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Ben-Hur 2016: I'll Wait for the DVD

Back on March 23, 2016, I posted a Notablog entry, "A New 'Ben-Hur' Looms . . . Oy Vey!," where I provided links to the first promotional trailers to the newest version of the classic Lew Wallace "Tale of the Christ." Preceding this newest version, there was a 1907 one-reeler, a 1925 MGM silent spectacular, and a 1959 11-Academy-Award-winning epic (not to mention a 2003 animated version and a 2010 television miniseries). I had every intention of seeing the 2016 version, and I will do so... once it is released on DVD and/or Blu-Ray. With very few exceptions, the film has received a host of ghastly reviews, and I've just decided it's not worth the effort to go to a theater to see it. But I will provide a serious comparative review when I do have the chance to see the new film, and will reserve judgment on it. What I could not reserve judgment on, however, was the characterization of the record Oscar-winning, William Wyler-directed version as a "kitschy 1959 sword-and-sandals epic," by the New York Times reviewer, Stephen Holden. So I posted a reply yesterday, and the Times published it today at this link. I wrote:

The 1959 "Ben-Hur" is my favorite film of all time. It was the first "intimate epic" that never buried the characters' inner struggles, despite its spectacular grand scale. Heston's performance---even his silent moments and expressions---was worth Oscar gold. This "Tale of the Christ" has always been a parallel story of Judah and Jesus (though director Wyler never clobbers us over the head with religiosity; even an atheist can revel in its spiritual message). And ultimately, it is about redemption; Judah goes from an optimistic, wealthy man to a galley slave bent on vengeance, and finally to a healed man (and that is the true miracle depicted, the curing of Judah's mother and sister's leprosy a physical symbol of a larger spiritual redemption, when Judah says he felt Jesus's words to "'forgive them' . . . take the sword out of my hands"). The film deserved every one of its 11 Oscars, a record tied twice but never beaten. Wyler's brilliant direction and use of symbolism (e.g., take notice of Ben-Hur & Messala aiming their spears where the beams "cross", or Pilate's crowning of Judah after the chariot race as the people's "one true god", or the use of water--and blood--as a cleansing agent) are unparalleled. From its acting, cinematography & editing to Rozsa's greatest film score, it is a crowning achievement. It redefined a genre and stood the test of time. So much for "kitsch." I'll wait for the DVD of the 2016 remake.

Most of the reviewers, to their credit, did not feel the need to pan the 1959 epic; most were laudatory in their evaluations of its intimacy, epic scale, and especially for its thundering chariot race sequence, filmed without the aid (or distortions) of CGI, as one of the three most important action sequences ever to be seen in the cinema (the others being the crop-dusting scene with Cary Grant in the great Hitchcock classic, "North by Northwest," and the Steve McQueen-driven car chase scene in "Bullitt"). And most critics have condemned the new 2016 film as a cut-rate "Classics Illustrated" version of the story, with well-bred actors who are nonetheless puny when compared to the stellar cast of its 1959 predecessor. They have vastly augmented the role of Sheik Ilderim (played in 2016 by Morgan Freeman, and by Oscar-winning supporting actor Hugh Griffith in 1959) and have eliminated entirely the important character, admiral and Roman consul, Quintus Arrius (played with remarkable depth by Jack Hawkins in the 1959 version).

Based on this advance notice, I'm already predisposed toward a less-than-positive review; but, as I said, I will reserve judgment until I see the film. Till then, all I can do is to repeat what I said the first time I posted on this topic: "Oy vey."

Postscript: A number of Christian-oriented publications posted reviews that showered praise on the 2016 version for depicting the virtue of forgiveness even more explicitly than its 1959 predecessor. I reply to this in a Facebook post:

