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Ben–Hur Movie Review

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1959 – William Wyler –

Director William Wyler, who had worked on the 1925 silent production, always joked about the way Ben-Hur ruined him with elite film critics. Jan Herman, in his 1995 biography of Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, reports that as Ben-Hur racked up a sizable pile of awards and money, many French film critics who had praised the subtlety of Wyler's polished character dramas now turned their backs on him for selling out. Though it was a departure for him, Wyler worked hard to make this epic lifelike as well as spectacular, and was helped by a committee of uncredited screenwriters, including Gore Vidal, Christopher Fry, Maxwell Anderson, and S.N. Behrman.

Wyler griped about having to frame his compositions in such wide dimensions for the Cinemascope widescreen format, complaining that the extreme width of the frame took in everything important and unimportant and eventually caused the audience's eye to wander. His reservations notwithstanding, the film has numerous examples of beautifully designed shots that utilize space in dramatic ways. These include the many views of soldiers marching across the horizon, obligatory stuff for spectacle films. Other compositions also stand out. In one, Ben-Hur stands silently in the entrance to the cavernous arena after the chariot race, the camera framing both his meditative foreground figure and the massive Circus Maximus where minutes before he and Messala had competed. In another set in the valley of the lepers, Ben-Hur cringes heartbroken before a boulder to the left of the frame while he listens to Esther (Haya Harareet) speak to his disease-stricken mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell) in the middleground. In another, the emperor crowns him with the laurel while the background is filled with thousands of cheering spectators. The evidence suggests that Wyler solved the problems of the 65mm screen admirably.

Another problem Wyler solved was Charlton Heston's tendency towards inexpressive acting (Cesare Danova had originally been announced as the star and Kirk Douglas had wanted to play the title role, but when offered the part of Messala instead, he turned the gig down). Heston wrote in his diary (again, one of biographer Jan Herman's sources) that Wyler came to him early during filming and told him his performance wasn't good enough. Heston reminded him that they had just finished a picture that Wyler was happy with. The director replied that this role was more demanding than the villain he had played in The Big Country. With sometimes as many as sixteen takes per shot, Wyler eventually got from his star what he wanted. Heston duly recorded the change in his diary: “Either I've actually improved, which is a happy thought, or Willy's given up, which is contrary to nature.” Consequently, unlike his epics with De Mille, Heston's work with Wyler shows a distinctive range of emotions, and his face has never been so expressive. Ben-Hur's amused reactions to the Arab who plays with his horses like pet dogs and his companionable belch after their meal humanize this ancient hero. His pained face on seeing his leprous mother, his realization, as he gives water to Jesus, that this was the one who had earlier tended to him, and his final amazement on seeing his mother and sister miraculously healed are striking moments that speak well for the director's and actor's abilities to portray the intimate aspects of what may be the most famous epic of all.

Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Jack Hawkins (Quintas Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Hugh Griffith (Shiek Ilderim), Martha Scott (Miriam), Sam Jaffe (Simonides), Cathy O'Donnell (Tizrah), Finlay Currie (Balthasar), Frank Thring (Pontius Pilate), Terence Longdon (Drusus), George Relph (Tiberius), Andre Morell (Sextus), Claude Heater (Jesus), Maxwell Shaw (rower number 43), Noel Sheldon (centurion) Screenwriter: Karl Tunberg Cinematographer: Robert Surtees Composer: Miklos Rozsa Producer: Sam Zimbalist for MGM Running Time: 212 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards, 1959: Actor (Charlton Heston), Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color Cinematography, Costume Design (Color), Director (William Wyler), Editing, Picture, Sound, Special Effects, Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Original Dramatic/Comedy Score (Miklos Rozsa); Nominations: Adapted Screenplay; British Academy Awards, 1959: Film; Directors Guild of America Awards 1959: Director (William Wyler); Golden Globe Awards, 1960: Director (William Wyler), Film—Drama, Supporting Actor (Stephen Boyd); New York Film Critics Awards, 1959: Film Budget: $12-$15M (reportedly the most expensive film to that time) Box Office: $70-$76M (worldwide).

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