Friday, April 21, 2017

Ben-Hur (1959)

rating: ***

the story: Ben-Hur witnesses the rebellion against an empire begin.

what it's all about: After watching the 2016 version recently, I felt compelled to watch Charlton Heston's 1959 Ben-Hur, which I suppose I must have seen when I was a kid, since watching the famed chariot race sent vague memories firing through my head, memories that had rattled there since I first saw it, actually.  I just didn't remember watching the movie itself  Like a lot of people, I grew up watching Heston in the later Ten Commandments, thanks to an annual Easter broadcast.  Ten Commandments, although clearly filmed thanks to the success of Ben-Hur, ended up supplanting it in the popular culture.  Today, both Ben-Hur and the 19th century book upon which it was based have been somewhat lost to history.  Again, the massive failure of the 2016 version is evidence enough of that.  Critics will claim it's because the new one simply can't match up with the old one.  Having seen it (again), I will venture to say the new one doesn't have that much competition.

The 1959 version is long, like Ten Commandments.  It actually skips out on the kind of context storytelling the 2016 version explores, the full history of the foster brothers who end up competing in the chariot race.  Heston skips right to his Roman rival returning home and slowly realizing the old adage, you can't go home again.  It's almost funny to watch Heston in it, because he carries none of the gravity he brought to Ten Commandments, which I suppose is testament enough to his acting and his ability to bring different approaches to different characters (and also his increased profile).  Still, he and the movie equate well of themselves.

The gravity, actually, comes from a Star Wars connection, much as I'd read into the 2016 version, where I thought I saw a new version of source material George Lucas seemed to draw on for the prequels.  Yet the 1959 version reads a lot like a rebellion against an empire (as I noted above), full of Romans who sound English saying "rebellion" and "emperor" exactly as Star Wars characters would in the later original Star Wars trilogy.  It can't be coincidence, right?  Lucas was born in 1944,and so that would've made him fifteen in 1959, plenty impressionable enough for a big hit movie coming into his imagination.  Everyone knows Hidden Fortress helped form the basis of Star Wars in the 1977 first film of the saga, but it seems to me that Lucas borrowed heavily from Ben-Hur as he conceived the rest of it.

This is a movie that is what it is, and watching it again, I'm still inclined to consider the 2016 version better worth a rewatch, but that doesn't make the Heston film less memorable. Watching it I can even see little musical cues John Williams likely borrowed for Star Wars, too.  For these associations alone, it will remain fascinating, worth revisiting in the future.  The chariot race, which critics insisted looked far more realistic than its 2016 counterpart, doesn't hugely hold up, by the way. You can tell where parts were filmed separately and then spliced together.  It kind of takes you out of the moment.  But that's okay.  There are other things to love about it.

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