Saturday, February 26, 2011

30 Days of Oscar Day 30: Ben-Hur

Movie: Ben-Hur
Year: 1960
Nominations: 12 Nominations - Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes, Sound, and Adapted Screenplay
Wins/Snubs: Everything except Screenplay.  This was almost 20 years AFTER Wyler directed Mrs. Miniver and it's possible to see some similarities and growth.

I can't believe I'd never seen Ben-Hur before.  I recognized the music from the chariot race, some of the dialogue was familiar and of course the basic story of a wealthy man who becomes a slave only to eventually become a citizen of Rome (a REALLY big deal in those days).  While I hope they never remake this movie, it's easy to see all the ways they might attempt it with CGI and improved camera technology standing in for immense and expensive sets and daring stunt men and animal handlers.

Told in several acts, we meet Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) a wealthy man in Judea around the time of the birth of Christ.  His childhood best friend, Messala (Griffith) has just been made the leader of the town.  However, an altercation with the governor of the district takes place with Judah and his mother and sister.  They're thrown in prison and Judah is made a slave on a war ship (pulling an oar).   During a battle his ship sinks, but the commander, Quintus Arrius has unchained Judah from his oar, and in return Judah keeps Arrius from drowning.  Arrius brings Judah back to Rome with him, in victory and adopts him as a son.  Judah learns to race chariots, but ultimately decides he has to go back to his homeland in Judea and find out what happened to his mother and sister.  He runs into a sheik with some great horses and teaches them to run together (foreshadowing the big chariot race to come).  When he arrives back in Judea he finds Esther, a woman he once loved and still does.  She has found out that his mother and sister are lepers and they swear her to tell Judah they have died.  He thinks Messala is responsible and when the opportunity to race him in the circus comes up he takes full advantage.

The final act connects us back with the end of the life of Christ, and Judah with his sick mother and sister.  (Side-note, leper is the only noun to describe someone with a disease I can think of - we don't call them chicken poxers - it fully separates them from their humanity, all other diseases are used as adjectives to describe a patient, just goes to show how reviled they must have been to be segregated from society the way they were).  Judah witnesses the crucifixion and recognizes the man as someone who once gave him water when he was dying of thirst as a slave, and the story comes full circle.   An amazing movie - possibly the longest I've seen, and yet I was never bored or eager to do something else or assuming a given moment was the end.  Brilliant story-telling throughout, with every emotional note struck with precision and inspiration.  My only gripe is the Esther (Haya Harareet) should have been nominated for Supporting Actress.  Probably the greatest epic ever made - and I dare you to argue that any modern movie can touch it.   5 of 5 stars/lambs (though with inflation it's more like 6.5 of 5 stars).

This is the last of the 30 Days of Oscar Feature.  Thank you so much to all the people who've commented along my journey.  While I wouldn't do this every month, I challenge you all to make yourself watch movies through the lens of their Oscar achievement.  It definitely puts an interesting spin on them - not as "classics" or "must-sees" but as part of a canon of excellence.


Anonymous said...

I still haven't finished this one yet. I think I saw this so long ago it was VHS. Anyway, I made it through the first half and never bothered to put in the second tape.

David Bishop said...

Are you going to make a page tab or for your 30 Days of Oscar so that I can easily revisit your posts when I finally get around to watching some of these?

Jess said...

David- Sure. I'll also add a tag retroactively so they're easier to search.

The Mad Hatter said...

Congrats on finishing the series - and good on ya for closing it out with such an epic!

While this is the sort of film I have trouble recommending to people - It's epic, and I love it...but I know so many will find it to be a test of patience - it's always been one of my all-time faves, and the film that sparked my interest in classic film.

Is it time to start mapping out the next "30 Days" series yet?