Ben-Hur (1959)

Directed by William Wyler
Written by Karl Tunberg based on the novel by Lew Wallace
(number 490)

Things I would rather do than watch Ben Hur: pack boxes
look up the lyrics to the Sparks Nevada theme song
the dishes (and I hate dishes)
watch a bunch of other movies off the 500 list
fold and put away laundry
watch videos of the Disney parades and someone meeting Hiro and Baymax
Tumblr. Tumblr 5-EVER
look up pictures of Burt Ward Robin on tumblr
look up Robin costumes on Amazon
play frozen free fall
read ‘songs for Alex’ by Tessa Duder
go to bed really early
youtube videos I wouldn’t usually click on that my friends have shared on facebook
skype Steve
pee just for the sake of it

Look. I don’t even, it’s the length that put me off. Everyone rolling their eyes when I mentioned it and going ‘oh god, but it’s SO LONG’ and me just going…. ehhhhhh. I can’t be bothered right now.

Actually I did try and watch it a couple of months back but the version I had was in Spanish (I think?) and had no subtitles. Maybe it was Portruguese. At any rate I couldn’t understand it. So I had to get another version and it was a good excuse not to watch it.

Finally, when Anna went out to chorus practice I thought it would be a good time to try. Plus, this way I know I can break it up into a couple of different viewings and it will not be as hard a slog. I hope. I hope.

Filmed back when the MGM logo was just a still of a lion. The movie is excellently made, you can’t deny it. Very stagey like a play, but the sets are impressive.

…and then. Like it is cursed. The smart TV suddenly decided to stop playing Ben-Hur after 20ish minutes. This is truly a trying endevour.

I tried again a week later and the TV still refused to play it, so I switched to my laptop and watched it there. Over 40 minutes in we get to the real story, Judah’s sister accidentally knocks some ceiling tiles onto the Roman parade, the whole family is arrested. Although Judah’s best friend Messala could save him, he chooses instead to pursue power and allow Judah to be sent into slavery.

Judah’s hardships are many – traipsing through the burning desert, denied water, forced to row in a Roman ship. I really kind of love the moment when he is given water by Jesus though, it’s nicely handled. Jesus appears several times over and the film makers obviously didn’t want to show his face at any point. He’s almost always shot from behind and in the famous Pilate washing his hands part you do see him from the front but the face has been manually distorted like so:

ben hur Jesus

It’s an understandable decision but it does kind of make Jesus look like a distorted cursed person from The Ring or a Slenderman image or something… Interesting anyway. Most of the end of the film is the crucifixion and Esther, Tirzah and Miriam’s reactions to the same, with just a bit on the end of Judah coming home and saying Jesus had changed him and he was no longer insanely bent on destruction which is a pretty good ending TBH.

How gay is this film? Well, it really struck me when Judah is rowing and a well to do Roman officer whips his bare, sweaty back and then orders the guards to send Judah to his room when he gets off his shift. Yep. Later Judah rescues him so he can be owned by him, I guess? I mean, you can say I’m reading into this but the Romans were all into the gay love, so it’s period appropriate for it to be sub text.

I watched the third installment a few days later on a Friday night when Anna was out. I learned that more than 200 camels and 2,500 horses were used in the shooting of the film, with some 10,000 extras.

Does it make me love the people? I…. I don’t know. I think it maybe didn’t because if I loved Judah I might have been more invested in this movie than I was. It’s hard to feel much for him when he’s so clearly just SO GOOD because we’re told he is, when his actions don’t have too much impact on what happens and when he doesn’t really emote too much.

I was pretty into Esther. She went from wilting love interest to bad ass devotee of Jesus and insisted on Tirzah and Miriam being taken to see him so that was pretty great.

The Chariot Race: I feel I need an extra section to address the whole chariot race thing, on account of how marvellously epic and impressive it is. On the one hand it’s so incredibly cliche, hero Ben Hur racing his pure white horses through skill alone, evil Messala racing black horses, wearing black, whipping them relentlessly and driving a chariot armed with side spikes. So, it’s a bit easy as a modern audience to kinda scoff at it. But on the other hand, this was all made without the use of CGI, much of the race was actually staged, and that quite took my breath away. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting and it’s hard to imagine what would be changed from this sequence if it were to be filmed now. Besides that they really get across the absolute brutality of the thing. I gasped a couple of times, not gonna lie.

Bechdel test:
Miriam and Tirzah speak to each other quite often in the start of the film, but it’s always about Judah 2 hours, 15 minutes in though Miriam, Tirzah and Esther all have a conversation about Tirzah and Miriam being alive, back and lepers, and about to go to the Valley of the Lepers. Which, sounds like a pretty bad ass place if you ask me. But it does mean that this film passes the Bechdel even though they also talk about Judah, but it’s a long scene.

Best line:
Sextus: You can break a man’s skull, you can arrest him, you can throw him into a dungeon. But how do you control what’s up here? [taps his head] How do you fight an idea?

State of Mind: I’m so happy I made it to….

ben hur end

… now what am I going to do with my evenings?

Watched movie count


1 thought on “Ben-Hur (1959)

  1. The documentary The Celluloid Closet has great stuff about the gay subtext in Ben Hur. Specifically screenwriter Gore Vidal claiming that the whole movie revolves around an offscreen gay romance between Messala and Judah, which ended with Judah rejecting Messala, who takes it badly. Apparently Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, was directed to act as if this was the case but Charlton Heston was never let in on it. Heston was furious when the story, er, came out.

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