Interestingly, some of the Christian-oriented print media are praising this version of "B-H" as more "forgiving" than the 1959 version, for in this one, Messala lives and the two rekindle their friendship after the crucifixion. The Christian message seems more prominent if only because the 2016 film was produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett who brought us those none-too-subtle "Bible" and "AD" miniseries for television. But if that's the case (and again, I reserve judgment), I think it completely misses the subtlety and power of the Wyler film. Watch the chariot race closely; Messala begins to whip Judah and the two play a tug of war over the whip till Judah takes the whip from Messala and strikes back. And yes, all this is achieved with real men riding real chariots in a real arena, not with CGI effects. But Messala is riding a Greek chariot, with blades meant to rip the wheels off the other chariots in the arena, and he gets so tangled up with Judah's chariot that his own wheels come off and he is dragged and trampled by the other competitors in the arena. At that very moment, watch Heston's expression very closely. He turns and sees Messala fallen, and his expression is not that of a victor, but of somebody who is feeling anguish and pain. He visits the dying Messala, perhaps in a quest to hear something of value. When Messala tells him, in effect, 'you think you've won a victory over your enemy,' Judah responds with: "I see no enemy." But Messala exacts one last cruelty by telling Judah that his mother and sister are not dead, but can be found in the valley of the lepers "if you can recognize them." For Messala, the battle goes on, even with his dying breath. When confronted by Pilate later in the film, an increasingly bitter Judah is told that he's been made a citizen of Rome. Pilate tells him that the intelligent man must learn to live in the real world and for now, that real world is Rome. Pilate admits that there was great injustice in the deeds of Messala's, but despite his anger at his former friend, even at this moment when his lover Esther tells him, "hatred and bitterness are turning you to stone... it's as if you had become Messala," Judah tells Pilate that the deed was not Messala's. "I knew him ... well." He blames the cruelty of Rome for having poisoned his friend, and Pilate tells him, in essence, to get out of Judea, for he is too rich and powerful among his people and a potential threat to the Roman occupation. Judah, in essence, believes that the only way to cleanse this land is "in blood" to scour off their bodies the filth of tyranny. His bitterness begins to shed only when he recognizes Jesus en route to Golgotha, that this was the man who gave him water in the desert and the will to live, when he was first sentenced to the galleys. "What has he done to merit this?" he asks. He attempts to give the fallen Jesus water (the symbolism of water is omnipresent in this 1959 version), but it is kicked away by a Roman soldier. He witnesses the crucifixion--for its time, a very explicit hammering is depicted, and when Jesus dies, his blood falls into the water of a storm, and it travels throughout the land. A symbolic irony here, as the land is indeed cleansed "in blood." When Judah returns home, it is only then that he tells Esther, his lover, that almost at the moment he died, Jesus uttered the words, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And he says that he felt those words "take the sword out of [his] hands." Reunited with his cured mother and sister, amidst a glorious Miklos Rozsa backdrop of rising music, we understand the power of redemption, and of not giving in to hatred and bitterness. Wyler achieves this with subtlety and grace. That subtlety and grace is what makes the 1959 version a masterpiece, a work of art. Downey and Burnett's productions have always clobbered us over the head with their evangelical message; if the new "Ben-Hur" depicts that, then it is only a fool who cannot see the greater power, and universality, of the 1959 version, precisely because of its subtlety.

Postscript II: A reader on Facebook suggests that the 1959 film has been criminally underrated by many critics because of its religious content, but often don't see it from the perspective of one of its screenwriters, Gore Vidal, who added another layer entirely to the tale. I replied:

You are absolutely correct; Vidal claims that he told Wyler that they should approach the relationship between Judah and Messala as a kind of lover-relationship gone bad, with the latter wanting to start up again, and the former, having moved on. Wyler films it that way. And there are the explicit "homoerotic" trappings of "bromance"--even as the two of them look into each other's eyes and intertwine their arms when they drink wine together upon their first meeting after so many years. It is clear that they loved each other very deeply. The truth is that I also think a lot of critics just couldn't stand Heston for his conservative politics, so they forgot about stellar performances in "Touch of Evil," "Ben-Hur," "Will Penny," "The Agony and the Ecstacy," and a host of trailblazing sci-fi films. Heck, even though the script was corny, can you imagine another man parting the Red Sea? But this politics stuff is taken too far and it's a joke, considering that he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. for civil rights, in Washington, D.C. and was President of the Screen Actor's Guild, and only later went on to support Reagan and the NRA. When he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, that paragon of virtue, George Clooney, remarked that Heston announced he had Alzheimer's, but he forgot he had announced it already. Nice, huh? Make fun of a disease that is destructive and debilitating, no matter how cruel, because you hate the fact that the man said he'd hold onto his guns with his "cold dead hands." Heston is said to have answered that he loved Rosemary Clooney, and that it was clear "class" had skipped a generation.

I added (in several Facebook replies):

If we were to look through the lens of politics or personal predilections, we'd probably dismiss three-quarters of the giants of Western civilization, and 90% of pop culture. You don't like Streisand's politics, so does that make her a horrible singer or actress? You think Sinatra was a womanizer and a bully, so does that make him anything less than The Voice of the 20th century? You think Michael Jackson was a pedophile, so does that mean you can't love his dancing or embrace his music? Sometimes people just can't evaluate art for what it is, and when politics gets in the way, they go blind. . . . Quite frankly, without Wagner, the art of the film score might never have been born--that's how important his influence has been on the development of music-as-story-telling, and most of the great Golden Age Hollywood film composers would credit Wagner with that impact. Everything has to be put in perspective (context, context, context :) ) ... and it is possible, and necessary, in fact, to evaluate things and people and achievements on different scales and from different vantage points, As my friend Douglas Rasmussen once reminded me: "Art is not ethics." Indeed! . . . [And] just because I love "Ben-Hur" (1959) does not mean that there was not a "sword and sandals" genre that flourished in its time, which makes the achievement of "Ben-Hur" all the more important as a break from many of the former incarnations of the genre. As the first "intimate" epic of its kind, it was the "fountainhead" so-to-speak of other "intimate" epics, none of them Biblical, per se, but certanly historical, such as "Spartacus" and "Lawrence of Arabia," both of which also benefited from magnificent film scores (Alex North, composer of the former; Maurice Jarre, composer of the latter). To a certain extent, it was even the template for what James Cameron achieved in "Titanic," and Cameron would be the first to admit the impact of "B-H" on his own evolution as a director. All the more interesting because "Titanic" tied the "B-H" record for 11 Oscars (though none of them in acting categories).