April 11, 2014

BEN-HUR Is Way More Jesus-y Than I Expected

"Hate keeps a man alive.  It gives him strength."
One of my favorite episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is "The Zeppo."*  It's the story of Xander Harris, the only member of the self-described Scoobies without any kind of supernatural powers or abilities.  He's just a good dude, and therefore he's often relegated to making a pithy comment before getting knocked unconscious while Buffy kicks some demonic ass.  But "The Zeppo" is Xander's chance to shine, as he gets entangled with a group of Sunnydale jocks who have been resurrected from the grave and plan to blow up the school.  Buffy and the gang are otherwise occupied trying to defeat some unspeakable horror somewhere off-camera, totally oblivious to Xander's struggle to protect his friends from this smaller but no less lethal threat.  Occasionally the two plots intersect, but the episode brilliantly pushes the traditional A-story into the margins in order to focus on the awesomeness of a character that had never really gotten his due.

Ben-Hur is "The Zeppo" of the New Testament.

There are certain older, venerated films that have permeated pop culture and the collective unconscious to such a degree that we feel like we've already seen them, even if we've never actually done so.  You might not have seen Citizen Kane, but you probably get a "Rosebud" reference or jokes about sleds.  Most people are probably familiar with the image of Charlton Heston kneeling on a beach andscreaming at a wrecked Statue Of Liberty, but play the first 20 minutes of Planet Of The Apes and most people probably wouldn't know what they're watching.  (In my generation, I attribute much of this behavior to topical humor of The Simpsons, which likely served as the first introduction to much of this older material for most of my peers.)  It's marvelous to see that these Hollywood classics are still a part of our societal dialogue, but at the same time it seems as if there's a growing sense that there's no need to watch the actual film so long as you can "get the reference."  I've been guilty of this cinema crime myself over the years, which was a big motivating factor for beginning this project in the first place and the exact reason I started out with a vintage title like Apes.

It's astounding just how far the pop culture perception can fall from reality.  If say "Ben-Hur," the first two words that should jump into your brainpan are "chariot race" and with good reason.  It's a thrilling piece of filmmaking, steeped in drama, violence and intensity all accomplished without bashing you over the head with a lot of dialogue or over-the-top music.  What I hadn't realized until the movie started was that the phrase "chariot races" comprised the full extent of my knowledge about Ben-Hur.  I didn't even know this was a heavily religious film, let alone the fact that Jesus himself shows up multiple times.  Hell, the full title of the film is Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ!  How did I make it this far without making that discovery?

Honestly, if I had known that this was essentially an elaborate fanfic detailing the backtory of the guy who gave Jesus water on the way to the crucifixion, I probably would have opted for Spartacus over Ben-Hur.  I was all pumped up for some ancient Roman action, and instead I got a lot of leprosy and horse-whispering.  Sure the chariot race kicks ass and the naval battle sequence is a masterclass in building tension, but the film is overly long and extremely slow at times.  I'll always love older epics for their use of exotic, practical locations and endless crowds of extras, if for no other reason than because it's the kind of moviemaking you just don't see anymore in the age of digital effects.  After all, why spend money traveling to the far corners of the globe and then recruiting a few hundred background actors when you can do all of that from the comfort of a cubicle in Burbank?  Still, even the charm of old Hollywood isn't enough to overcome my biblical apathy.

"The Zeppo" is brilliant because it's lean and tightly plotted, which is pretty much the opposite of the sprawling, meandering Ben-Hur.  I have no problem with sheer length of running time if the scope of the story demands it, but I'm simply unconvinced that such was the case here.  In fact, the most frustrating part of William Wyler's epic is that most of the Jesus stuff feels downright extraneous; if this had just been a tale of ancient Jewish vengeance, I would have enjoyed it infinitely more.  The other great thing about "The Zeppo" is the way it satirizes the standard Buffy story structure, playing on the melodrama of yet another world-ending crisis by examining it through the sardonic eyes of a marginalized character.  It's little wonder that, while Ben-Hur is definitely not my cup of tea, I will love Monty Python's Life Of Brian for the rest of time.

The filmmaking is impressive to be sure and there's a reason Ben-Hur won every Oscar imaginable.  I'm certainly glad that I finally watched this one, but I also seriously doubt that I'll ever revisit it again.

*The title refers to Zeppo Marx, the brother who traditionally played the straight man and never got the chance to play any of the truly zany comedy of Groucho, Harpo and Chico.

Title: Ben-Hur
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Haraheet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O'Donnell, Sam Jaffe
Year Of Release: 1960
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

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