Ben-Hur: Charlton Heston’s career-defining performance powers William Wyler’s magnificent epic

William Wyler’s spectacular epic, Ben-Hur(1959), is famed for its grand sets and great action sequences, like the famous chariot race and sea battle. In actuality, it is a classy, intimate human drama that puts its emphasis on great themes and ideas above all else.

I like portraying heroes of antiquity whose values were grander and more spectacular than those of today.
You can be sure that they’ll be showing ‘Ben-Hur’ somewhere for a long, long time to come.

Quotes by Charlton Heston

The very mention of Ben-Hur conjures up images of spectacle and grand set pieces, and Justifiably so, as the film set new benchmarks as far as the technical side of film making is considered. The chariot race still remains an extraordinary cinematic achievement; and is one of the greatest action set pieces ever created for the motion picture screen. Ben-Hur was also the biggest budgeted film of its time, filled with spectacular sets like the Circus Maximus and the city of Jerusalem. The film was one of the earliest 70 MM productions with an advanced sound system, a cast of thousands and a running time of 3 & 1\2 hrs. This was epic film making on a scale that had not been seen before and is unlikely ever to be seen again. But all these things are just a part of what makes Ben-Hur such a great film.

For me, the film is foremost an intelligent, exciting, and dramatic piece of film-making.  A compelling human story ;of revenge, bitterness, redemption and forgiveness. In the film, Charlton Heston plays the Prince of Judea, Judah Ben-Hur, who is betrayed by  his boyhood Roman friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd). Judah and his family (his mother, Miriam, played by Martha Scott and sister, Tirzah, played by Cathy O’Donnell) are condemned to a life of banishment and slavery. Judah manages to return from exile to take revenge. He defeats Messala in the famed chariot race sequence. Messala dies in the aftermath of the injuries suffered in the race, but still, Judah’s bitterness doesn’t end, and he wants to raise a violent rebellion against Rome. Interspersed in this story are Judah’s inspirational encounters with Jesus. Judah is  present at the Christ’s Crucifixion and that experience will lead him to a path of peace and forgiveness. The film is based on the original novel written by General Lew Wallace. The novel is not what one would call classy by any standards, and is basically a first-century version of Dumas’ The  Count of Monte Cristo. The novel is a strange mix of history and fiction (that borders on fantasy), written in the form of a romantic adventure story. It doesn’t posses elements of social realism or much depth in characterization. Ben-Hur is one of those rare instances where the film is much much better than the novel from which it is adapted, and It’s Wyler’s directorial touches that elevates this material to greatness. What Wyler did with Ben-Hur is very similar to what Francis Ford Coppola did with The Godfather; that’s to take a wildly popular (or populist ) novel and pump it up with class and sophistication. Eschew its more cheesy, racy aspects and find the human story buried underneath all that pulp.

Ben-Hur could be considered the first of the modern epics. Though it was made with the full support of the traditional studio system; or rather, to save the old studio MGM, from bankruptcy; the acting, writing and characterizations in the film is very different from what was prevalent at the time. One need only check out Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten commandments that was made just 3 years ago (again with Heston in the lead) to notice this difference. There is a verisimilitude to this film, regards to its time period – in costumes, sets and overall behavior of the actors – that was rarely found in those biblical\Roman epics of its time. The films gets rid of the political and religious aspect of the story and turns it into a personal, spiritual exercise.  The psychology of the characters are well developed and the inter personal dynamics between the characters are deepened. Judah’s struggles are more internal, and he is driven more by the loss of family, love and friendship- that is manifested in him as an unquenchable spiritual thirst, with Water being a recurring motif in the film – than by any political or religious motivation. The triggering point of Ben-Hur is a friendship between people (here represented by Two boys, Judah and Messala) of different races ,different classes and different nationalities not standing the test of time or their changing spiritual environment. The Jewish boy who is born, brought up and continued to dwell in the spiritual land of Judea retains the same warmth and affection for his boyhood friend, while the Roman boy who comes back from the pagan, imperialist Rome is now a cold ‘professional’, who merely want to use his friend for his own selfish ends. When he is spurned, he destroys his old friend and his family. Judah’s hatred for Rome stems from what happened to him personally; as Judah tells Pontius Pilate in the end, after Messala is dead and his family are now leprous outcasts, that it was not Messala, but Rome who destroyed his family “I knew him well , before the cruelty that Rome spread in his blood“.  Rome destroyed his family and Rome destroyed Messala too .So, when he sees Christ sacrificing himself for the greater good of humanity, he understands that there are things bigger than his personal loss and it becomes easier for him let go off the bitterness and ‘take the sword off his hands’, as he puts it.

