DT Moviehouse Review: Ben-Hur

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. This go round, I took another look at William Wyler’s epic 1959 remake of Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur.

(1959) Directed by William Wyler

Screenplay by Karl Tunberg

Tagline: A Tale Of The Christ/The Enterainment Experience Of A Lifetime


What It’s About:
Ben-Hur-1During the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) reunites with his childhood friend, Roman Tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd) and clash over differing ideologies. When Messala, seeking to weed out Jewish dissidents in the Judean province, demands that Judah inform him of the identity of Judean rebels, Judah refuses. After a loose roof tile slips from the roof of his house and strikes the passing governor in the street, Messala uses the incident as an excuse to make an example of his old friend, imprisons his wife and sister, and condemns him to enslavement and certain death in the belly of a war galley. Judah vows revenge, and begins an epic odyssey that will take him from slave to Roman noble, to champion of the Circus Maximus, and bring him face to face on several momentous points in both their lives, with Jesus Christ.

Why I Bought It:
benhur41A perennial Easter season movie on TV when I was a kid, I was already a fan of Charlton Heston from his outings in The Ten Commandments and Planet Of The Apes when I finally sat down to watch Ben-Hur around the age of ten or eleven. That a movie this big (plus three hours running time and using every glorious inch of its 16×9 CinemaScope ratio) crammed into a 4×3 TV and generously padded with numerous Snuggle, Dr. Pepper, and 501 Blues ads still held the attention of a pre-teen kid ought to be a testament to its riveting story. I’m hard pressed to think of any more compelling revenge story in the history of Hollywood movies, moreso because even after Judah attains his vegeance, there’s still nearly an hour of running time to go, and seeing him come to terms with the hollowness of his purpose and seek and find (in what is the most literal example of Deus ex machina in cinema) redemption is just as emotionally satisfying as seeing the fascist Boyd get trampled by horses.

It was the story that grabbed me that first go-round, but every time I watch Ben-Hur I come away with something more. I never really understood the grandeur of it as an experience until I had the opportunity to see it screened in Chicago. The presenter memorably reiterated the movie’s spectacle, running off an amusing grocery list of its various aspects including “Roman soldiers, a chariot race, a screenplay by Gore Vidal (uncredited), the three Magi, Charlton Heston in a loincloth, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus Christ.”

ben-hur-jesus-crucifiedUp to that point I don’t think I’d ever seen Ben-Hur in its intended format, and I was blown away by the color, details, but most especially by the sound. In a theater, the trumpet blasts of Miklos Roza’s deservedly Academy Award winning score are akin to being in the audience during a real Roman triumphal parade, and most memorably for me, the scene in which the blood of Christ heals Miriam (the wonderfully empathetic Martha Scott) and Tirza (the lovely Cathy O’Donnel), with its accompanying crashes of lightning and rolling thunder are an incredible achievement in sound design. Each peal actually resonates in the breast, each crack of lightning illuminates the entire darkened theater, forcing you to squint. It’s like having God Himself coughing in the seat in front of you.

???????Wyler populates the screens with dramatic, larger than life compositions that call to mind the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, and probably inform the heroic works of later masters like Frazetta, Jeffrey Jones, and Vallejo. For a movie often called A Tale Of The Christ, it’s an interesting and effective stylistic choice to never show Jesus’ face. Definitely adds to the mystique and makes the miraculous nature of the ending more believable.

Heston is fabulous as the driven Judah, going from quiet dignity to obsessive, righteous wrath, and finally spiritual awareness admirably, but his foil, Stephen Boyd as Messala is a standout for me, one of the greatest villains in any movie. He’s attractive and arrogant, refined and harbors a barely contained sadism that comes to the forefront whenever he loses his temper, and nowhere moreso than in the chariot race, when he employs a ‘Greek chariot’ with spiked wheel hubs (yeah like in Grease) and actually turns his whip on Judah as they race neck and neck.

messalaHis rabid admiration for Rome and all her policies is apparent at almost every turn. When Judah jokes about the local inferior wine being especially brewed for the Roman garrison, Messala slips in “You’re very cruel to your CONQUERERS” and looks Judah straight in the eye, daring him to say anything. His very intonation of the word Roman is robust and loving. He takes pleasure in its sound. When Judah calls his quarters grim, he says, “Not grim. Austere. Virtuous. Roman.” When Messala speaks of his military campagins to Tirza, he boats, “Other countries have armies. Fine armies. I know. I fought them.” And beat them, you can hear in his voice.

ben-hur-movie-image-2For all intents and purposes, Messala IS Rome, in its worst sense. He IS tyranny. He IS power. He glories in his authority and cruelty. At the same time, he is baffled by opposition to Rome. When Judah, aghast that Messala intends to prosecute him for attacking the governor when he knows he is innocent, exclaims “You know? You are evil!” Boyd’s tone is one of hurt. “No Judah I am not evil. I wanted your help. Now you’ve given it to me.”

