Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Ben-Hur - Of Hard Bodies and Chariots

In 1925, 80 years ago, without the aid of computerized images, somehow or another, they put the camera down in the ground and showed you those horse-drawn chariots roaring straight at your face and moving at goddam unimaginable speeds. In 2005, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I sat in my living room and ducked, convinced I was about to be run over.

“Ben-Hur” is one of those stories I’ve always kind of known through the cultural zeitgeist, not because I’ve ever actually watched the movie. And, by the movie, I’m referring to the 1925 original, not the 1959 Charlton Heston-starring remake. Nosirree, we don’t need no talking, just spectacle, thank you. Well, spectacle and some fine homoerotic subtext.

I love the fact that this movie was called “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” That’s kinda like saying “Forrest Gump” should’ve been subtitled “A Tale of John Kennedy.” Only, actually, it would be better if Kennedy’s face hadn’t appeared in “Gump,” just his arm.

Somehow, a wild action movie got lumped in with a few scenes from the Bible, and the 1925 audience could take this as an uplifting message film. I have to admit from the perspective of today’s vanishing separation of church and art, I was at least impressed that the final scene didn’t bother to indicate Christ was resurrected. “He’ll live forever in the hearts of men,” is a considerably different meaning than “That tomb is empty, people.”

Still, we’re talking about a flick filled with miracles, as that Heavenly arm can cure anything it touches. Turn a floppy baby doll into a living breathing kid? No problem for the Christ-finger. Cure two lepers who fought their way through the angry crowd in order to achieve a happy ending for the main character, even though you’re carrying your cross and on your way to Golgotha? Touch that bright shining arm, and all will be made well.

On the other hand, Judah, Ben-Hur spends most of the movie looking for a) revenge on his ex-lover, the Roman soldier Messala and b) looking to support a leader who will bring his Jewish people out of their oppression at the hands of the Romans. Oh, and showing off his legs (and frequently the rest of his very well-shaped body.) (Note: There is no direct textual support for my contention that Messala messed around with Judah, but it looked pretty obvious to me when they saw each other for the first time in years, and came as close as two men in 1925 could be allowed to kiss on screen.)

A word should come from my voyeuristic mind concerning movies of the 1920s. The sex was sublimated, but it always catches my eye. Both women and men could wear outfits which cling in some places, and leave lots of skin showing in others, and I’m proudly going to cop to a love of that sort of thing. The scene in “Ben-Hur” when Iras, the Egyptian vamp, comes within an inch of seducing our hero, is one of the great sex scenes of all time, and they barely touch each other. You can just feel the heat between them.

Alright, let’s move back to the spectacle for a minute. In this two and a half hour movie, you’ve got about twenty minutes of Jesus stuff, with a whole lot of this spent on the Nativity. (Which reminds me, how impractical was it that Rome tried to make every single citizen and subject go to the city of their births to be taxed (thus allowing Jesus of Nazareth to be born in Bethlehem, where his father and conveniently his great grand-sire David were born)? The scene wherein all the inhabitants of Jerusalem – apparently an ancient world version of Los Angeles, where nobody was actually born, but everybody lived – are running hither and thither to get home in time to be counted, was pretty chaotic. And, how did they know if they got things wrong? It’s not like there were any ways to prove anybody was who they said they were.)

There’s about forty-five minutes of blither about love and honor and family, and maybe another twenty minutes of assembling an army and finally having Judah meet Jesus, only to learn God don’t want no war. That leaves two very long and very, very thrilling sequences that remain among the greatest feats of movie making even after all these years.

The first is the sea battle between a fleet of Roman galleons (including the one upon which Judah is enslaved at the galleys) and a bigger fleet of pirates. Holy moley! First of all, I’m guessing they had to actually build at least some of these ships, and then wreck them during the fight sequences. Secondly, they obviously had hundreds of men running wild all over the screen during the battles. Could it possibly have been choreographed, or did they just give everybody fake swords and tell them to go out swinging? The carnage is amazing, with men being killed horribly, and others diving into the sea in a desperate bid for survival. All this and Ben-Hur wearing only the flimsiest little cloth covering in the mid-section? I know how that sublimation thing worked in the olden days.

And, I’m guessing you’ve heard about the chariot race, but I’m equally guessing you’ve no real idea just how incredible that scene is. Again, they obviously built an enormous, detailed set to portray an arena in Antioch in 30 A.D. Then, they turned about a dozen teams of horses loose, and set the cameras where they could bring you the most action. Constant cutting builds greater and greater excitement from close-ups to wide shots to high shots to low shots as the speed builds up, as horses and men drop to the ground, and as Ben-Hur and Messala race to the death. I’m getting short of breath just thinking about it again.

What do I know about Fred Niblo, the director? He had a long career, mostly in silents, but he lasted a few years into the 30s. He obviously had an incredible eye, and a strong sense of pacing, not to mention a Griffith “Intolerance” level feel for building gigantic sets. It’s amazing to see how big the walls and buildings could be compared to the tiny size of human beings.

The actors were also mostly unknown to me. Apparently Ramon Novarro was second only to Valentino in the great Latin heart-throb standings of the mid-1920s. It was easy to see why. May McAvoy plays Esther, the virginal love interest, but I much preferred Carmel Meyers, who played Iras, the Egyptian sensualist. I’ve seen enough silent movies now to be used to the oversize acting conventions, but these people did occasionally move a little more naturalistically than you might think.

I’m still trying to figure out how they filmed from underneath those horses. Wow!

1 Comments:

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3:42 AM  

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