Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 146: Ben-Hur

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #142
Year: 1959
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins

You can't say "Hollywood epic" without immediately thinking of Ben-Hur, whether you've seen it or not. Until last night, I hadn't seen it and I still totally got the joke the Monty Python boys were making when they said that their Life of Brian "makes Ben-Hur look like an epic." Between the glistening homoeroticism, constant trumpet fanfares, famous scenes in a slave ship and on a chariot racetrack, and a depiction of the crucifixion, suggesting that this film is anything shy of epic is clearly laughable. Unfortunately, so is a lot of the movie itself. As much as I want to say that 51 years later Ben-Hur has held up, I can't in good conscience. One year later, Stanley Kubrick would make a movie with basically the same formula as this one and called it Spartacus, and if you find yourself craving that era of Hollywood epics, I can't begin to tell you how much more I would recommend that one. Let's talk about some of the problems with Ben-Hur, and maybe you won't think I'm just a jaded asshole.

First of all, it's too fucking long. I'm okay with long movies; a few of my all-time favorites crack the three-hour mark. I just need all of the time to be totally justified, and in Ben-Hur, it isn't. There's seriously a ten-minute scene where people are slowly and deliberately changing their wagers on the chariot race in a currency that no one watching the film would know anything about. Why could this not take, I dunno, 30 seconds? Even the chariot race itself, by far the most impressively shot scene and the most fun to watch, is in grave danger of losing its entertainment value by going on for far too long. Boxing movies don't show entire boxing matches for a reason; if people wanted to watch that, they'd watch a boxing match. If I wanted to watch vehicles circle a track for as long as Ben-Hur made me watch them, I'd turn on NASCAR for the first time in my life. So yes, if this film were to shave an hour from its more than three-and-a-half hour running time, I might have enjoyed it more. I had to watch it in three sittings as it was to keep from falling asleep – more a consequence of my own sleep deprivation, but still.

Another thing I didn't like was the way that the film knows full well that it's epic and thus tries to mold itself accordingly. Every scene was treated as though it were the most important thing that happened in the course of human history, and the acting, while decent, was naturally overblown as a result. Finally, the extremely, sickeningly religious – nay, Christian – ending was a little difficult to swallow. The idea that this man whose life has been consumed by revenge on the Romans for all that they did to him, his people, and his family would hear Jesus' message of tolerance on the cross and give it all up is a little propagandist in my opinion. Yes, I know that his mother and sister were healed of leprosy, but that was by Jesus – not the Romans who made his entire life a living hell. Oh well.

There were still good things about the movie. Charlton Heston performs admirably and reminds us all that he has one of the coolest voices in American history. The chariot race, while too long, as I mentioned above, is unlike anything I've seen from 1959 or before. The Technicolor is vibrant and real-looking; it really places you in Biblical times in a way unlike anything I've ever seen. But I still couldn't totally get on board with the film. It's just too long, too epic, and too religious for me to ever want to watch it again. Sorry, I'm only human.

The Good: The chariot race.

The Bad: The middle section seems to drag the most. I would have start cutting there.

The Skinny: I don't think it should be on the list. Blasphemy, I know.

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