‘Ben-Hur’ at the TCM Film Festival: The way it should be

benhur59-1As things turned out, “Ben-Hur” (1959) was my introduction to the TCM Film Festival, and I can’t imagine one that would have been better.

First, it must be said that the 8K digital restoration of the film Warner Bros. completed two years ago looked magnificent on the Grauman’s Chinese Theater screen. It was the best-looking print I saw during the festival, and the best example I’ve seen of digital projection. To my eyes, it looked crystal clear.

As always, there were a few surprises, things that differed from my general memory of previous viewings.

When I saw the movie at the UC Theater in 1999, I remember thinking that Messala’s (Stephen Boyd) love for Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), his oldest and dearest friend1, turns into vicious hatred too abruptly. The man gets into Judea, has one conversation with his buddy, and all of a sudden he’s making a “you’re with me or against me” ultimatum.

Seeing the early sequences again, I realized that it doesn’t happen quite that fast. It clearly happens over at least a few days. At one point the two men seem to have reached some level of agreement. But Messala’s willingness to put Judah in such a difficult position makes it clear that the power and prestige of Roman military service turned him against his friend years earlier.

Wyler handles this shrewdly; he doesn’t spend a huge amount of time establishing the scenario, but just enough to let us see how thoroughly corrupt the man is. Messala also toys with the affections of Judah’s sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), which I had forgotten, probably because again, Wyler doesn’t devote lots of screen time to it (and because Messala later tosses Tirzah and the Hur matriarch, Miriam (Martha Scott), into the dungeons on a trumped-up charge, which sets the plot into motion).

Movieprop from the movie Ben Hur at the Nation...

Movie prop from “Ben-Hur” at the National Museum of Ship Models and Sea History, Sadorus, Ill.

Seeing the film with a crowd of film buffs makes a difference.  During the sea battle, which culminates in Judah saving Quintus Arrius’ life and setting up the second half of the movie, it’s quite obvious that model ships are being used, as are the rear projection shots during close-ups. Catch a sequence like that with an audience of bored college students and you might hear laughter, or catcalls. The TCM crowd didn’t clap, as these fans do for scenes that really impress them, but everyone just watched, understanding the context, taking it on its own terms. And a sarcastic line Judah delivers before he and Arrius are rescued got a nice laugh, as intended.

The chariot race always delivers the goods, especially when anybody gets run over. The TCM audience cheered and whooped when Messala got dragged and trampled.

” ‘Ben-Hur’ is a commitment,’ I overheard one fan saying at a later screening. ‘It’s really long, and after the chariot race…’ ” I couldn’t hear the rest, but I can guess.  One thing I wanted to see was whether I felt any better about “Ben-Hur” once the film goes into its final stretch, which has always felt anticlimactic.

I tried to pay more attention to Judah’s transition from being consumed by hate for Messala and all things Rome, to peace and contentment with Esther (Haya Harareet) and a conversion to early Christianity. Despite my lukewarm feelings about this part of the movie, I always just figured that the primary problem was Gen. Lew Wallace’s 1880 book, which left his hero with nothing exciting to do after he defeats his enemy.

I can’t say I was moved by the miracle that cures the Hur women of leprosy, but the thunderstorm that hits after Jesus is crucified and Miklós Rózsa‘s score assure that the film retains a grand, epic dimension. Ultimately you do get the sense of a long journey, for Judah and his family, which to me is the point of a film that’s nearly four hours long.

This brings to mind another thing about Friday’s screening — the sound. Hearing the way “Ben-Hur” sounded at Grauman’s Chinese truly helped recreate the sense of having seen the film when it played its initial roadshow engagements. It’s no wonder that one of the 11 Oscars it received was for Best Sound (Franklyn Milton).

From the Overture until the end, Rózsa’s music (another Oscar winner) buoys the film. He gave most of the main characters their own themes, and he has some comment to make on just about everything except the chariot race. Undoubtedly the approach will seem overbearing to many modern viewers, but for people who enjoy the music score conventions of Golden Age Hollywood films, it’s pretty hard to top this one.

I’m particularly glad to have seen “Ben-Hur” at Grauman’s while I could, given the recent news that Imax is going to remodel it.


[Addendum 5-19:  Here is a thoughtful 2009 appraisal of the film by the New York Times’ A.O. Scott.]

— David B. Wilkerson

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  1. It’s hard to discuss “Ben-Hur” without going into Gore Vidal‘s claims about the film’s homoerotic context, which he said he added when he and others did extensive work on the script (officially credited to Karl Tunberg). Certainly if you have that information, several things seem to support what Vidal says. I’m primarily interested in the movie as a colossal production, in the Old Hollywood style. If the gay subtext is there, fine — we are talking about ancient Rome, where people in powerful positions could have that orientation and not be ostracized. I just wonder why, in the hyper-conservative late ’50s and early ’60s, such a supposedly blatant slant was not seized upon by someone who wanted to call for renewed vigilance against “subversive” forces. If you’re aware of any social commentator who was against the movie for this reason, please let me know in the comments section. I realize the anti-Communist witch hunt had lost much of its steam by 1959, but …  

4 Responses to ‘Ben-Hur’ at the TCM Film Festival: The way it should be

  1. As much as I’m enjoying the San Francisco International Film Festival right now, a very large part of me wished I could be in Hollywood at the TCM event.

    • It really was a great time. Maybe next year?

      Loved your article on the UC Theater. Saw some great films there — “Spartacus,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Paths of Glory,” “My Man Godfrey,” etc.


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