There are quite a lot of relational dynamics to be handled in adapting the novel to big screen to ensure that it works in the context of film as well for a modern audience. Wyler achieves this by setting up a series of brilliant echoes\mirror-images in visuals and characters. There are two master – slave relationships that undergoes a transformation during the course of the film. First is between Judah and Esther. He gives her freedom and then she chooses him as her lover and ultimately her husband out of her own free will. The second is between Quintus Arrius and Judah. Here, Judah is the slave and he is freed by Arrius, and, finally, adopted as his son. Both Messala and Arrius are two sides of the Roman coin. One who was like Judah’s brother betrays him and send him to the Galleys. The other, for some unknown reason, helps him by unchaining  him during the sea battle which allow him to escape as well as rescue Arrius. Thus, a lost Roman brother is replaced by a loving Roman Father. Judah also regains a brother\friend in Sheik Iiderim, and it’s interesting to note that what unites them is their common hatred for Messala. Earlier, Judah had gifted a white horse to Messala as a gesture of friendship. Now, the same horse(s) will become a symbol of war, as Judah races Sheikh’s magnificent white horses against Messala’s blacks. The ones that Judah cannot regain are his mother and sister. He is willing to overlook the betrayal and  forgive Messala if he returns his mother and sister to him. But once he realizes that they are lost for ever, he wishes to fill that loss with blind vengeance. But even Messala’s defeat does not heal his wounds . He renounces his roman citizenship. His relationship with Esther sours, and he seems doomed to be consumed by his own bitterness. He is saved from going into this tragic state by the presence of Christ. Earlier in the story, Jesus quenched Judah’s thirst by giving him water, when Judah was being taken to the galleys; in his death, Jesus quenches Judah’s spiritual thirst. We see Jesus’ blood from the crucifix running free in the rain, and travelling into the streams and rivers, and salvation spreading throughout the land. It’s in this ‘spiritual cleansing’ moment that the venom of hatred, vengeance and violence that was slowly turning Judah into Messala is released from his soul. To add to his ecstasy, his mother and sister are cured of Leprosy, and they are restored to him as they were before; that’s before everything went wrong in their lives. This is what gives the film its true epic dimension, more than the opulence, the historical setting or spectacular set pieces; this idea of a personal (micro) story of the ordinary individual getting entwined – affecting and getting affected – by the larger macro story of Christ (that forms the film’s subtitle) that is going to change the world.

Wyler does a great job of eliminating  the cheesy aspects of the story, like the femme fatale Iras, daughter of Balthazar, who lusts after Judah. The Madonna\whore nature of the triangle between Judah, Esther and Iras is thus thankfully avoided, with Esther becoming the sole romantic lead of the film; and providing the film with more clarity as well as thematic depth. Judah’s unwavering hatred and bitterness for Messala runs in parallel to his unwavering devotion and affection for Esther. Their relational arc is also expanded: though Esther is the slave, she is spiritually and intellectually superior to him.  It is subtly emphasized by framing Esther on a higher plane in relation to Judah: she is always seen coming down the stairs in her every meeting with Judah, and, in the final scene, we see Judah climbing up the stairs to her, where we get the final family reunion. Judah has finally reached that high spiritual ground inhabited by her. The spiritual nature of the final scenes undercuts the fantasy\Miracle aspect of these events as depicted in the novel and ‘modernizes’ it for a contemporary movie audience. These are the great Wyler touches that elevates the film into  a serious, thinking man’s epic that puts it head and shoulders above the novel as well as any number of biblical  epics made at the time. Wyler also gets rid of explicit themes of religious conversion and Christian supremacy that is inherent in the original novel; in turn, emphasizing the universal brotherhood of races and religions .Eliminating or underplaying  the political and religious angle and emphasizing the personal human story  makes the film less dense and more straightforward narrative wise, as well as making it more dramatic- a big plus for an epic movie that runs more than three hours. This really shows Wyler’s cinematic instincts as well as his commercial instincts as a storyteller that made him one of the most decorated as well as the most successful filmmaker of his times.

