January Shame: So Ben-Hur is kinda about Jesus by @007hertzrumble

As a follow up to my introduction of CinemaShame yesterday, I’m reposting the entry I wrote for my January selection, BEN-HUR. I have my February selection lined up for this weekend. It really feels good to finally watch these movies. There’s therapy happening here daily.

That’s how I began my viewing on Ben-Hur Saturday night.

But first some backstory.

I’ve owned multiple versions of Ben-Hur on DVD and Blu-ray. Most recently I picked up this mamajamma 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray. And for a long time, I’d been content to look at it on my shelf. A brilliant example of how to make me pay money for a movie I have no agenda to watch. Put it in a bigass glossy box with cool cinephile-specific shit inside I might not ever read. I also have the similarly-styled Casablanca set.

Ben-Hur 50th Anniversary Blu-ray

The box contains a hardback mini-coffee table book about the history that inspired Ben-Hur and a recreation of Charlton Heston’s day-to-day journal he kept during the filming of the movie. Beneath that glossy slip is an embossed box with ornate classical architectural designs. I felt like I was digging into an Egyptian crypt to find the damn disc. Quite honestly it was titillating.

I took a quick peek at the runtime for the movie. 3 hours and 32 minutes. Quick mental calculation. 212 minutes. So that’s why I never just popped Ben-Hur in for quick spin around the block. I’d seen “the Chariot Race” dozens of times in highlight reels and really that’s all the movie is, right? A bunch of sand, Charlton Heston’s glistening pectorals and a chariot race? Yes? No? How close am I?

Despite setting a start time of 8pm on Saturday night, I didn’t actually get to put the disc in until 8:45. Once a Ben-Hur procrastinator always a Ben-Hur procrastinator, I suppose. My wife came downstairs, plopped herself on the couch and said, “So what’s this about anyway?” I was three minutes into the OVERTURE with the word OVERTURE plastered over Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” so I said, “It’s the OVERTURE. It happens before the movie.” Sometimes I can’t help being a bit of a smartass. As I felt “the look” descend upon me, I quickly course corrected. “I actually have no idea.”

Okay so that wasn’t totally true, because as I said before: desert. glistening pecs. chariots.

The movie opens with some seriously epic shots of the desert. (desert. check.) Director William Wyler wants you to know that we’re watching a MOTHERFUCKING EPIC! Duly noted, Bill. And then we ease into a set of happenstance that begins to depict the birth of Jesus.

Wife: So this is about Jesus?

Me: Apparently.

Wife: So does Chuck play Jesus?

Me: Uh, I’m pretty sure he plays Ben Hur.

Wife: His name’s Ben?

Me: …

Wife: You really don’t know anything about this movie do you?

Me: I am SHAMED! I admit it! This is why I’m watching it! Besides, you should pay attention, we might miss something important!

(For the record, there had been no real dialogue and we were still dealing with the birth of Jesus… a fact I would have known firsthand if I’d tapped into my long forgotten film school learning about the original, silent Ben-Hur which used the whole name of the book that inspired it: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. So it goes.)

Shortly after the title card finally arrived, we’re treated to a number of images of Roman Centurions. I made sure to get all my History of the World: Part 1 and Life of Brian cracks out early.

With that out of my system I was finally ready to watch Ben-Hur without distraction. Straightaway I couldn’t help but be impressed the quality of the transfer. So I did a little research on the film stock and camera used. Ben-Hur was filmed on the MGM Camera 65 (which was really just Ultra Panavision developed by Robert Gottschalk with a silly proprietary-sounding name) with lenses and cameras derived from the 1955 version of the Todd-AO 65mm photographic process (Todd-AO used 30fps while the MGM 65 and Pana 70 used 24fps). The MGM compressed the image anamorphically to project on a flat screen with the ratio of roughly 2.94:1. The marketing geniuses at MGM billed the process “Window of the World” on advertising for Ben-Hur and the flop Raintree County. MGM sold the “Camera 65” system and it’s entire photographic department back to Panavision in 1961. Panavision made some refinements, including smaller lenses and cameras. Camera 65 became Panavision 70. I’ll spare you the other nerdy details. Read more about this pretty interesting slice of film history here.

Now let’s clarify a few points. Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur. His name’s not Ben, FYI. And Judah is egregiously wronged, sent into slavery and eventually reborn with the aims of vengeance on those that wronged him and his family. Although the movie opens with the birth of Jesus and Jesus makes a few brief appearances, Jesus is subtext and setting. I was at first skeptical of this device but like most everything in the movie it feeds into the OMFG EPIC scope. By the end of the film, the connections made between Jesus and Ben-Hur serve to create a vital extra-textual parallel relationship that informs Ben-Hur’s character arc. Now, that’s not to say that I’m not conflicted about why Ben-Hur chooses forgiveness over revenge, just that in the world of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur the shift is portrayed in lavish — dare I say gorgeous — cinematic scope.

I found it impossible not to be swept up in the film. I felt like an old woman glued to her afternoon “stories” fanning herself during the many scenes detailing glistening pectorals (glistening pecs. check!) in 1080p. As the movie wore on past midnight, 3 hours in, I began to lose my will to go on. I was tired, hungry. I’d run out of beverage during the 2nd hour. Did I pause? Did I put the ending off until tomorrow? But… but… but… Judah’s sister and mother were lepers, secretly banished to the outside of town. Would Judah’s lady friend tell him the truth? Would she lie to prevent Judah from carrying out his plan of revenge against the boyhood friend that had set all of these events into motion?!? The chariot race has finally been set up as the means by which revenge will be extracted. How could I stop now? Who could stop knowing that one of the greatest moments in cinema history was just around the bend…

Listen, I know Ben-Hur‘s a long slog. 212 minutes of exhausting scope and melodramatic rigor. But goddammit, it’s worth it… every… single… minute… just to say that you’ve honestly checked off that final Ben-Hur expectation. That legendary chariot race. And if you haven’t seen this movie, let me tell you, no matter what you might have imagined about that chariot race… I assure you, you can’t understand the catharsis unless you watch those first three hours of movie.

Ben-Hur. Check.

Other stuff I read about Ben-Hur:

A story brought to my attention by @hollye_h: Homoerotic subtext in Ben-Hur

TCM: Behind the Camera on Ben-Hur

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