Wednesday, August 21, 2013

BEN-HUR and the Power of Icons

No Netflix pick this week. Instead, here's a piece inspired by 1925's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

The spoken parts are practically always the worst part of any historical epic. Try, if you can, to recite more than a few lines of dialogue from any one of the famous Biblical/ancient epics of the '50s. It simply can't be done. Beyond the occasional one-liner -- think "I am Spartacus" -- the dialogue in films such as The Ten Commandments, Quo Vadis, and the 1959 version of Ben-Hur (and modern day descendants such as Gladiator) consists mainly of stilted, wooden declarations where characters seem to be talking past or at each other, rather than with each other. Watching such scenes one cannot help but either roll their eyes and wait for the chariot racing scenes; either that or to devote all of one's attention to the expensive costumes and sets. Perhaps the reason the makers of Cleopatra gave Liz Taylor so many outfits to wear was solely to distract from the fact that you're not listening to verse.

The fundamental question in constructing this dialogue is that of appropriateness. One can either have their characters speak in contemporary Hollywood dialect or in a faux-archaic parlance intended to approximate the speech of ancient Greeks, Romans, or Jews. The problem with both approaches is obvious. If Julius Caesar is not only speaking English but is sounding like a 20th century Hollywood movie producer, than the viewer can hardly be expected to believe he's watching Julius Caesar. Alternatively, giving your characters phony formalized speech usually sounds pompous and overreaching. Even the best Hollywood scribes are not Shakespeare, and "Yonder lies the castle of my faddah" is no "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." 

Take for instance, this passage describing the development of 1959's Ben-Hur, taken from Wikipedia.

"[Screenwriter Christopher] Fry gave the dialogue a slightly more formal and archaic tone without making it sound stilted and medieval. For example, the sentence "How was your dinner?" became "Was the food not to your liking?"

The line "How was your dinner?" is boring. The line "Was the food not to your liking?" is somewhat less boring. It also feels much less natural. This strikes me as more of a lateral move than anything.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ avoids this problem by virtue of being, of course, a silent film. To be sure, there are still intertitles, and they are usually written in the same flowery, pseudo-poetic hokum tone as in the films sound-era spiritual successors. But it is much less irritating to read such lines than to hear actors try and get their mouths around them.

Instead, the silent Ben-Hur uses certain images -- most made iconic through centuries of collective fascination with Ancient Rome and the story of Christ -- to great effect. Forcefully told by director Fred Niblo, the film is not subtle. Indeed, if one could only tell its villain Messala* (Francis X. Bushman) that Roman officers were now allowed to grow facial hair, I'm sure he would immediately grow out a thick handlebar mustache for the sole purpose of twirling it. No, Ben-Hur has no real desire, or need, for nuance. It derives its power from the strength of its images -- icons, really, religious and all -- and it tells its story and its message with purpose, with conviction, and with great flavor.

*He also bears an uncannily strong resemblance to comedian Ken Marino. Seriously.

I'd really like to get across how enjoyable, how exciting, how alluring this film is. But I think many ways of trying to describe its strengths would be utterly wrong. Talking about the Kuleshov effect, or auteur theory, or the dynamics of its plot would be useless when discussing this film. like trying to figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It would do nothing to get across what the experience of watching this film is like. 

Instead, I'm going to take a page from the Roger Ebert playbook, specifically his brilliant and beautiful review of Stormy Monday -- as seen here: -- and talk about the icons seen in this film, from manger to the cross.

Ben-Hur is about living tableaus of Christian iconography. The young virgin mother cradling an unseen babe in the middle of the stable, with shepherds around her indistinguishable from parishioners gathered in pews. It about the cold wooden beams of a cross passing lifted above a crowd, who can choose to like upon the sight with pity or derision.

It also about a man being tied to the mast of a pirate ship, screaming in agony as he himself is used as a weapon against his fellow countrymen, battering their ship with a force beyond his control. It is about the vengeance-darkened eyes of a man, born into privilege, who has come to know hunger and slavery as he pushes the massive oars of a slave galley, driven by an anger that recognizes no life, only death.

It is about the days that look like they've been dipped in amber. It is about the nights painted with a cool, soft blue. It is about moments when it appears that everything has become alight, and filled with color, even if such moments are only brief before one realizes that its just two-strip Technicolor.

Ben-Hur is about the old miser, hunched over and haggard. It is about the fat, grinning faces of greedy Romans. It is about the Egyptian seductress's half-naked body and flimsy costume -- almost as sexy as Anna May Wong in The Thief of Bagdad. Almost.

Ben-Hur is about the best damn chariot race you'll ever see.

Ben-Hur is a winged helmet.

Ben-Hur is four white horses.

Ben-Hur is the bruised face of a disgraced loser.

Ben-Hur is about a mother running her hand just above her sleeping son's head, unwilling to wake him, but wishing to cradle and comfort him as if he were still the infant she once nursed, and not the grown man who lays before her.

And that is why 1925's Ben-Hur is more of an epic than most films will ever be.


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