Monday 20 January 2020

Ben-Hur: last of the lavish epics

Taking the reins: Jack Huston wrestles for control during the chariot race scene in a remake of Ben-Hur
Taking the reins: Jack Huston wrestles for control during the chariot race scene in a remake of Ben-Hur

You might be forgiven for thinking that the 1959, Charlton Heston version of Ben-Hur was definitive, but Timur Bekmambetov and the good people at Paramount would appear to disagree. In a few weeks, a new version of the epic will be released with Jack Huston taking on the role of Judah Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell playing Messala, the Roman friend who betrays him, and Morgan Freeman co-starring as a Nubian sheik who teaches Judah how to handle a chariot.

As Mr Bekmambetov is best known for effects-laden action films like Night Watch and Wanted, he's sure to throw a lorry-load of Cgi at this rousing tale of a Jewish prince who's sold into slavery, becomes a celebrated charioteer and finds redemption through Christ. But whether all this will match up to the aesthetic opulence of the William Wyler version definitely remains to be seen. Because whatever its shortcomings in dramatic terms, the 1959 film was certainly magnificent to look at.

I was lucky enough to see it on a big screen a number of years back, when my weary eyes had already grown accustomed to the bland excesses of computer generated imagery. And the thing I found hardest to accept while watching Ben-Hur was that all the crowds, the buildings, the fights and races had been done using real people, horses and sets.

It must have been a truly monumental undertaking, and was one of the last huge Hollywood epics ever made, for the simple reason that making them subsequently became prohibitively expensive.

But the Wyler film wasn't the first Ben-Hur movie adaptation: in fact it was the third. It all started back in 1880, when a small-town lawyer and Civil War veteran called Lew Wallace released an action-packed historical novel called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It became a huge hit, even outselling Uncle Tom's Cabin, and its appeal to Americans was obvious.

Its hero, though necessarily a Jew given his historical and geographical situation, would jump ship and convert to Christianity as soon as it was invented, and prosper while remaining primly virtuous. It was the perfect story for the country's Protestant establishment, and it bore a lot of retelling.

In 1899 a spectacular theatrical version was launched on Broadway, and would spend two decades touring the theatres of the English-speaking world. A short film based on Ben-Hur followed in 1907, though at 17 minutes it must have rattled through the story pretty quick. That wasn't the film's only problem, because its producers had neglected to ask the author's estate for permission, and were promptly sued. The ensuing legal battle helped establish the rules for securing film rights.

Fred Niblo's 1925 version had the full backing of the Wallace estate, and at 143 minutes was one of the longest films of the silent era. It was also the most expensive: a staggering (for the time) $9m was spent on costly location shoots in Rome, and Niblo shot more than 200,000 feet of film during his famous chariot race sequence. As a result, even though it was a big hit around the world, it ended up losing money.

But Niblo's film was a breathtaking achievement, a kind of mini-masterpiece, and his chariot sequence, which pushed the boundaries of what was considered possible in film-editing and montage at the time, is considered by some to be as important in its way as Eisenstein's staircase sequence in Battleship Potemkin. No wonder the 1959 film paid Niblo the backhanded compliment of re-creating his chariot race almost shot for shot.

MGM had planned a remake since the early 1950s, and were spurred to action by the huge success of Cecil B DeMille's 1956 biblical epic The Ten Commandments. William Wyler had been one of 30-odd assistant directors on Fred Niblo's 1925 Ben-Hur, but played hard to get when MGM approached him about directing the new version, mainly because he thought the working script was a mess. He agreed when the studio upped his salary and began hiring writers like Gore Vidal to fix the screenplay.

There would later be a furious row over who had actually written the final version, and the ever mischievous Vidal infuriated Charlton Heston by claiming that he'd injected a homosexual subtext into the relationship between Judah and Messala, and that everyone but Heston had known about it.

Whatever about that, Vidal, Christopher Fry and several other writers managed to get it finished, though not before the film had started shooting. And in the postwar, post-holocaust era, the original book's mild anti-Semitism was replaced with an attitude of stolid admiration for the struggles and fortitude of the Jewish nation.