Then again...maybe Chuck WAS aware of the subtext.

Then again…maybe Chuck WAS aware of the subtext.

Much has been made of the gay subtext in the relationship between Judah and Messala. Heston claimed there was none that he was aware of, but supposedly Boyd said he played it with that awareness, and Vidal swears it was in there. It’s interesting to watch their reunion scene with that in mind, where they embrace (Boyd perhaps a little more intensely, a little more lingeringly), cast spears together (“Down Eros! Up Mars!” or “manly warfare is worth more than feminine love!” it could be interpreted), etc. I suspect all parties involved were telling the truth. Heston probably wasn’t informed of the subtext because he wouldn’t have gone along with it. It still plays out great.ben-hur-updated-2There are a number of supporting performances that add to the greater whole. Frank Thring as Pontias Pilate is pretty good – yes, Frank Thring who played The Collecter in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Sam “Gunga Din” Jaffe as the blinded Simonides, Finlay Currie as the humanistic third wise man Balthazar, the great Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrias, and Hugh Griffith as the horse loving Sheik, Haya Harareet as the gentle Esther – no flat notes in any of the performances.

Ben-Hur is one of those rare instance of a movie totally transcending its source material. Of course the source material dated back to 1880, so the prose is a bit lofty and flowery, definitely in the Deerslayer style, with lots of people telling you exactly what they’re feeling and why for a couple pages at a time. It was written by General Lew Wallace. At the time, he was governor of New Mexico, and his drafting of the classic novel may have been part of the reason Billy The Kid’s deal with the Guv fell through or went unfulfilled/unanswered anyway.

circusAnd the sets! The sets are gorgeously designed, from the deck of the Roman galley to the incredible achievement of the Circus Maximus.

Best Bit Of Dialogue:

When Messala condemns Judah to enslavement, Judah lunges across the desk at him, restrained by the centurions.

Judah: May God grant me vengeance. I pray that you live until I return!

Messala: Return? 

Best Scene:

benhur2I would be remiss to not name the incredible chariot race as the best part of Ben-Hur. It really is that great. One of the best action sequences in all of cinema – no exaggeration. The stunts are amazing, the pacing and editing superb. Lucas based the Pod Race sequence in Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace on this sequence.



My personal favorite non-action scene is in the aftermath immediately following the race.

To set the scene up, Judah believes his mother and sister, long imprisoned, are dead. In reality, Messala’s man Drusus discovered them alive in their cell, but infected with leprosy – a death sentence in that age.

Following his spectacular wreck in the chariot race, the once proud Messala is physically smashed and torn.  He lashed to a table, wheezing and groaning. The surgeons wish to amputate his shattered limbs, but he refuses, not wanting to confront the triumphant Judah as less than a whole man. The surgeons are about to force the matter, when the protesting Messala spies the statuesque silhouette of Judah standing in the doorway, holding his victory laurels.

File created with CoreGraphicsJudah enters, and Messala hisses up at him

MESSALA: Triumph complete, Judah. The race won. The enemy destroyed.

JUDAH (pitying his old friend at last): I see no enemy.

Messala is angered.

MESSALA: What do you think you see?? The smashed body of a wretched animal? Is there enough of a man left here for you to hate? Let me help you. You think they’re dead. Your mother and sister. Dead. And the race over. It isn’t over, Judah. They’re not dead…

Judah grips Messala, almost unable to contain himself.

ben-hur-messala-race-is-not-overJUDAH: Where are they? Where are they? (finally, whispering, almost pleading). Messala…where are they?

Messala manages a bloody grin.

MESSALA: Look for them in the…valley…of the….lepers. If you can recognize them.

Judah lowers his head and stifles an indescribable groan of anguish through his teeth.

Messala paws at Judah’s cuirass, hissing.

MESSALA: It goes on. It goes on, Judah.

And he dies.

What. A. Bastard. Haha.

Would I Buy It Again: Yes
Next In The Queue: Beneath The Planet Of The Apes

DT Moviehouse Reviews: 300

Continuing my infrequent blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I slog my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money, here’s Zack Snyder’s only good movie, 300.

