Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Film Ignorance #5: Ben-Hur
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins
Reason for Ignorance: Seemed like it would be long, boring
Ignorance Rating*: 71
In 1927, the first year the Academy Awards were given, the voters couldn't decide whether to give the Best Picture award to the best picture created artistically, or the best picture in terms of technical achievement. They decided not to make a decision, but to give two awards: one for technical achievement, to Wings, and one for artistic achievement, to Sunrise.
Since then, I think we are supposed to believe that the technical achievement best picture award has disappeared, and the only Best Picture award remaining is for artistic achievement. Watching a movie like Ben-Hur, which won Best Picture and 10 other Oscars, that's hard to believe.
Ben-Hur is laughable in more or less every respect accept for spectacular technical achievement. The lead, Charlton Heston, was not a great nor even a good actor; if he could be wonderful in certain roles, he does not shine here. Indeed, his Best Actor Oscar for this performance seems to have also been awarded for technical achievement; Heston's giant forehead and massive frame are a spectacle in and of themselves, but any scene where he is asked to do more than glower is problematic (for an absolutely dead-on assessment of Heston's acting ability and the roles he was best suited for, see this post by literary critic/giant douche bag Stanley Fish: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/larger-than-life-charlton-heston/ )
The first hour of the film, which introduces the homoerotic love-hate relationship between Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, and his old friend Messala, a Roman tribune, is dull to the point of madness. The next hour or so perks up a bit; it features David Lean favorite Jack Hawkins, the film's only good actor, as the Roman consul who commands the slave galley that Ben-Hur ends up on after Messala betrays and enslaves him. It also features a sea-battle that's mostly watchable. The final third isn't much more interesting than the first, except that it features the famous chariot race, one of the most exciting chase scenes ever filmed. The film's entire 3 hour and 32 minute run time is almost worth it for the chariot scene alone.
I am tempted to rate Ben-Hur "But...This Movie Sucks" but the performance of Hawkins, the delicious homoerotic subtext, and, above all, the chariot race elevate it to the level of Meh. The acting is terrible, the story cliched, Ben-Hur's faith and multiple chance encounters with Jesus and one of the three wise men complete hokum. Every single scene goes on longer than it should; every event is drawn out and given far too much significance by the excellent but bombastic score.
In short, Ben-Hur is the filmic expression of Charlton Heston himself. Massive, overblown, fitfully spectacular and certainly not possessed of good acting. Were it 2 and a half hours long, I'd give it a partial recommendation for the positive aspects I've mentioned. Since it's more than 3 and a half hours long, I recommend that you avoid it.
A final note: The Academy, I suppose, can be forgiven for mistaking Ben-Hur's epic bombast for epic excellence in the year it was released. But both AFI top 100 lists and filmsite.org's top 100 list all select Ben-Hur as one of the best hundred American films of all time. With historical distance, they should have known better.
*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.