Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Epic #2 - Ben-Hur (1959)

Now, I didn't mention this earlier when I was talking about Schindler's List, probably because I was slightly emotionally traumatized, but Epic #4 was Gone With the Wind. I would of course love to watch Gone With the Wind right now, who wouldn't, but it ranks much higher on the list of romances, so we'll just have to wait for a while for that. I know. It's tragic, but it can't be helped. More business I forgot to mention: The American Film Institute defines "epic" as "a genre of large-scale films set in a cinematic interpretation of the past," which not only contains the phrase "cinematic interpretation of the past, which I will totally be saying form now on, but also is a much clearer definition than the one that I had come up with, and explains why Titanic was the only movie to have a ship in it (that's a lie, actually: Ben-Hur has ships.) Apparently ships are not as essential to an epic as I thought they were. Pity. But enough business: Down to Ben-Hur.

Now this is an epic. It's just huge. It's got a ton of people, and horses and fighting and ships (take note of this, Internet), which is totally epic. When I think epic, I think Ben-Hur. I mean, look at the poster for God's sake! The title is carved from stone. Stone from the tombs of great ancient heroes, carved by the Gods of Great Big Epic Movies. I assume. That's how epic this movie is.

Ben-Hur is a William Wyler epic about a Judean prince (Judah Ben-Hur, played by the one and only Charleton Heston. ) who gets arrested, along with his mother and sister, serves time as a galley slave (ships are heavily featured in this part) and then escapes, and then vows revenge because he knows the guy who arrested him, and...stuff. Look, I dare you to try to summarize Ben-Hur without giving a synopsis of the entire movie. It can't be done, I tell you. This is an incredibly complicated movie, and the fact that it's four hours long doesn't help matters. Watching Ben-Hur is a serious commitment. You can't just decide to watch it, you practically have to plan ahead.

I liked this movie. I didn't think I would, but I did, which is nice. It's a lot like a combination of The Ten Commandments and Spartacus, but with chariots. It takes place in Rome like Spartacus, the main character is a Jewish slave for part of the movie, but also incredibly rich for the other part, like The Ten Commandments, a lowly slave sticks it to the man in Rome like in Spartacus, and it stars Charleton Heston, like The Ten Commandments. Now, I think I've made it clear that I'm not the biggest fan of Charleton Heston. He's just such a ham. Not that Kirk Douglas isn't kind of a ham, but at least he's a decent actor at the same time.

He's also fantastic at presenting Oscars. They should have just hired him instead of James Franco.

Charleton Heston does not have that distinction. He's just so stiff and dramatic, and always sounds like he's reading lines, which is not how actors should sound. Actors should sound like they're talking. He's pretty good in this movie though, so that's alright. As a side note,I don't know if you've noticed, but three movies so far, The Ten Commandments, Schindler's List and Ben-Hur, heavily feature the persecution of the Jewish. I know that three out of ten doesn't really seem like a huge ratio, but when you think about it, it's a bizarrely specific similarity. I guess that a disproportionately large amount of history just involves the persecution of the Jewish, as illustrated by three different movies about three different time periods where the Jewish were persecuted. Where is this animosity coming from, I ask you? Where?

The beginning of the movie takes place in year...one? Zero? It doesn't matter - Anno Domini. The first event of the movie is actually the birth of Christ.

It seems like this would be hard to top.

I bet you didn't know that Ben-Hur was secretly religious. Ben-Hur is actually tangential to the story of Jesus, with Jesus making appearances throughout the movie. He never speaks and you never see his face, but he's a really powerful presence anyway. It's very well done, and is probably the most inspiringly religious thing I've ever seen. The movie appropriately also ends with the Crucifixion of Christ, with the main characters understandably a bit upset about it. (They don't have to worry about it though- it gets better. Isn't Dramatic Irony just oodles of fun? )

That's not the best part of the movie though. The best part of this movie is...The Chariot Race.

It's not easy to convey a fanfare visually.

If you don't think that this chariot race tops the birth of Christ, than you don't know how awesome chariots are. This scene is fantastically famous, especially in movie world. It's this huge extravaganza of crazy chariotal competition. There's chariot tricks, which I didn't even know existed, and cheating, and chariots with spikes on them, and people getting trampled by horses, which was apparently a pretty basic stunt at the time. There's a lot of death, actually, because it's a Roman sport and the Romans like things to involve death, because the Romans were just a little bit crazy. It is awesome. There is a very famous urban legend that says that Charleton Heston is wearing a modern watch in this scene. Charleton Heston says that this is ridiculous - he's wearing wristbands that come up to his elbows, you wouldn't even be able to see a watch. Do you know what this tells me? Charleton Heston did forget to take off his watch. I told you they should have hired Kirk Douglas. Kirk Douglas would have taken off his watch.

In conclusion, Ben-Hur is an awesome, totally fun movie. It's the quintessential big-budget epic (Well, the second most quintessential, apparently), and it's totally obvious why. The story is good, the acting is good (Except perhaps some scenes with lepers that come off as quite silly), it's so epic, and everyone kind of seems like they're having fun, which is fun to watch. I totally liked watching this movie, and that's the goal people usually have when making movies. Good for them. In fact, most of the movies on this list where totally awesome (excluding Reds, of which I was not a fan). I can't imagine better epics than, say, the last four movies. Man, #1 better be a darn good movie.

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