(2007) Directed by Zack Snyder, Written by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

Tagline: Prepare for glory!

What it’s about:

The monument to Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae

In 480 B.C. the Persian emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) invades Greece and stubs his well pedicured pinky toe on the militant nation of Sparta, whose forward thinking monarch Leonidas (Gerard Butler) defies convention and logic and leads three hundred soldiers and a couple hundred Athenians to a narrow canyon pathway to bottleneck the million man invasion force in an ultra-heroic do-or-die last stand.

Why I bought it:

300 is the movie that for me, saved modern film.

I had just completed a rotten string of bad luck at the theater. I had seen, in rapid succession, Superman Returns, Nacho Libre, Lady In The Water, (and I could’ve sworn, though the dates don’t seem to bear it out, a Nicholas Cage movie which among my moviegoing friends is now known infamously as ‘that flaming skull biker movie’ and shall remain forever nameless on this blog).

I was pretty disillusioned with Hollywood. I’d gotten to the point where I had to be in the mood to watch anything new.

I was familiar with the story of the Battle of Thermopylae from Larry Gonick’s treatment of it in his seminal Cartoon History Of The Universe, but I hadn’t read Frank Miller’s graphic novel, although I’d been aware of it for some time.

Forget the Spartans...go tell Nanny 911.

I had zero expectations about this. Though it looked visually interesting, I had seen the same extensive green screen technique already used by Robert Rodriguez in his Sin City adaptation, and felt the whole thing had turned out kind of silly. I lovedSinCitythe comic (particularly The Big Fat Kill), but like Watchmen, it worked better as a comic. The exaggerated look of the characters in the film was ridiculously literal and the dialogue just sounded goofy when spoken. I didn’t hate it, but it was pretty forgettable.

I went down to Palm Springs to see 300 with an old buddy who was staying down there for a couple weeks while he worked on the wind turbines (DON’T say windmills in his presence).

From the opening scene, this movie positively arrested me in the theater. It’s baroque style brutality (featuring children no less – something that’s almost NEVER done), it’s Wagnerian music and staging (I love the strangely ominous swelling of the chorus at the return of the majestic young Leonidas wearing the skin of the wolf he killed), and most especially David Wenham’s voice, which drips with the same kind of classical, grand guginol theatrical quality of narration by Vincent Price or Christopher Lee. It’s perfectly matched to the overblown, overdramatic, hyper-realism of the movie’s imagery.

I’m a tremendous fan of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan. I was drawn to seek out Howard via the 1980 Milius movie, but it was the amazing cover art that graced the various Zebra and Lancer paperbacks of Howard’s work that drove me to obsessively collect them. The art of Boris Vallejo, Jeff Jones, and most especially Frank Frazetta set fire to my imagination.

Frank Frazetta - Seven Romans

300 is obviously meant to reflect the style of Frank Miller, but I can’t help but think of Frazetta watching it. The female figures are voluptuous and sensual (spearheaded by the beautiful Lena Headly as Leonidas’ Queen Gorgo – the woman projects maturity, strength and soft and cuddly womanhood at the same time, without being either a waif or a tomboy.  She really should’ve been tapped to play Wonder Woman), the males tigerish and virile in the extreme, and the various ‘monsters’ suitably hideous yet disturbingly humanoid, bolstering the idea that they’re not quite monsters, just corrupt offshoots of humanity.

Which they are.

I’ve heard the cries of homoeroticism leveled at 300. I guess people see what they want to see. Of course the real life Trojans practiced institutionalized homosexuality (it could be argued, pedophilia – which always makes me cringe ruefully at the ‘boy lovers’ line Leonidas directs at the Athenians at one point), but this is only lightly touched upon if at all, mainly in hints in the friendship between the Captain’s son and his best friend.

For my part though, 300’s unabashed maleness appeals to the 12 year old in me that flexed his skinny arms in the mirror hopefully and dreamt of rescuing the cutest girl in class via some act of extreme, righteous (and somehow impressive) violence. It’s a gung ho, unapologetically un-PC guy movie, promoting esprit de corps, nationalism, and the supposed virtues of war, but God dang it if doesn’t pull it off masterfully.

And it’s a helluva a lot smarter than it lets on (perhaps even smarter than its director knew judging from his other work). Consider that the entire movie is narrated by the lone survivor of the Battle of Thermopylae, Wenham’s Dilios.

