I was a little disappointed that Ben Hur was the first on my list. Ben Hur?! I guess it’s this kind of attitude that’s held me back for so long, so I dealt with it. I didn’t take any time to research the film, other than a quick glance at IMDB, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I’ll probably press on with other films this way, too. I have no idea how to structure any of this, but I thought it would be fun to post raw notes and something a little more fleshed out.
"Three and a half hours long?!" is probably the first impression I had to Ben Hur, but I doubt it’s uncommon. After loading up the movie and pushing play, I breathed a low "Jesus Christ" as I settled in.
Almost ironically, the first scene is the birth of Christ. I discovered that Ben Hur is a religious epic within the first minute. I had no idea. I was under the impression that it was about some other aspect of history, but the subtitle is “A Tale of the Christ.” Interesting. Not thrilled about it, but it could be worse.
Instantly, I noticed how fleshed out and expansive the sets, costumes and extras were. In a modern world, we’re used to fields of soldiers artificially created with CGI, so it was really refreshing and interesting to see how it was done. There are a lot of establishing, wide shots that really showcase the insane aspect ratio of ‘MGM Camera 65.’ Later on, there are some gorgeously crafted scenes (particularly, the chariot races) that you can tell took a lot of time, effort and money.
Being a homosexual, I can’t help but be extremely privy to homosexual crap in film. When going through my notes, I noticed ”homosexual undertones or what? hope there’s some shirtless dudes.” There had to be something here, right? The instant we meet Judah and Messala, we’re kind of like - ok, what is the history here? They’re so friendly, they’re so close, they’re so touchy and they have some lines that leave you wondering. I didn’t know if it was just my 2011 homo-brain over thinking the times of 1959 conservative Hollywood or if I was picking up on something deeper.
Upon researching further, I did find an interesting tidbit. Apparently, the screenwriter (Gore Vidal) claims to have helped persuade the director to “create a veiled homoerotic subtext.” Censorship guidelines from the Motion Picture Production Code wouldn’t allow it. Supposedly, the director took his advice and ”the results can be seen in the film.”
Ahhhhhh, the sweet scent of validation. Glad to know I’m not just horny. In any case, the homoeroticism dies off pretty quickly after Judah discovers he and his childhood “friend” have grown up extremely different.
Another thing we quickly learn is that Romans suck. They’re a bunch of bastards. It’s all presented in the typical “oh, they’re whipping slaves and mean to Jesus” way, but it kind of goes deeper.
There was one part where Judah can’t continue (after being wrongfully accused of a crime he didn’t even commit, jeez!) on his chain gang, falls and utters “God, help me.” I know this is probably a pivotal point in the film, since the kindness is almost repaid later, but I couldn’t help laughing when Jesus instantly steps in. I wonder how many times that’s been said and how many times it’s been answered…probably none more literally than this.
Jesus is bad ass. You never hear him speak or even see his face. One great thing about this film is how they totally control your perception of Jesus, using other elements of film, even characters, without ever revealing Jesus himself.
Going back to mean Romans…I’ve never seen a movie that I can remember where they made it a point to water horses before humans. Horses. HORSES. Horses are a big deal.
Another bit of my notes read: “i swear if these horses die i’m gonna be pissed." Particularly, 4 white stallions that are part of a chariot crew. I know it’s kind of weird, but by establishing a connection with these horses, you end up rooting for them later on. There’s a great scene where the horses react and almost conversate with some of their human costars.
Ben Hur might be best be known for it’s chariot race. I looked up some facts and wanted to pass on that "it took over three months to complete [the chariot scene], using 15,000 extras on the largest film set ever built, some 18 acres.” Impressive, even by today’s standards. What’s even more exciting is how brutal some people are trampled in this scene. You’re human, I’m human, we can’t help but marvel at an onscreen death, but this was different. It wasn’t glorified or bloodied, but it was pretty intense to watch a guy get trampled by horses. It was obviously a dummy, but the length of the shots really drove it home.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but Messala delivers one of the greatest burns after being trampled and defeated. Judah asks where is family is (which is still a secret, up until this point) and Messala replies with "Look for them in the Valley of the Lepers…if you can recognize them." Unnecessary!
But, this brings me to my next point - leprosy. It’s a big deal in Ben Hur and was probably a bigger deal in biblical times, but I just don’t get it. Judah’s family, after being imprisoned for years, contracted leprosy and fled. Now, here’s what I don’t get: The family would rather be dead to Judah. WHAT?! You’d honestly rather have your son think you were dead over him knowing about your leprosy? It just didn’t click for me, but I guess priorities were different back then.
Anyway, Ben Hur. I can see why it would be considered a ‘great movie’ but I was a little disappointed. It was very cut and dry, in terms of story. Other than the delicious servings of wide angle shots, there wasn’t a lot to it artistically, either. I don’t need every movie to have a message, but even with period pieces, there’s usually some flair. Overall, I’d give it a C+. It did hold my attention pretty well for being 3 and a half hours, after all.