harareet, a Palestinian actress who wrote the 1967 Jack Clayton movie OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE) – who waited for him and they’re back together now – finds out about their fate, but has to tell Judah they’re dead, because his mother doesn’t want him to know she looks gross or whatever. So now he finally decides it’s time to avenge Messala. Through the medium of chariot race.
Obviously I knew it would get there eventually. BEN-HUR is known mainly as the movie with the chariot race, in much the same way SAFETY LAST! is the one with Harold Lloyd hanging off of the clock, or ZOMBI 2 is the one with the shark fighting the zombie. But the context is key, and the setup is beautiful. The sheik makes a big scene coming into town with an entourage and a treasure chest, drawing people into what seems like a crazy bet, egging on the great Messala to accept a race against his guy before revealing who it is. Oh, nobody big – just Arrias, a.k.a. Judah.
Yeah, you know, your childhood best friend whose people you helped oppress and then you framed him to further your political career and condemned him and his mother and sister to years of slavery and you thought you’d never see him again but now he’s back and ready to kick your ass in front of everybody because he’s way better at chariots than you.
Oh. That Judah.
And it’s great seeing Messala have to play it cool, pretend it doesn’t worry him, not flip out like an uptight superior in a POLICE ACADEMY. The thing we don’t see is the look on Judah’s face sitting at home wishing he could see the look on Messala’s face.
I had of course heard THE PHANTOM MENACE‘s pod race scene compared to BEN-HUR’s chariot race. I didn’t know that it meant not only the race, with its great sense of speed, its harrowing dirty tricks and crashes, but also the look of the stadium and the people in the stands and the ceremony with the racers coming in with trumpeters and all that. It’s beautiful. One really smart choice Wyler made that I wish Lucas had followed was to not have an annoying two-headed alien that looks like a character from ANTZ jibber-jabbering through the whole race. Makes for an even better scene. Good job, Wyler.
Actually, I genuinely wonder how much credit Wyler deserves for the greatness of the chariot race. I mean, he had to have been involved in the overall vision of it, but from what I understand the actual filming was done by two second unit directors, Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. Afterwards, Wyler got the best director Oscar, Marton got to direct some Flipper episodes. Canutt – who is the stuntman who did the under-the-wagon stunt in STAGECOACH that was homaged in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – actually sounds like the guy that should get the biggest bonus. He spent five months working on the race, training Heston and Boyd to really drive the chariots.
Anyway, great scene. Nine teams of four horses racing on screen at the same time. Miraculous.
Speaking of miracles, what about this “Tale of the Christ” business? I really had no idea this was gonna be a tale of the Christ. It’s kinda cool because it’s really a tale of the Ben-Hur, but his path crosses with the Christ’s a couple times, for example when he’s a slave being marched almost to death and Jesus brings him water. We just see the back of him as Judah stares at him in awe for like 30 seconds straight. This is actually very similar to THE BOURNE LEGACY, how Aaron Cross keeps almost running into Jason Bourne.
It’s gotta blow Judah’s mind when he finds out about Jesus, because this is a guy born around the same time as him, around the same place as him, and he ran into him that one time, and now he’s such a big deal. It must be like if you find out Lady Gaga or somebody was in the same high school as you but you don’t even remember her.
The Christ’s purpose in this tale becomes clear in the end when Judah has learned that his family are still alive, and also he and Esther happen to be standing where a bunch of people are gathering to hear Jesus give some sermon on some mount. Fucking hot-headed macho balls for brains Judah says he has “business with Rome” and skips seeing THE GOD DAMN CHRIST, who has THE ABILITY TO HEAL HIS LEPROUS MOTHER AND SISTER AND SOLVE ALL OF HIS PROBLEMS IN AN INSTANT to go get all in a dude’s face about a grudge. Fucking men, right? Stupid. Stupid.
By the time he finally listens to his lady about “holy shit you gotta bring them to this Jesus guy” he goes to find that, uh, they’re crucifying the guy. Shit. The fish that got away. So this is a lesson we can learn here.
