BEN-HUR (William Wyler, 1959)

William Wyler made some excellent films (These Three, Jezebel, The Letter, The Best Years of Our Lives), but, following the estimable achievement of Friendly Persuasion (1956), which took the top prize at Cannes largely on the strength of blacklisted Michael Wilson’s script, Wyler oversaw two colossal artistic disasters, the routine, inflated western The Big Country (1958), starring a pompous Gregory Peck, and Ben-Hur (1959), the third screen version of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. A silly, uninteresting film, despite the level of care that Wyler typically lavished on it, Ben-Hur is worth a couple of comments based on a couple of its intentions. Certainly it’s strange to find Wyler, of all people, directing a “biblical spectacle.”

Jewish like his protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, Wyler stated that he made Ben-Hur to offer a Jewish perspective on material usually presented from a Christian perspective. At the beginning of the first century, Judah is a prince and merchant in Jerusalem, now under Roman rule for nearly a century. His political falling-out with the newly appointed Roman tribune, his childhood friend Messala, leads to his galley enslavement on a war ship and the imprisonment of his mother and sister, whom he believes have been crucified (the Roman form of capital punishment). Judah has been a brutally treated slave for three years when, in battle, the ship sinks, and Judah, saving his life, is “adopted” and restored to wealth by its commander, Quintus Arrias. Thus begins an odyssey whose purpose is his revenge against Messala. Along the way, his path crosses that of a mysterious preacher whom the Romans condemn to death—a one-time carpenter who in Nazareth had given the slave Judah water for his thirst and to whom Judah, later, gives water when the man is being marched by Romans to his crucifixion. This is Jesus, and, although he remains a shadowy form whom the film in no way follows, the film implies that the lives of the two Jewish men are closely connected. The complete title is Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ.

Two points of identification are immediate. It is prophecies concerning the destiny of a just-born Jesus that precipitate the intensification of Roman oppression of Jews and lead to the replacement of Jerusalem’s pagan governor with the Roman one whose tribune is Messala. Both Judah and Jesus, moreover, in some sense embody Jewish suffering. Wyler specifically wanted to remind fellow Americans that Jesus, other Jews and Jesus’s followers all shared a common oppressor, the Romans, who are the ones that “killed Christ.” Catholics and Protestants alike had long promoted the fiction that Jews had had a hand in this, as though occupying Romans were in the habit of fitting state executions to the recommendations of occupied Jews.

The film was an enormous popular success that quite ridiculously—as ridiculously as Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)—won eleven Oscars, including as best picture and for Wyler’s earnest direction. However, it did little, if anything, to stem the tide of American anti-Semitism, which was undergoing one of its periodic transformations as Jewish activism in the growing civil rights movement moved American Jew-hatred into the vaster pool of white American hatred of blacks. Indeed, “message movies” rarely go beyond flattering the vanity of the already-convinced, and, no matter what Wyler’s intentions, not that many filmgoers even identified Ben-Hur as a “message movie.” It was certainly not promoted as such but, instead, as an action spectacle highlighted by the rip-roaring sequence of the chariot race in which Judah destroys Messala—a sequence, I might add, staged and shot not by Wyler but by the production’s second unit.

Another one of the film’s ridiculous Oscars went to Charlton Heston, who plays Judah Ben-Hur. (It doesn’t take a Jew to play a Jew, but it’s worth noting that the part was originally offered to Burt Lancaster, a Jewish actor.) Heston, an atrocious actor, managed one good performance in his long career: as the Mexican narcotics agent in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958)—coincidentally, the one great film in which he appeared. However, Wyler, who had already directed Heston in The Big Country, had a reputation for coaxing the very best work out of actors. (I might add that Hugh Griffith, in a colorful role as an Arab sheik, also was Oscared, and Martha Scott, who plays Judah’s mother, capped her career.) But Wyler would have a rough time with Heston, a wooden-headed man who didn’t understand who or what he was playing. Indeed, for the rest of his life Wyler would regale people at parties with accounts of how he “tricked” Heston’s performance out of him—how he had to, because Heston was either too dull or too defensive to grasp an important (though by no means the most defining) aspect of Judah Ben-Hur. (The most defining aspect is the man’s Jewishness—and Heston scarcely grasped that, either.)

