Tuesday, July 15, 2014

AFI TOP 100: #100 "Ben-Hur"

Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur (1959)

This past Sunday kicked off the weekly viewing of the AFI Top 100 Movies of All Time contenders.  Beginning at the tail-end of the list, and working our way to #1.  

Kicking off this list at #100 is Ben-Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler.  This film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year, begins in 26 A.D. and tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (a.k.a. Judah, Son of Hur), a young and wealthy Jewish prince and merchant living in Jerusalem, as he witnesses the steady Roman takeover of the city.  His dedication to his people and stance against Rome is tested when his childhood friend, Messala, comes back into his life.  Messala is now a tribune of Rome, influenced by the surrounding power of the State.  Despite his evident love for his old friend, his priorities are clear:  recruit Judah to the Roman cause and convince him to betray his Jewish brethren.

Spoiler Alert:  He refuses.  This refusal contributes to Judah, as well as his mother and sister, being unjustly arrested and tried for treason.  Not knowing what becomes of his family, Judah finds himself slaving away in the galleys of a Roman ship for more than three years -- with the prospect of one day seeking vengeance  the only thing keeping him alive. 

There is a B-story here that could almost be considered the main storyline.  Throughout Judah's journey and eventual freedom, there is a not-so-subtle littering of the life of Jesus Christ just on the periphery.  The revenge and hate that seeps through Judah Ben-Hur's veins is counter-balanced by the teachings of forgiveness that the people he encounters along the way are beginning to incorporate into their faith.  This parallel all culminates to a climax that, quite literally, washes all the characters of the sins of their past.

This is a film I saw many times growing up, and there are features I remembered distinctly:  the stunning beauty of the art direction (matte paintings galore!), being irrefutably scarred by the Valley of the Lepers, and of course, the epic enormity of the famous chariot race.

But one thing I didn't remember was just how religious the film was.  Pretty absurd, right?  Considering the movie is a remake of the 1925 film, Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ.  Somehow, though, in my young state, the Christian under- and over-tones completely escaped me.  For my father, the Methodist minister and movie-lover, classic film-making history trumped religion every time.  

And so, as a result, I followed suit.  Re-watching the movie now, as an agnostic adult, I'm shocked at what went over my head as a child;  what didn't quite sink in.  The visual references aside, there are many instances where Judah and his family are affected by the religious change around them.  The storyline incorporates these details really beautifully, and it can't be denied that the "birth of Christianity" is at the core of the film. 

Stephen Boyd (Messala) and Heston
Technically speaking, this film is spectacular.  On more than one occasion, my movie night guests remarked loudly about the incredible lighting, the composition of the scenes, and the truly groundbreaking dolly shots.  Most who haven't seen Ben-Hur in its 3½ hour entirety are still aware of the climactic chariot race sequence -- yet there is so much more here to enjoy.  Wyler certainly takes his time navigating Judah's story, and at many points, it feels pretty laborious.  Yet I can excuse those pitfalls because, in some instances, dragging out a moment offered some of the best subtleties ever to grace Code Era cinema!  Rumors of writer Gore Vidal's influence on the character of Messala, and his suggestion to actor Stephen Boyd to play the role with a deep-seeded, unrequited love for Judah Ben-Hur, is a noticeably inspired undertone that immediately changes every moment of their interactions.  Given that any suggestions of homosexuality were forbidden by the Hayes Code at the time, watching Stephen Boyd's longing glances (completely unbeknownst to Heston) is a pure delight.

The American Film Institute originally listed this movie as its #72 pick for the first Top 100 Movies list in 1997, and it dropped considerably on this 10th Anniversary list.  And many believe it will likely fall off the list altogether in 2017's revised tally.... But I don't think so.  In fact, a predict a small rise.  While the religious aspects hold less sway over audiences now than they may have in the past, there is so much more to honor here.  And I'm happy to have revisited it after so many years.

Rating:  ★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check back next week when we watch Toy Story!

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