Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Ben-Hur" (1959)

Scene from Ben-Hur
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: November 18, 1959
Director: William Wyler
Written By: Lew Wallace (Novel), Karl Tunberg (Screenplay), 
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Running Time: 212 minutes

Oscar Wins: 11
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Charlton Heston)
-Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith)
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Costume Design (Color)
-Best Art Decortaion-Set Decoration (Color)
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Special Effects
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Anatomy of a Murder
-Room at the Top
-The Diary of Anne Frank
-The Nun's Story

And the winner is...

In a modern society, films that explore religious subjects tend to be excised as being too preachy or contrived for the masses. However, director William Wyler's expansive epic Ben-Hur is a film that not only broke that notion, but showed that it could be used as sheer spectacle as well as bringing biblical passages to life. Beyond the subject, it was also a production the likes of which haven't been seen before, and barely since. With an inimitable chariot race sequence, the film brings the story to life with sheer force and beautiful cinematography. Is it any wonder that it is the only American film that has been approved by the Vatican? With an iconic performance by Charlton Heston, the film is a tribute to both craft and spirituality, and how it can appeal to everyone, even the non-religious folks out there.

Unlike most of the Best Picture winners, this film was a remake of a 1925 film of the same name. During the early 50's, MGM had planned to remake it with Marlon Brando in the lead role. With the plans going on and off for most of the decade, word began to rise again in 1957, at which point producer Sam Zimbalist had signed on for the project. Shortly later came director William Wyler, who took it on for a variety of reasons. For starters, he wanted to make a Cecil B. DeMille-type film (a fact made more fitting with The Ten Commandments star Charlton Heston once again in the lead). He also felt that as a Jewish director, he would help to make the film more universally appealing. Speaking as he had never done an epic before, he also wanted to accept the challenge.

Zimbalist was scheduled to do secondary shooting for the film. However, he died shortly into production after complaining about chest pains. This convinced Wyler to take more of a part in filming it. With exception to some exterior shots of miniature boats shot in Culver City, California, the film was shot in Rome, Italy's Cinecitta Studios. It was a grueling schedule, with six days of work per week scheduled often at 16 hours over the course of nine months. The production was ridiculously expensive, ballooning to $15 million - the highest up to that point. The film's abundant props took over two years before filming started to acquire. There were over 300 sets for the film and the famous chariot race required 15,000 extras alone. Wyler was also eager to make the film's use of widescreen, which he detested, be packed with images but never appear too busy. The film, in total, used 1 foot of film for every 263 feet filmed.

If one was to ask Heston his thoughts on Wyler, the initial impression was unpleasant. Where Wyler was a perfectionist, Heston came into work the first day with pages of notes. This didn't go well, and Wyler mistreated his lead star for a short portion of time. However, there was something more humorous about the subtext written in by uncredited writer Gore Vidal. The characters of Ben-Hur and Messala had a secret homosexual relationship. Vidal and Wyler told Messala actor Stephen Boyd, but felt that Heston couldn't handle it. To his death, Heston denied that there was any gay subtext in the film. Other than that, Heston was a trooper. He famously came to set two months in advance to learn how to pilot a four-horse chariot for the big sequence. He also pleased Wyler once by improvising a scene where Ben-Hur kicks a vase over. After doing many more takes on the belief he screwed up, Heston discovered that Wyler liked that move - especially since it added tension to a quiet scene.

The famous chariot race is shrouded in controversy and mystery. Among the more innocent mysteries is who was there. Wyler initially wanted David Lean to shoot it, for which he would get full credit. Lean declined. Sergio Leone, who was doing secondary shooting for the film, would falsely take credit for shooting the chariot sequence. Finally, actress Audrey Hepburn was on set one day during the filming. Having worked with Wyler many years prior on Roman Holiday, it made sense that many believed that she was present in the crowd. She wasn't. She was merely taking a break from filming The Nun's Story, of which would be up for Best Picture against Ben-Hur. Meanwhile, the now Italian classic La Dolce Vita was being filmed on the same set during this time. Nothing happened. It just was filmed there.

The actual chariot race was itself a hassle, requiring a quarter of the full budget. The sequence alone too 10 weeks to shoot. In order to get a better glance of the scenes, there was a special chariot built solely to film the sequence from inside the actual track. While the stunts were dangerous, Wyler believed that the use of dummies wasn't going to work due to them looking fake. A protected Boyd would do one such stunt. One of the more dangerous scenes during this sequence happened by accident as Joe Canutt (a stunt man for Heston) fell onto the chariot's tongue. He managed to recover with merely a scratch. The scene was so great that it remained in the film. The scene was shot without sound. It was added later when it was understood that it would be seen without any musical accompaniment. The crew spent $150,000 to tear the sets down afterwards to keep others from using it.

The film shot from May 1958 to January 1959. Post-production would take six months. In total, the film took several years to complete, including five years of research on sets alone. Composer Miklos Rozsa claims to be most proud of his work on this film, which embodies his career as a whole. It is also one of the longest film scores in history. The studio was banking so much on it that they even made research for how to promote the film. A "Ben-Hur Research Department" surveyed 2,000 American high schools to gauge teens' interest. There was even a ton of merchandise that included over $20 million in candy; children's tricycles in the shape of chariots; gowns; hair barrettes; items of jewelry; men's ties; bottles of perfume; "Ben-Her" and "Ben-His" towels; toy armor, helmets, and swords; umbrellas; and hardback and paperback versions of the novel. With a marketing like this, it made sense that the film would become the second highest grossing film of all time (to that point) behind Gone With the Wind.

Ben-Hur cleaned up nicely at The Academy Awards. For starters, it became the first film to win 11 Oscars (only two have matched it), beating previous holder Gigi from the previous year. It is one of only two remakes to win Best Picture (the other being The Departed). At two hours, one minute, and 23 seconds of screen presence, Heston's performance is the longest to win a Best Actor statue, and the second longest overall. This is especially funny since Wyler complained often that Heston wasn't emotional enough during filming and compensated by covering his face. To date, Wyler is the last person to win Best Director more than twice. The film's sole loss for Best Adapted Screenplay (Room at the Top won) is itself controversial. Many believe that the film lost this category due to the confusing nature of the screenplay recognition. While Karl Tunberg receives credit, there are four uncredited writers on the film. To make matters more ironic, Tunberg won despite even Wyler hating his version of the script, thus having Vidal and others rewrite it.

The film has maintained a status as being one of the greatest epics in film history. It constantly pops up on the best films of all time lists. While the chariot race is often the most lampooned scene, it still is parodied from time to time, including in The Simpsons episode "A Star is Burns." While the film's success may suggest otherwise, its legacy would be short lived. Epics of this sort would die out in the decade to come, notably due to the financial failures of Cleopatra. Even then, there was a good run of other epics, including Spartacus - a film whose star (Kirk Douglas) turned down Ben-Hur because he refused to play second fiddle. Beyond this, religious epics have failed to be financial successes since, making it a singular sensation at the Oscars in a lot of ways.

Whether it is the grand visual scope that made for one of the most elaborate productions in film history, or its ability to make the bible universal, Ben-Hur is a film that feels from another time. It embodied the studio system and its ability to make glorious epics with great attention to detail. With several years dedicated to maintaining accuracy, there's a lot of reasons that this ranks among the best of the genre. It's not just about a religious figure. It's about the struggle of the common man in a time long forgotten. Even if Ben-Hur doesn't seem like a film that appeals to today's sensibilities, its ambitions alone are worth applauding. It's also worth appreciating that chariot scene, of which has only been improved upon since. It's an epic unlike any other, and it proved why that was more than crazy hoopla. 

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