Charlton Heston, or the 'big cornpone' as the film's crew nicknamed him, was nobody's first choice to play Judah Ben-Hur. When the remake was first touted in the early 1950s, Marlon Brando was attached to the project, and his presence would surely have made for a very different film. Burt Lancaster was approached, and while physically perfect for the role, at 45 or so might have been a little old. In any case he said no because he found whatever version of the script he saw unreadable.

Paul Newman, perhaps wisely, decided he would look insufficiently heroic in a tunic. Kirk Douglas, the future Spartacus, was very keen on the part and actively lobbied for it, but MGM eventually decided on Heston instead. After all Heston had the sword and sandal credentials, having just starred in DeMille's Ten Commandments. Chuck Heston had limitations as an actor which were all too obvious in the film he made right before Ben-Hur, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. But in grandiose epics his stiffness sort of made sense, and he certainly looked the part: large, well-built and chisel-jawed, he might have been the model for one of those classic Roman statues.

Principal photography on the film began at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome in May, 1958, but not before a huge amount of preparation had been completed. The Ben-Hur production would employ 300 sets scattered over 148 acres, and by the end of the shoot more than a million pounds of plaster and 40,000 cubic feet of timber had been used to create incredible scale reproductions of Roman buildings, arenas and streets.

The sets were so impressive that they became tourist attractions in their own right. The villa of Roman consul Quintus Arrius was incredibly elaborate, and included 45 working fountains, while the chariot arena covered 18 acres and was the largest film set ever built at that time.

Around a million props were made to order for the film, as well as 100,000 costumes and a thousand suits of armour. Thousands of camels, horses, donkeys and sheep were drafted in, unfortunately in the days before animal welfare. And an estimated 10,000 extras were hired to fill the edges of William Wyler's sprawling 70mm tableaux.

The scale of the production was staggering, and Wyler and his team were under huge pressure to get the film finished in time for a 1959 release. They shot 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week for seven months, and MGM had a doctor on hand to administer exhausted actors and crew members with restorative vitamin B shots that Wyler later suspected might have been laced with amphetamines.

To save time, he had his lead actors on permanent standby in full costume so he could shoot minor scenes during delay.

Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell, who played Judah Ben-Hur's afflicted wife and sister, spent an entire month permanently caked in leper make-up, which can't have been fun.

A specialist second unit crew was hired to shoot the famous chariot race, based as we have noted very closely on Fred Niblo's 1925 sequence, but brilliantly executed nevertheless.

And back in California, 40 miniature ships, two seaworthy 175-foot Roman galleys and a giant tank were used to create a memorable sea battle in which Ben-Hur changes his fortunes by saving a Roman consul's life.

Watching the finished film, one is fascinated by the organic way in which the story was created and told, using techniques that would be absolutely out of the question for financial reasons now.

Wyler and his team's heroic endeavours paid off: Ben-Hur became the highest grossing film of 1959, and won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and, for Heston, Best Actor.

That last award seems puzzling, especially since the other nominees that year included Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot), James Stewart (Anatomy of a Murder) and Laurence Harvey (Room at the Top), but is an indication of the esteem in which film's achievements were held.

Perhaps people realised that Ben-Hur was one of the last of its kind, and that very soon, these lavish epics would no longer be possible to make.

By the mid-1960s the genre had disappeared altogether, and not till the year 2000, and Ridley Scott's Gladiator, would advances in special effects make them feasible once again.

If you watch one film…

A really good Irish film is something to celebrate, and happily there are quite a few on the way. Darren Thornton's drama Date for Mad Mary is a real treat, and will be released early next month, as will Peter Foott's hilarious comedy, The Young Offenders. And meanwhile we have Viva, out this week and a most unusual Irish film. Directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Mark O'Halloran, it's set in Cuba, is conducted almost entirely in Spanish and follows one man's rocky path towards self-expression.

Hector Medina stars as Jésus, a young man from Havana's vibrant slums who makes ends meet by working as a gay prostitute and doing the hair of the local drag queens. He hangs out at a club where they mime splendidly to popular songs, and Jésus dreams of joining them, but in his way stands his formidable father. Angel (Jorge Perugorria) has recently been released from prison, and is horrified to discover that his son enjoys dressing up like a peacock and pretending to be a woman. But Angel is sick, Jésus yearns for a meaningful relationship with his father, and the possibility of rapprochement gives this film real emotional depth. The music in Viva is wonderful, and all in all, this is an Irish film to be proud of.

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