So, I’ve decided to blog about everything I see at the New York Film Festival this year. I have tickets to a bunch of exciting screenings, so it’s going to be cool. To start the festival off this year, a couple of friends and I went to see the new 8K restoration of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), one of only three films to win 11 Academy Awards (I used to be an Oscars nerd). I’d seen Ben-Hur back when I was around 13, so I didn’t remember much of it. Here are my impressions upon this viewing:
– First of all, the new print is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. It’s a shame it isn’t being shown on big screens across the country, because I was simply amazed at how clear and bright the image was, and I think this is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen to get the full effect. I’d honestly never been that into the famous chariot scene before this, but on the big screen, it was simply breathtaking. My heart was in my throat the whole time, and the sound of the racing hooves was wonderfully intense.
– I never get over how obvious the homoerotic undertones are between Judah and Messala. I love the story, famously told by Gore Vidal in The Celluloid Closet (1995), about how he wanted to inject more dramatic tension into the film, so he and William Wyler decided that Messala would be in love with Judah. They purposely neglected to tell Charlton Heston about this, however, so Stephen Boyd is acting his socks off the entire time, looking at Judah with puppy dog eyes for the whole first section of the movie. Then, of course, there’s the spear-throwing moment (nice phallic symbolism there), and the toast:
– Ben-Hur is, of course, subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” and the film handles this element with mixed success. It opens with the birth of Christ, which we assume is also around the same time Judah is born. For most of the film, Judah’s story intersects with Christ’s only sporadically. First, when Judah is on a chain gang struggling across the desert, a mysterious man gives him a drink of water. Christ’s face is never shown on film, which I find very effective. Instead, we only see people’s reactions to him, which I feel makes his presence more powerful than it would if we actually saw the actor. (Note: I am an atheist myself, but I find the Bible interesting as mythology/folklore) Periodically, someone in the film will mention “the young rabbi from Nazareth” to Judah, talking about his ideas, and Judah’s love interest winds up being present for the Sermon on the Mount. In the end, however, the film spends too much time on the Passion. After Judah settles his score with Messala, there is a full hour of the film left, and it is mostly taken up by relatively graphic depictions of the Passion and the Crucifixion. As my friend Maggie said, “Is this movie about Ben-Hur anymore?” Suffice it to say the film loses its way in the resolution – the effect would have been the same with much less time spent on Christ and lepers.
– Something I found odd in this viewing was that the pacing was actually very uneven. Some scenes took way longer than they should have, with beats being drawn out too long between lines and people giving essentially the same reaction multiple times. (Prison guard 1: “Lepers!” Prison guard 2, two minute later: “Lepers!”) On the flip side, there were storylines where necessary scenes were totally elided. My friend was confused by how quickly Judah and the Roman Quintus Arrias went from “We grudgingly respect each other” to “We’re father and son! Hooray!” The editing definitely could have been improved.
– I love the sequence on the slave galley for some reason. Maybe it’s because I used to row…or because Charlton Heston has his shirt off.
– Ben-Hur is not really a good film for female characters. Esther, though she has some sense of agency, is mainly just irritating, while Miriam and Tirzah seem to exist to be rescued. This one’s definitely about the boys.
The screening itself:
– For much of the first half of the film, the sound was significantly off. The projectionist at Lincoln Center had to actually restart the system. It was very distracting.
– At the beginning, William Wyler’s daughter and Charlton Heston’s son introduced the film. The were upstaged by William Wyler’s great-grandchildren dressed in gladiator/toga costumes, made by the Ben-Hur costume department back when it was being shot. It was ridiculously adorable.
All in all, Ben-Hur is definitely worth a watch. It has some fantastic sequences and definitely holds your interest for the first two thirds. In the future, I’ll probably just stop watching after the chariot scene.