Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Salient: An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University of Wellington. Vol. 24, No. 5. 1961

Fine Arts Section — Big, Biblical and Boring — Ben-Hur

page 11

Fine Arts Section

Big, Biblical and Boring


The biblical spectacle in cinema is no new discovery; it is nearly as old as the art itself, in representing as it does, a period of nearly a half century of movies, all through during which there has been little alteration in content, but a great deal in form. The modern Ben-Hur (1960)—is only the present end—result of a transition in style and technique, which in itself has effected during the past eight years in a flood of bible-epics. When the mammoth Quo Vadis was released in 1912, it created an impression of limitless capacity in the new medium. It relied (as did others of the same genre—Ben-Hur, 1926, Judith of Bethulia, 1913) upon the gullibility of its audience and the sensitivity of people to bible history, for effect. And though some of these early attempts—Judith, to name one—were fairly competent, the cramped details of the close-up, the indefinitive focus of the long-shot, the hurried schedule of shooting, and the theatrical tradition adhered to still by many film makers, all gave the final movie an air of artificiality: The movies and the spectacles were in the experimental stage.

Ben-Hur (1960) then, is not a manifestation of new ideas or any marked change in the direction of Hollywood's interest. It is simply an eventual outcome of a long in fashion, tradition. If however, the content in these spectacles has changed little in the past 40 or 50 years, the form in presentation certainly has. With the advent of the wide screen, eight years ago, the industry was again returned to an experimental stage—no one knew how to utilise the new form, no one knew what its results would be: wide-screen development threw a fairly stable medium out of focus for a long time. Unprecedented amounts of detail and realism have been achieved at the expense of the art in general; the close-up has all but disappeared, made obsolete by the circumspective anamorphic lens; editing is now but a label for hinging chunks of stage-play together, to form an incoherent whole: creativity is being minimised. the effort is to awe by sheer physical magnitudes.

Ben-Hur is typical of these new epic films. Typical, because it possesses most of the faults which naturally surround spectacles, and a few of the fewer merits. In laying the blame upon its director, one is not being altogether fair either, for the magnitude of the movie certainly prevents any coordination and lengthy appreciation by just one man. With a film shooting for months, 453 speaking parts, and a cost of 15,000,000 dollars, is it any wonder that Ben-Hur is such an "everyone's finger in the pie film?" Wyler is obviously not at home in the large film, as this and The Big Country (1959) prove. He cannot comprehend the absolute involvement of the film; he is indeed, more assured in the "biggies" than most other directors, but his ingenuity in capturing the format of scenes in Ben is as nothing compared to the subtlety and imagination he has displayed in his earlier Bent Years of Our Lives (1946) and Carrie (1952).

The compositional construction of material in most of Ben-Hur is along the lines Wyler has followed in his previous movies: for the most part, there were shots of lengthy duration strung together on a casual basis, with the important addition of background changing within each shot—thus achieving variety and speed or slackness. His conception of the fast moving frontal object perceived against a static background is here rather well done—the sequence in question being where Quintus Arrius strides up the forum steps to greet his Caesar. Wyler has an eye constantly on perspectives: he can dominate a scene by his scrupulous attention to camera-angle and image, and his studies of tall marble columns and row upon row of people sitting in the circus are undertaken brilliantly. His opening pan of the beginning of the chariot race takes one right into the arena itself. This race is very capably edited, with most shots lasting little longer than three or four seconds. But Wyler's brilliant technique has also two cutting edges; his spurts of ingenuity, failings. His long sweeping scenes are essentially very boring because of the lack of interest sustained in the action through mediocre acting and poor screenplay. And when the fluid chariot race appears in the middle of the film, everything gone before becomes suddenly incongruous; and everything after, is simply dull. Continuity and editing are generally poor. The film is too long and too momentous for any director to make a reasonable job; flashes of brilliance do occur, but these cannot alter the final impression of a gigantic failure. All the clues of Eisenstein, Dreyer and de Mille pooled could not remedy Ben in its present form.

Wyler offers no detailed examination of any character in the film: "spectacle" more or less implies events, and no interest in implications. Ben-Hur himself is as a pin on the map. The central character is the events that cause Judah Ben-Hur and Messala to quarrel and turn against each other, the players themselves are instruments of the forces and events going on around them (forces for the most part, religious, predictable and futuristic). Charlton Heston is now widely accepted as the archetype of Hollywood's mixed-up early Christian, who makes good—he played Moses in Ten Commandments. His is neither a remarkably good, nor deplorably bad performance. The character of Messala is interesting. A victim of events beyond his control—if one is to believe Thunber's pretentious script — who realises social order is necessary not only for the preservation of his own status, but for ethnic stability. Messala is the hated one in the film; the rook eventually taken by the bishop. He is not as vague as Ben-Hur in his aspirations, knows where he is going, believes in material gains and in (albeit "heathen") unworldly pleasures. He is, unfortunately, too staunch a figure to be overshadowed by Ben; and the latter's moral conquest over his defeated foe is unconvincing. The casting in the film is not good: Stephen Boyd, Frank Thring and one or two others turn in average performances, Heston, Haya Hara-reet, Hugh Griffith and above all, Jack Hawkins (once more walking a quarterdeck), incompetent ones.

As with most of the casting, the music in Ben is also trite and barely adequate. All spectacles these days are preceded by an overture and all have some sort of leit-motiv, usually consisting of blazing brass chords, which intrudes whenever a climax is being reached, or when the hero wins a battle. Celestial choirs also sing in Ben-Hur—an arrangement of hepped up Handel, with plenty of Allejuallas. All this is calculated to add emotional intensity where the film most needs it: hence, in the pitiful introduction and the awkward last act, choirs and brass combine to deafen and impress by force.

The immediate success of bible-spectacles is due primarily to the treatment which history receives in them: stale, dubious historic events are steam-heated into something distorted, but relatively alive. Miracles are performed; rivers turn to blood, and today, one may even hear the voice of God in stereo. (This occurs in Solomon and Sheba). Hollywood has given us the latest translation of bible history; a mixture of piety and ignorance, always with flavouring, mostly sex and sadism. One gets the impression that the heroes in these "biblecticles" are somewhat reluctant to lead the good life they somehow know they should. Anyway, today's audience finds it easy enough to soak up the slops; give them plenty of colour, belly-dancing, flagellation and mixed-up young men, and they'll take in simultaneously all the misrepresentations and distortions you care to make apparent. Until such time that directors master the wide-screen form, one must be critical of results and adapt a very high criteria for judgment: with movies becoming increasingly bigger (King of Kings is guaranteed by M.G.M. to out-spectacle Ben-Hur) and the solution to the new dimension unsolved matters will inevitably become out of hand. Until such time, one may be only critical, and judiciously but dispassionately carve to pieces these spectacles (with most of them anyway). The pieces won't be worth rearranging.


Perspective, the Basis of Realistic Perception: seen above, is a shot from William Wyler's Ben-Hur. Notice the vast section of the arena, and the thousands of watchers. At right, is a shot showing Ben-Hur (Heston) trying to dislodge Messala (Boyd) from his chariot in the race. Messala has just given Ben a sound thrashing with his whip.

Perspective, the Basis of Realistic Perception: seen above, is a shot from William Wyler's Ben-Hur. Notice the vast section of the arena, and the thousands of watchers. At right, is a shot showing Ben-Hur (Heston) trying to dislodge Messala (Boyd) from his chariot in the race. Messala has just given Ben a sound thrashing with his whip.

Image from the movie Ben-Hur