Clocking in at 3 hours and 44 minutes (for the 1962 edit), the original Ben Hur is more than a movie – it’s a commitment. But I decided to make that commitment when I saw that they were releasing a remake (2016). At first glance, remaking the spectacle of galley fights and chariot races seemed like an excellent application of modern filmmaking techniques and technology to breath new life into a film from another time. Of course, that assumes that the older film needs updating, or that the update is what that film needs.
Ben Hur is considered a Hollywood classic. But even the classics often fall flat when exposed to the modern palette. Once I began watching, I found more the a few angles from which to pick at this movie.
One of the on-line reviews I read complained about the painting of historical Israel with the brush of 1950s American. To be sure, there is plenty of that in the movie. The film’s score, in particular, is a jarring cacophony if the modern classical style. Combined with the lengthy “Overture” and pretentiously-named “Entr’Acte“, the orchestra becomes a character all its own.
But part of me wonders if the American culture that this film reflects is as much that of the antebellum as the post-Korean War America.
The novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published in 1880. It took and held the record for the best-selling American novel of all time until 1936 and Gone with the Wind. Even that book fell again to Ben Hur in 1960 when the release of the movie spurred a new wave of interest in the book. The book was written by Lew Wallace (billed as “General Lew Wallace” in the film) who achieved notoriety in the battle at Shiloh due to his conflict with U.S. Grant.
While the 1950s saw a far more religious America than today’s, the second half of the nineteenth century was well beyond even that. It was this background in which the novel Ben Hur was written and became so popular.
In a biography, it is described that Wallace began the novel as a reaction to a train ride he took with Colonel Robert Ingersoll, a fellow Shiloh veteran who was known, post war, as “The Great Agnostic.” Wallace was not a religious person, but he felt shamed that he hadn’t the background to form convictions on the subject, whether pro or con. This lead him to study the biblical stories and, ultimately, lead him to write the book.
In the rivalry between main character Ben Hur and his nemesis Messala biographers have seen a reflection of Wallace’s own struggle with Grant. They go so far as to refer to a story, printed shortly after Wallace’s death, of a horse race between himself and Grant – a race won by Wallace.
The book was also notable for the meticulous research that Wallace put into his portrayal of the Holy Land. For many American readers, this was the first time they connected a description of the environs in contemporary tongue with the stories of the Gospel which they had grown up with. This was a major factor in the popularity of the book and its effectiveness – it allowed people to see Jesus as a historical figure rather than part of a Sunday sermon (using the language of the King James bible).
Like a joke from another culture, this movie is worth viewing as an artifact from another America. Such jokes can be perplexing and perhaps understood with some explanation and, while one might acknowledge that the joke is funny, rarely will it prompt spontaneous laughter. Likewise this movie, for me, has to be watched with a certain detachment.
Watching it has its pain. That orchestra, of course, seeming to fill far too many dreadfully long pauses. But there is also plenty of over-acting, I assume from an era when “serious” film was supposed to reflect the stage. The conversion from page to screen, as always, leaves holes. A scene in the movie where Messala is goaded into betting massively on his own chariot is left without the second half, where Judah Ben Hur reaps a fortune from his victory. I may need, now, to actually read the novel to see just how far Hollywood took the film away from the story. And how much of what’s wrong in the move can be foisted upon 1950s America versus 1870s America.
All this negativity is not to deny that Ben Hur also has its pluses. For its time, this was the pinnacle of big-budget blockbusters. The sets are vast – the vastness made more impressive knowing that they would be done with CGI today. Naturally, a wary eye can pick out painted sets, or discern when an outdoor scene is being filmed on an indoor stage. Nonetheless, the film is huge. The chariot race and the galley battle are spectacularly done. The size of the crowds are massive. Again, one must consider that those multitudes are all extras and not computer-rendered copies.
So anyway, when I first saw that a remake was in the works, I thought it a brilliant idea. Using a combination of modern technology and, perhaps, better research, I figured such a film could be done properly for today. But that was before I had seen the original. Now that I have, I no longer have much of an interest in the new version. What could be done great with modern effects was already done great, in its own way, in 1959. Improving on the story itself would likely involve deviating further from the original story from the novel. If if the story could be improved, that might still be a problem in this case, particularly given the importance of this book from over a century ago.
I think I may have painted myself into a corner here, buying myself into a read of the original novel and then a viewing of the 2016 film.