Tuesday, August 25, 2009

#491: Ben-Hur (1959)

Director: William Wyler
Cast: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet

First of all, I'd like to say... whoever at Empire decided that Ben-Hur isn't as good as the latest Indiana Jones film deserves a spanking. I'd also like to say that finally, after 23 years, you've all lost your opportunity to punch me in the face for never seeing this film before.

Ben-Hur is a historical epic about a Jewish nobleman who encounters an old childhood Roman friend, Messala, for the first time in years. Messala is a new Roman representative in Jerusalem, and urges Ben-Hur to persuade his fellow Jewish countrymen to accept Roman authority. Ben-Hur refuses, and declares his loyalty to his culture. This leads to Messala's arrest of Ben-Hur and his family after Ben-Hur's sister accidentally loosens a tile from her building's roof, hitting the new Roman governor as he parades down the avenue. The next three - yes, three - hours of film show Ben-Hur's trials to escape from imprisonment and find his family.

There is so, so much to admire in this film. There is no question that the film deserves its 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Music. The picture quality is outstanding. Despite its slightly Technicolor features, the shots could easily be mistaken to be from twenty years later. The music by Miklós Rózsa is astounding, using a full-sized orchestra including chorus. And of course, the famous chariot race is renowned as one of the most exciting scenes in cinema history.

I'm pretty much flabbergasted. There's just too much to say about this film. Despite its tremendous length at three and a half hours, I never felt bored, and only paused the film when I felt really really thirsty when Charlton Heston was being led through the desert. The film has everything, and I can't emphasize this enough: if you have never seen this film, SEE IT. NOW.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):*
*Note: There are a lot more of these than usual, but I highly recommend reading them, because they're really interesting or really funny.

  • MGM wanted an authentic-looking Roman boat for the live battle scenes. To design the boats, they hired a person who had spent his whole career studying Roman naval architecture. When he presented his designs to the MGM engineers, Mauro Zambuto(set engineer) exclaimed, "But this is top heavy! It will sink!" They built the boat anyway and launched it in the ocean, and at first it seemed to float. Then however, a little wave came along, a wake from another boat, splashed against the highly unstable boat, and tipped it over. MGM then put the boat in a large pond with a huge painted sky backdrop. To steady the boat, they ran cables from the bottom of the boat to anchors on the bottom of the pond.
  • Another problem concerned the color of the water in the pond holding the boat; it was too brown and murky. They hired a chemist to develop a dye to color the water Azure Mediterranean blue. The chemist dumped a huge sack of some powder into the pond, which, instead of turning the water blue, formed a hard crust on the surface of the water, which had to be chiselled off the boat at great expense. They finally found some dye that would make the water blue. During one of the battle scenes, an extra who fell into the water and spent a bit too much time there turned blue, and was kept on the MGM payroll until it wore off.
  • When it came time to film inside the boat, it was discovered that the large 65mm cameras wouldn't fit. The boat had to be taken out of the pond, cut in half lengthwise, and placed in an Italian sound stage. The oars wouldn't fit in the sound stage, so they had to cut them off just beyond the hull. This resulted in an extremely light oars which, when rowed by the actors, didn't look believable, since you could move them with one hand. To solve the problem, Mauro Zambuto sent an army of production assistants to all of the hardware stores in Rome to buy the kind of spring-and-hydraulic piston mechanisms that are normally attached to doors to force them closed but to keep them from slamming. Placing these devices on the oars and the hull gave enough resistance to make the rowing scenes look realistic.
  • The film used over 1,000,000 props.
  • Over 300 sets were built for the film.
  • Featured more crew and extras than any other film ever made before it. There were 15,000 extras alone for the chariot race sequence.
  • Charlton Heston was taught to drive a chariot by the stunt crew, who offered to teach the entire cast. Heston was the only one who took them up on the offer. At the beginning of the chariot race, Heston shook the reins and nothing happened; the horses remained motionless. Finally someone way up on top of the set yelled, "Giddy-up!" The horses then roared into action, and Heston was flung backward off of the chariot.
  • The chariot race has a 263-to-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every one foot kept), probably the highest for any 65mm sequence ever filmed.
  • Paul Newman was offered the role of Judah Ben-Hur but turned it down because he said he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic.
  • Besides Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson was also offered the role of Ben Hur. Hudson seriously considered accepting the part until his agent explained to him that the film's gay subtext was too much of a risk to his career.
  • According to Gore Vidal, as recounted in The Celluloid Closet (1995) one of the script elements he was brought in to re-write was the relationship between Messalah and Ben-Hur. Director William Wyler was concerned that two men who had been close friends as youths would not simply hate one another as a result of disagreeing over politics. Thus, Vidal devised a thinly veiled subtext suggesting the Messalah and Ben-Hur had been lovers as teenagers, and their fighting was a result of Ben-Hur spurning Messalah. Wyler was initially hesitant to implement the subtext, but agreed on the conditions that no direct reference ever be made to the characters' sexuality in the script, that Vidal personally discuss the idea with Stephen Boyd, and not mention the subtext to Charlton Heston who, Wyler feared, would panic at the idea. After Vidal admitted to adding the homosexual subtext in public, Heston denied the claim, going so far as to suggest Vidal had little input into the final script, and his lack of screen credit was a result of his being fired for trying to add gay innuendo. Vidal rebutted by citing passages from Heston's 1978 autobiography, where the actor admitted that Vidal had authored much of the final shooting script.
  • During the 18-day auction of MGM props, costumes, and memorabilia that took place in May 1970 when new owner Kirk Kerkorian was liquidating the studio's assets, a Sacramento restaurateur paid $4,000 for a chariot used in the film. Three years later, during the energy crisis, he was arrested for driving the chariot on the highway.
  • This is believed to be one of only two MGM films where the studio's trademark Leo the Lion did not roar at the beginning of the opening credits, apparently because of the religious theme in the film. The other was "The Next Voice You Hear" (1950), another film with a religious theme. (The lion used in 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey" was the illustrated lion from MGM's record label, not a real lion, and so doesn't count.)

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