Charlton Heston and Miklos Rózsa are the two giant towers on which Ben-Hur stands. Heston, who won his sole Oscar for his performance in this role, brings an extraordinary amount of physical, moral and spiritual strength to the role. He is both powerful and vulnerable at the same time.  His performance is a perfect mix of the nuanced and the  theatrical keeping in tune with the intimate and epic nature of the film.  In some instances, Heston underplays, and also gets very theatrical in the course of the same scene. Take the scene where Judah and Messala part ways. It begins subtly enough, Judah is trying to ward off Messala’s queries about ‘traitors’. But then Messala insults Judah and the Jewish people after he realizes that Judah won’t become an informer. Heston goes really big here as Judah with the words:

“Rome is an affront to God. Rome is strangling my people and my country and the whole earth, but not forever. I tell you, the day Rome falls, there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before.”

But then he underplays the next moment beautifully when he is given a choice ” you’re Either for me or against me” by Messala.

“If that is the choice, then I’m against you,”

Heston subtly expresses both his resolve and his pain and  regret about losing his friend. The tentative love scene with Esther that follows this quarrel brings out this subtle, sensitive side in Heston even more. During the scene, Esther  brings up an old incident in which  Judah was saved by his Roman friend , whose name she doesn’t remember. Judah says he is ‘Messala‘; and the way Heston say it is just brilliant, conveying the same emotions of pain and regret  from the earlier scene, only now in a different context. I am always surprised and offended when people call Heston a wooden actor and ‘broad’ performer devoid of any nuance. Anybody who has seen this performance would realize his depth as an actor. He is born to play this role and it’s impossible to imagine anybody else carrying this off, especially those costumes. Nobody can carry off period costumes like Heston. As opposed to a lot of actors who look clumsy and uncomfortable in these clothes, Heston really knows how to ‘work’ his clothes and make them look lived in. A flick of his tunic, the way he pulls the robe close with his hand, or the way he walks in a toga, he looks very comfortable and natural. He also has a great physical presence  that prevents him from being dwarfed by those massive sets. It’s undoubtedly his best performance and Wyler being the great actor’s director he is, extracts the best out of him. Initially, Wyler was not happy with Heston’s performance and told him so. Heston asked him what he could do to improve. Wyler , who was notorious for not explaining himself too much , just said to him:

‘Chuck, you need to be better in this part. I don’t know how to tell you to do that, but you need to dig down deep and find that character within you and bring it out.’

Heston recounted that it was an ego crushing moment for him and he just sat there with his drink in his hand for an hour or so after Wyler had gone. Of course, he did get better, better enough to win an Oscar.

Music Maestro Miklos Rozsa’s score is the film’s highlight. It is the greatest score of his career and one of the greatest scores ever created for motion pictures. Rozsa scored nearly two-thirds of the film’s 212-minute length, that’s about 2 & 1\2 hrs. of 3 & 1\2 hr. movie. This kind of wall to wall music score might have looked jarring in any other film, but not here. The score provides a grandeur and spiritual core to the film that elevates the already grand visuals to another level. Nobody knows what the music was like in Roman times and whatever we identify today as the music of that era is created by Rozsa for films like Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur.  He creates a grand symphonic score with multiple themes and motifs, using violins, trumpets and pipe organs. The main music theme of the film is highly eclectic that easily segues into different emotions from pomp and pageantry to romance, grief, anger and spirituality.  The central set piece – the lengthy chariot race sequence- is the only portion of the film devoid of any music.  Rózsa deservedly  won his third Oscar for his score, which is perhaps the longest score in movie history.

Producer Sam Zimbalist, who has produced some huge hits for MGM in the past like Quo Vadis and King Solomon’s mines, was the chief architect of Ben-Hur. The film was in pre production for almost six years and underwent many changes in Directors, writers and lead actors. Zimbalist chose Wyler because he was hoping to make an intimate epic and Wyler, who was more famous for sophisticated dramas like The Letter and Roman Holiday, accepted the offer because he wanted to make all kinds of films and Ben-Hur offered him the opportunity to make an epic to outdo even C.B. Demille’s epics.   Ben-Hur scooped an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards and, unlike some later rivals, richly deserved every single one, except perhaps Hugh Griffiths turn as Sheik Iiderim. Stephen Boyd as Messala deserved that award more. The film would also go on to become one of  the biggest blockbusters of all times and saved the studio from bankruptcy. But Sam Zimbalist did not live to see it. The pressures of pulling off such a huge production that went on  for over a year in Rome took a toll on his health; and he fell dead before the production ended. Heston paid homage to Zimbalist in his best actor acceptance speech at the Oscars . He later remarked about the grueling experience of making the film “I knew this was going to be long haul, but I didn’t think I was going to have to roll a galley all the way to Los Angeles.”


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