There’s also a bit of that FORREST GUMPian thing where he runs into historical figures, for example we see Pontius Pilate talking to Arrias at a party and he’s all bummed that his governor gig is in Judea. Motherfucker put Jesus on trial and gave in to pressure to execute him even though he didn’t think he’d done anything. And now we find out he didn’t even want that job. “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”
When it comes down to it this is a Jesus fan fiction, because Judah Ben-Hur is a completely fictional character having adventures nearby while all this Biblical shit is going on. But it’s an incredible production (racing horses, model boats, chariot crash) and one of its many impressive sequences is this march to crucifixion with literally hundreds of extras involved, watching in disgust at the government putting to death a guy everybody loves – it figures it would be something like this – but unable to do anything as the soldiers push him to the place and then hoist him up. Amazing scene. I think fans of the property will be pleased.
I hope it’s not too soon to SPOIL the ending of this 57 year old movie based on a 136 year old novel, because I’m about to do it. Even though it seems like Judah fuckin blew it, his mother and sister are miraculously cured of leprosy while sheltered from a rain storm in a cave near Jesus’ body on the cross. I’m not totally sure but it really seemed to me like they got some blood splashed on them from the wind and rain and that’s what did it. Then there are shots of all the water streaming out from around the cross, His blessings spreading across the land.
In a movie full of awe-inspiring imagery I think my favorite shot is at the end when it’s the day after the crucifixion, it’s quiet and sunny and oddly peaceful, kinda like the morning after in DO THE RIGHT THING. Judah is walking and the camera pans down to show the puddles on the ground. And in the reflection of the puddle we see Esther coming outside, seeing Judah, and coming down toward him. Probly a pain in the ass to set up, but a simple trick. After all this he is free, his family is healthy, and they are together. And we see it reflected in the remainder of the storm, of Jesus.
Pretty good Tale of the Christ there in my opinion.
BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST is loosely adapted from a story in ASTONISHING CHRIST TALES #21 in my opinion. But in actual fact it is based on the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, who had been a Union general in the Civil War. Some speculate that Judah’s experience with the loose tile may be inspired by controversy over Wallace’s participation in the Battle of Shiloh. When his superiors were questioned about high casualties they pointed fingers at Wallace, saying he had disobeyed their orders. He saw this as some bullshit and spent the rest of his life trying to repair his reputation. Only after his death did his Major General read a letter from the time that convinced him Wallace had been given the wrong orders. Well, at least that Major General lived to regret it. He didn’t get run over by a chariot.
The book was so popular they had a number of merchandising tie-ins, such as Ben-Hur Flour. Not cereal, not pajamas, but flour. I’m sure many people who grew up on the book and Ben-Hur-mania were later very nostalgic for the Ben-Hur Flour they had growing up. Or maybe they preferred to forget about their childhoods, having spent them in mines picking slag out of coal.
20 years after its first publication, Ben-Hur surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the best selling American novel. It kept that title for decades, but was eventually beat out by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Many Confederates, including Jefferson Davis, had enjoyed General Wallace’s book, which was seen as a conciliatory type of story for the post war period. Still, it’s kind of fucked that a Union general’s book was beat out by some nostalgia for the romance of the slave driving south. Fortunately Wyler’s movie reignited enough interest in Ben-Hur to put it back on top.
Even to this day, Ben-Hur is the #1 selling American novel. Just kidding. It’s the, uh, Da Vinci Code. Followed by Fifty Shades of Grey, Angels and Demons, Fifty Shades Darker, Twilight, Fifty Shades Freed, The Lost Symbol, New Moon… you know what, maybe this new BEN-HUR movie will catapult ol’ General Wallace’s joint up the charts again. Right guys?
HISTORY: Ben-Hur was a book in 1880, it was first adapted to the stage in 1899, and many times since. It was made into movies in 1907, 1925, 1959, 2003 (animated), and this year, and was a mini-series in 2010. So it’s been around the block.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.