Leonidas has defied the Ephors (insanely corrupt, bestial oracular priests who molest virgins are part of their ceremonies) and his own government (being maniuplated by Dominic West, who is on the Persian payroll – and looks like an evil Harry Hamlin/Perseus) in taking the fight to Xerxes because he knows the Persians must be defeated. So he tells the wounded Wenham to return and tell them what’s happened. It’s then revealed in the end sequence that Wenham has been narrating the entire movie to a new force of Spartans and free Greeks who have amassed to deal with the Persian threat following the destruction of the 300.

This immediately puts all of the movie’s gross exaggerations (Xerxes is a giant, the Persians are monstrous and use magicians, the traitor Ephialtes is a subhuman, the corrupt Ephors look like C.H.U.D.s, Sparta itself is a sunblessed paradise) into perspective. Wenham’s Dilios intends to relate a heroic, larger than life tale to spur the Spartans to war.

LEONIDAS: ‘You have another talent unlike any other Spartan. You will deliver my final orders to the council with force and verve. Tell them our story. Make every Greek know what happened here. You’ll have a grand tale to tell.’

Dilios spins his tale.

Thus, the movie we’re watching is a tall tale, a grand, glorious bit of propaganda spun by Dilios, the most eloquent of the three hundred, and every fantastic bit of nonsense becomes completely justified. The bomb throwing ‘wizards,’ the monstrous inhuman Immortals, the incredible martial art death dealing of the individual Spartans (ignoring the fact that most of them break the phalanx that was the most crucial component of their defense), all of it.

300 becomes, in this context, a fantastic Greek hero myth, as lusty and bloody and beautiful as anything Homer might’ve recited to get the audience’s blood pumping.

As I said, 300 made me love movies again. At the time I saw it, it was practically unlike anything else that had come before it, a brilliant moving Frazetta painting with larger than life heroes and action.

Best bit of dialogue:

This movie is endlessly quotable, some of the lines actually coming from the original historical accounts (‘Fight in the shade,’ ‘Spartans! Lay down your weapons!’ ‘Persians! Come and get them!’, are both purported to be true exchanges), but my personal favorite is the final curse Leonidas lays on the traitorous Ephialtes just prior the final stand of the 300. Spartan law decrees that any infant born too weak to be raised as warriors, be left to die, and Ephialtes is a twisted, deformed hunchback. Yet his parents, out of love for him, chose to spare him, and we presume left Spartan society. Ephialtes returns, wearing the warrior garb of his late father, claiming his father taught him how to fight. He offers his service as a soldier to Leonidas. Leonidas rejects him due to the practical reason of his not being able to raise his shield arm to maintain a phalanx with the other Spartans. The spurned Ephialtes goes straight to Xerxes and betrays Leonidas, guiding the Persians to a secret pass by which they can circumvent the Spartan defense and surround the 300 in exchange for wealth, sex, and a ridiculously clownish Persian uniform.

In one simple, almost offhanded remark, Leonidas cuts the traitor to his soul, alluding to all the cultural lessons Ephialtes’ father tried to instill in him about seeking honor and a warrior’s life (which of course must end, by a Spartan’s way of thinking, with a warrior’s death on the battlefield). All in five heavy words.

‘Ephialtes. May you live forever.’

If you play it in slow mo, you can see the exact point where Ephialtes' heart breaks...('oo')...right there.

Best scene:

Again, almost too many to cite.  I love the opening sequence, but there is another scene that really sticks with me.

The Spartans are on a bluff overlooking the ocean as a tremendous night tempest unleashes all it’s fury on the horizon-to-horizon Persian fleet, capsizing the great ships, smashing them into each other, and sending thousands of Persian sailors (and we presume, warriors) sinking slowly to the bottom.

The Spartans lose all their previously established discipline and match the storm’s violence with their own apparent exuberance. They beat each other’s shoulders, ball their fists, and scream their exultation at the drowning Persians as the slanting silver rain drives against their bare skin, plastering their hair and cloaks.

The music reaches a tremendous crescendo, utilizing as never before, weird, crashing electric guitar strains that capitalize the barbarity of the moment -men abandoning themselves to extreme joy at the death of other men.

Dilios narrates:

‘Zeus stabs the sky with thunderbolts and batters the Persian ships with hurricane wind. Glorious.’

The camera cuts to Leonidas, who alone stands grim and subdued, frowning at the destruction, not because he doesn’t share in his men’s appreciation at seeing the enemy so destroyed, but because he knows that ultimately, it’s not gonna be enough.

Dilios continues,

‘Only one among us keeps his Spartan reserve. Only he. Only our king.’

Would I buy it again? Yes.

NEXT IN THE QUEUE: The Adventures of Robin Hood