Thursday, August 18, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Ben-Hur" (1959) is Overrated

Scene from Ben-Hur
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Ben-Hur is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959) is overrated.

Tomorrow marks the release of a remake that falls into the "Why does this exist?" category of film making. Considering the recent flops of Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt, the idea of any film reviving the swords and sandals epics of yore seem to be almost entirely laughable. Ben-Hur seems to have emphasis on the one scene that made the 1959 adaptation so revered: the chariot race. The trailers sprinkle it in as the centerpiece to a story that also clocks in at half of William Wyler's take. Most can judge it as looking bad, especially if you hold affinity for the older take. However, I do think that there's a different reason that I loathe the presence of a new Ben-Hur: it's just not a great movie to begin with.

I am sure that this is a notion that will be met with an overwhelming bafflement, asking me to revoke some form of cinephile card that treasures 40's and 50's films that turned biblical stories into premiere programming. To be fair, none of these appeal to me, and I find the general bombastic nature to be at times dated and overbearing. Even if the sets and cinematography were daring for its time, I cannot help but argue that its technical outweighs its narrative component. Yes, Ben-Hur is supposed to be a complex morality tale (and I do get annoyed that Charlton Heston gets Jesus' key line, even if the intent makes sense). It's supposed to be a big spectacle. But frankly, it's probably my least favorite epic to win Best Picture just ahead of the masochistic drudgery of Braveheart. I frankly don't get it.

Okay, I get the chariot race love. It seems to be unanimous that this was some of the best of action cinema of its time. Most modern reviewers will give it a pass on that grounds alone. However, the rest becomes a little hard to swallow when you look at the critiques of more recent blockbusters that have earned high acclaim. Titanic is notoriously divisive with its legacy now being touted as melodramatic fluff. Many films since have only gotten flack for being dated morally or simply are slow stories. Yet it seems impossible to find a resounding dissent to Ben-Hur, which gets the hype of masterpiece. Yes, it is impressive in widescreen and the design is pretty... big. However, it doesn't feel right that films like Titanic get flack while older films don't necessarily. 

Since I have dedicated my interest to all things Best Picture related, I have seen all of the Best Picture winners. This isn't my first epic from the group, but it's the first that I've had a resounding disconnect to. Yes, even Around the World in Eighty Days and The Greatest Show on Earth had some merit that far excel Ben-Hur for me. Still, this is a film that almost turned me off of Wyler as a director before seeing his other better films, including Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives. I still am not the biggest fan of Heston. Most of all, I don't think that it needed to be that long. Yes, I do think that the film could've been better had it been more compacted, but we're dealing with a four hour cut meant to be boastful and loud in ways that epics of the late 50's were. Frankly, it's not my favorite.

There are the easy complaints to be made. It was cutting edge for its time and the story couldn't be any shorter. With that said, I have trouble not pulling from cinema's history in the 20 years before Ben-Hur. Gone With the Wind proved that a four hour epic with lavish sets and big scores could be effective. Even more recently, David Lean's first Best Picture win for Bridge on the River Kwai is evident proof of what epics should be at this time. Released two years prior, its ability to turn the forest into a landscape exploring masculinity during war made for one of the most riveting pieces of cinema of the whole decade. True, it is an hour shorter. However, it is also evident of how one could pace a story centered around a small group of individuals and make it work. Lean would do this again with Lawrence of Arabia. Frankly, the shift into natural settings and more human stories is better suited to the blockbusters of the time, even if one could argue on the merits of Ben-Hur's influence as seen through Spartacus and the criminally underrated Cleopatra.

If one were to put aside the issue of this feeling very much like a Hollywood production meant to be big and loud, it's still hard to get on board. Wyler once said that he made Ben-Hur because he never made an epic before. Fair enough, though I don't know that it's all that evident here that he's good at it. The sets are expansive and the direction feels dedicated to exploiting that. Heston's full of self-importance. There's long and dull scenes of conversations that at times are redundant. It's the type of direction that feels secondary to Hollywood's need to remind us how wonderful and expensive their productions are. The bombastic score doesn't help either, echoing through the large and hollow moments. It is about here that you realize just how much better Lean is at making these personal stories click. Had Ben-Hur had something besides grandeur, then maybe it wouldn't be so easy to knock.

I do think that there are moments that do kind of work. The rowing scene definitely captures the claustrophobia and desperation of slavery. The chariot race is itself expertly crafted and only made more fascinating by the haphazard reality it was produced in. However, this is surrounded by excess and a story that doesn't feel suited to an epic. It could just be that Heston - whose performance made him the Oscar winner with the most screen time in history - wasn't a compelling force. It could just be that as time passes, it feels dated and fake in a way that is hard for newer audiences to appreciate. I admit that appreciating spectacle and grandiosity isn't something that I do easily, but almost every other epic that won Best Picture has left some impression on me. Ben-Hur is just a slog to get through and I am choosing not to mince words. It's just plain overrated.

I know that one could complain that I am ignorant or, as some thinner skinned people do, suggest that I go back to watching dumb cinema. Yet I don't understand why Ben-Hur has sustained as this masterpiece. I get it if you award its craft, but to consistently name it one of the best epics is at times baffling. Even those who admit that it's boring will defend the chariot race. I don't think it's enough to raise above suggesting that this film hasn't aged well much like all biblical-themed epics of its time. I accept it as a relic of its time. However, I don't know that I accept it like I do the modern quaintness of films like Gentleman's Agreement and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner where its depiction of racism is frankly cute. Ben-Hur reflects the growth in cinema, sure. However the choice to some how exile it from conversation of it being dull and in some respects bad just seems wrong. After all, Titanic receives flack despite being the late 90's equivalent financially, technically, and critically. Why should Ben-Hur not be victim to this critique a little bit, especially when I argue that big budget epics were being done way better by other directors around the same time.

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