Judah is homosexual. Prior to the silence that the advent of Alzheimer’s imposed, Heston publicly always denied this about Judah. Let’s summarize: Heston won an Oscar for playing a gay man without, apparently, even realizing that the character is gay. Knowing full well the pleasure that Wyler (who was not gay) derived from deriding him on this score, Heston sank behind a wall of denials, as though, mercy! his very manhood was besmirched by his having even played a homosexual. But he did, and he won an Oscar for doing so.

Judah’s homosexuality isn’t an interpretation of the character; it’s a given. (By contrast, Van Heflin’s Oscar-winning role in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1942 Johnny Eager may or may not be gay depending on one’s interpretation.) Only the most naïve viewer fails to appreciate the intense closeness of the Judah-Messala friendship that generates their subsequent, equally intense rivalry. Indeed, only such a viewer can miss the point that Messala, now a Roman of station, only turns on Judah for fear that his former lover will “out” him. Moreover, the film leaves little doubt that Judah and Quintus Arrias also are homosexual lovers. (What else would they be?) One aspect of the film, in fact, is the contrast it makes between Arrias’s mature, secure homosexual identity and Messala’s immature, frightened homosexual identity. (There can be little doubt, also, that this contrast refers metaphorically to the different ways that vilified members of the Hollywood community, postwar, responded to threats of vanquished careers and even imprisonment for alleged national disloyalty.) When Messala asks Judah to spy for him on his own people, the code is unmistakable: Prove your loyalty to me, Messala is saying; prove that you won’t tell anyone my secret. Quintus Arrias has no such “secret”; he is what he is, and he lives what he is. It’s perhaps Gore Vidal’s (uncredited) contribution to the script that most accounts for the fact that politics in Ben-Hur often functions as a screen behind which primarily sexual matters play out—a point of some interest.

There’s nothing to discuss here about the filmmaking; it’s efficient and flat as cardboard, except for scenes in the leper colony, where Judah eventually finds his mother and sister living in a cave. Again, Scott is very touching as Miriam, Judah’s mother, and Cathy O’Donnell (she was Wilma, Homer’s girlfriend, in The Best Years of Our Lives)—Wyler’s daughter-in-law at the time—is good as Judah’s sister, Tirzah. These scenes in the leper colony are the only ones in the film that somewhat come alive emotionally. They are also the only scenes in which Robert Surtees’s (Oscared) color cinematography shows the least bit of refined intelligence.

Ben-Hur deserved to win a single Oscar, for Miklos Rozsa’s rich music—and this it deserved only because the Academy failed to nominate Duke Ellington’s stunning score for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. (The Academy was pointedly ignoring Ellington, as it had David Raksin, the composer of the gorgeous, haunting score for Preminger’s earlier Laura, as a way of dismissing, implicitly condemning, jazz.) Of the five films nominated as best picture, either Preminger’s or George Stevens’s The Diary of Anne Frank should have won, although it’s as hard to accept Millie Perkins as a Jewish schoolgirl as it is to accept Heston as a Jewish man in Ben-Hur.

To quote Anne Baxter, as Nefritiri in The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1956), where Heston plays another famous Jew: “Oh, Moses, Moses, Moses!”

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One thought on “BEN-HUR (William Wyler, 1959)

  1. The Oscars for Ben-Hur were ridiculous, but to say that Heston gave only one good performance and that “Touch of Evil” is the only great film he acted in – I don’t agree.
    I, for instance, think that Mann’s “El Cid” is a truly great film… And Fleischer’s Soylent Green is also a classic, with Heston giving quite adequate interplay with E. G. Robinson…

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