Now that the New York Film Festival is fully underway, Film Society of Lincoln Center member, Milton, was notified that he could have a pair of tickets to Saturday morning’s special screening of Ben-Hur. This was a rare big-screen showing of the gloriously restored spectacle from 1959 that was directed by William Wyler and stars Charlton Heston. This lavish epic that cost $15,900,000 to produce between May 1958 and March 1959 ($122,709,369.72 in 2011 dollars) won eleven Academy Awards, a feat that has only been equaled by two other blockbusters that were cat-nip to the masses, Titanic (1997), and The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King (2003). Milton called me at work on Friday:
Milton: Do you want to see Ben-Hur at 10:30 Saturday morning?
Me: I’m going to see Greg perform at a bar with Coco, Albee and Enchilada tonight. I anticipate drinking heavily. Isn’t it three hours long?
Milton: Closer to four. Have you ever seen it?
Me: A religious epic? Me who endured twelve years of atheist training* in my youth?
[*Atheist training: how I refer to my Catholic school education.]
Milton: This is your opportunity to see the chariot race on a wide screen.
Me: I’ll probably feel run over by a chariot. I’ll need triage.
Milton: They’re giving me free tickets.
Me: Ben-Hur with a hangover, here I come!
While waiting for me, Milton milled around the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall snapping pictures with his iPhone when he encountered this young gladiator, William Wyler’s great-grandson.
Both the Wyler and Heston families participated enthusiastically in this event and made it extra special for the audience.
Wyler’s daughter, Catherine Wyler, with Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser Heston, delivered a few personal anecdotes by means of introduction. The costumes that Catherine’s grandchildren were wearing had been designed by the MGM wardrobe department for the film.
Fraser told us that his father filled his sandbox with sand from the set telling him that this wasn’t just any sand, “It’s MGM sand!”
He said his father was suffering anxiety about the chariot race so he discussed his concerns at length with Yakima Canutt, the stuntman in charge of directing that pivotal scene. Fraser told us that “Yak” listened patiently to his father, pushed back the brim of his cowboy hat, and said, “Chuck, I guarantee you’re gonna win the race.”
The film got underway with a music overture over a blank blue screen.
Me: Hey, shouldn’t it say “overture” on the screen?
Milton (authoritatively): They only do that on TV, so you know there’s nothing wrong with your set.
As the overture played, we noticed that the cavernous theater was at most two-thirds full. Those of us sitting in the crummier seats scrambled quickly to better locations. We moved five rows back and towards the center.
When the Wyler and Heston families entered the theater there was a bit of a commotion. It seemed possible that other patrons had moved into their assigned seats. Slowly they began to angle their way towards us. We gulped.
Milton (drily): It would be funny if we were sitting in their seats.
Fortunately, we weren’t, the overture ended, and the film began with an army of extras streaming into Judea, followed with a heavy-handed birth of Christ scene. I thought that the circled twinkling Star of Bethlehem beaming bright blue light into a stable was overkill. Once inside the stable, Milton got his first attack of the giggles thanks to a perpetually mooing cow that seemed to say to us:
Perpetually Mooing Cow: Hey, look at me, I’m in the movies! I’m not steak!
Fast forward 26 years and we meet sexy-brute Messala (played by Stephen Boyd), a decorated Roman soldier who wears a helmet with a maroon brush that reminded me that I needed to sweep my floor when I got home. His boyhood friend, Judah Ben-Hur (played earnestly by Heston), who has not seen Messala in years, visits. With tear-filled eyes these guys engage in such an emotional reunion replete with complicated arm shakes, bear hugs and testosterone-filled spear tossings, I ask Milton:
Me: Are we watching Brokeback Mountain?
Milton suffers his next attack of the giggles.
Milton claims that this gay subtext was due to Gore Vidal‘s contributions to the script even though he did not get a screenwriting credit. In my post-screening research I’ve learned that Vidal, who was under contract with MGM, was enlisted by Wyler to rewrite Karl Tunberg’s script, a script that Wyler deemed terrible. Vidal added the overt gay subtext between Ben-Hur and Messala with Wyler’s approval. Vidal discussed this idea with Stephen Boyd, but he did not mention anything about the gay innuendo to Heston. Wyler feared that Chuck would freak out. In many respects the story did seem like a tragic romance between spurned Messala who exacts hysterical revenge on Judah. Heart-broken Judah cannot believe that Messala can be so cruel.
Approximately two and a half hours and one technical difficulty delay later, intermission arrived:
Milton: What day is it?
People making a mad dash for the bathroom groused loudly about the theater feeling like a meat locker. It was freezing but everyone that left returned. I envied the woman sitting ahead of us dressed like an Eskimo.
If you only see one half of Ben-Hur, the half to see is the second half for that’s the riveting half with the chariot race. That race is exhilarating. Yak Canutt did a brilliant job directing it. His son, Joe, was Heston’s stunt double. In an unplanned crash, that was included in the film, Ben-Hur’s horses leap over a fallen chariot throwing Ben-Hur over the lip of his vehicle. Somehow, he (actually Joe Canutt) manages to climb back in.
That was so impressive, our entire audience gasped.
I thought it was interesting that Ben-Hur never whips his horses, but his rival, the sadistic Messala, is in a whipping frenzy. Messala is so mad, he even starts cracking his whip at his once dear friend. If you’re looking for subtlety, you might want to skip Ben-Hur, but if you’re curious to see a blockbuster from another era and you have a wide-screen TV, TCM is broadcasting it on Tuesday October 4th, and again on Christmas day.
Although I would have enjoyed it more had Jesus been written out of the story, Milton said that the religious elements did not bother him because it promoted tolerance and acceptance of one another, which I agree is a good thing. The way lepers were depicted made him reflect on the way people with AIDS were shunned in the early years of the epidemic. I thought that was an interesting observation, but religion on the big screen still activates my gag reflex. Aside from the corniness, camp moments, and tightly corseted women sporting impossibly tiny waistlines (particularly sole-surviving lead actor, Haya Harareet who appears as Ester, the slave-girl Judah loves and frees), Ben-Hur still retains plenty of entertainment bang for much of its three hour and thirty-two minute length. Even this atheist can recognize that is is a masterpiece.