Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Setting a Standard of Epic Proportions

"You may conquer the land. You may slaughter the people. That is not the end. We will rise again."

Judah Ben–Hur (Charlton Heston)

As a general rule, I have found that it isn't a good idea to judge a movie you haven't seen by how many Oscars it won. Some of the best movies I have ever seen won no Oscars, and some of the worst movies I have ever seen won several.

That said, "Ben–Hur," which premiered on this date in 1959, managed to live up to the hype created by its then–record 11 Oscars. It was a deserving recipient.

There certainly was a lot to recommend "Ben–Hur" as a movie — and as historical fiction, with its apparently accurate costumes and lavish sets, but not as the literal history of Jesus' life story, which remains the subject of disagreement among people the world over.

I also thought "Ben–Hur" had a bit of a tendency to beat viewers over the head in the process of making its points. It was a little heavy–handed at times.

Early in the movie, for example, when Ben–Hur was watching the parade for the new governor from a rooftop, a loose tile fell and injured the governor. The same thing happened in the book, but, in the movie, the unnecessarily loud sound of loose tile could be heard when it was touched, setting up the viewer for what was to come next. In the print context, I suppose the noise level varied from reader to reader.

It cost more than $15 million to make, and nearly as much was spent on advertising. That was an astronomical amount in 1959, but it paid off handsomely. "Ben–Hur" was the highest–grossing film of the year — and became the second highest–grossing film ever, up to that time (behind "Gone With the Wind").

Director William Wyler didn't like the widescreen format, but it is hard to imagine "Ben–Hur" being nearly as effective without it. Much has been made over the years of the nine–minute chariot race scene, which really is an amazing film sequence, the kind of thing that must be seen either on the big screen or in the letterbox format that simulates the big–screen experience at home.

In the context of the story, it was after the chariot race that Heston's character experienced a reversal of fortune and began to learn the ways of ancient Rome. Still, he wanted to be with his family in his homeland.

Heston went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor — ironic, considering that many other actors were approached about playing the lead role before Heston was asked. Hugh Griffith (whose career began during the heyday of the Ealing Studios comedies) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Wyler won for Best Director.

And Miklós Rózsa received an Oscar for his score, which is often said to be his best. It was certainly influential, and it remained (pardon the pun) instrumental among film music composers for nearly two decades.