The 11-Oscar Mistake
The 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition of Ben-Hur is out. Mine arrived last week, number 13,192 of 125,000 — so be warned: If you want your own copy, you’ve got only 111,808 more chances to buy it. As 50th Anniversary Editions go, this one is a little tardy, by nearly 22 months; the picture premiered in New York (at the Loew’s State on Broadway) on November 18, 1959.
New York had a lot more daily newspapers in those days, and movie reviews were a lot more important, especially to a roadshow attraction like this that couldn’t count on a big ten-jillion-screen opening weekend to make most of its money. A picture like Ben-Hur had to have “legs”, and for that the New York critics were as important as they were to any first night on a Broadway stage. If the suits at MGM had been worried about the critics, they were breathing a lot easier by the afternoon of November 19. The chorus of praise was deafening: “a remarkably intelligent and engrossing human drama” (New York Times); “squirms with energy” (Tribune); “a classic peak” (Post); “stupendous” (Daily News); “extraordinary cinematic stature” (Journal-American); “massive splendor in overwhelming force roars from the screen” (World-Telegram).
If you agree with all these encomia, you might want to read no further, because I don’t agree and I never have. As far as I’m concerned, of all the lousy movies that have won the Oscar for best picture (a very crowded field), Ben-Hur may be the lousiest of the lot. (“Well, if you feel that way about it, why did you shell out 45 smackers for a deluxe boxed Blu-ray?” Good question; all I can say is, just as not every good movie is important, not every important movie is good.)
Let me remind you (if you’re old enough to remember) or tell you (if you’re not) how moviegoing has changed in 50 years. Forget home theaters, forget cable or satellite TV, forget Tivo or Internet streaming, forget even multiplexes. What they now call “platforming” wasn’t a rare distribution strategy in those days, it was how all movies were handled. A movie would open in the big cities first — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, maybe San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington DC, St. Louis and a few others. Maybe in two or three theaters in the big cities, but probably in only one (and all theaters had only one screen). After its first run, the movie would filter down to smaller theaters in the big markets and bigger theaters in the smaller markets. If your hometown was small enough and far enough from a major market, you could have months of mounting anticipation before you had a chance to see the movie everybody you didn’t know was talking about.
And absolutely forget about waiting till a movie turned up on HBO or Netflix. You’d have one chance to see it; even then it might play only three or four days and be gone. If you couldn’t catch it those days, you could hope it would be held over or brought back. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. If not, you could watch for it at your local drive-in or theaters in a neighboring town, maybe in vain. That was moviegoing in the 1950s.
This dynamic was intensified in the case of roadshow attractions. I don’t mean just the Cinerama movies, which were a special case all to themselves. I mean movies like Oklahoma!, Around the World in 80 Days, The Ten Commandments, South Pacific; they might play a year or more in metropolitan areas before going into general release (“Now at popular prices!”). Where we lived in Northern California, the nearest big city was San Francisco; I had friends whose parents took them down there to see Oklahoma! and Around the World, but my family never went in for that; I just had to wait. (I didn’t see Oklahoma!, for example, until 1961, and only then because we moved to Sacramento in the summer of 1960.)
As it turned out, this milestone in the march of Western Art was only a movie after all. And to my bewildered surprise, as I sat there in the throng — the Alhambra held 2,500 and it was jam-packed to the last row of the balcony — I found a startling thought running unbidden through my head: “This movie…isn’t…very…good.”
The first stirrings of disappointment came during the pre-title sequence showing the birth of Jesus, with the Wise Men tromping up and plopping their gifts down. It looked as awkward to me as a Nativity Scene enacted by a Sunday School kindergarten…
They didn’t. By the time of the “great sea battle” — nearly an hour and a half later — I had about decided somebody was pulling a fast one. I was twelve years old and thinking, “How fake!” Maybe it was the huge screen, but these boats looked like bathtub toys. Howard Lydecker (though I didn’t know his name at the time) had done a better job on Sink the Bismarck!, and with probably one-tenth the money MGM spent on this.
I left the Alhambra Theatre that evening sadder, wiser, and four hours older, with a valuable lesson: Don’t believe everything you hear.
Seeing the picture again and again over the years brought into focus things that I hadn’t specifically noticed the first time, but that I could see had added to my general disappointment, like the solemn, leaden pace, with pregnant pauses between and during the speeches, each pause several weeks more pregnant than the last. Or the dull non-performance of Haya Harareet as Esther, Judah Ben-Hur’s love interest. Harareet had little screen presence and less chemistry with Charlton Heston (for contrast, see Heston and Sophia Loren in El Cid), and after Ben-Hur Harareet’s career went precisely nowhere. (For that matter, that’s where it went even during Ben-Hur.)
On a related side-note, we’ve all heard Gore Vidal’s story about how he saved the Ben-Hur script by writing in a homoerotic subtext between Heston’s Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd’s Messala, a story Vidal continues to tell despite on-the-record denials from both Heston and director William Wyler before they died. Well, maybe it’s there and maybe it isn’t; by the time Vidal started talking about it, Stephen Boyd was no longer around to give his take on it. More obvious to me — now, I mean, not in 1960 — is the same subtext between Ben-Hur and the Roman soldier Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) during the rowing drill in the galley; Arrius gazes intently through hooded eyes at the half-naked Judah as the hortator steps up the drumbeat and Judah strokes, strokes, strokes, faster and faster. Maybe Vidal wrote that too, and maybe Hawkins played it, I don’t know. My point is that all this talk about real or imagined homoerotic undercurrents in Ben-Hur is possible at least in part because plainly, there’s absolutely nothing going on between Charlton Heston and Haya Harareet.
But back to my train of thought. When I saw Ben-Hur in September 1960, I had already read and enjoyed the book, so I never for a minute believed that the movie had simply gone over my 12-year-old head. Here was a picture that, as I saw it, was mediocre at best, yet it had critics everywhere flying into transports of ecstasy. Even the reliably hypercritical Time Magazine said that the script “sometimes sing[s] with good rhetoric and quiet poetry.” (Really? Somebody quote me a line or two of that singing, quiet poetry. I dare you.)
To me it was a paradox, one I mulled over intermittently for years. Finally I came up with…I can’t really call it a theory, exactly; it’s more a hypothesis. No doubt it’s a gross over-simplification, but I think it’s worth trotting out and looking at.
And now this brings me to what I mean by the title of this post: “The 11-Oscar Mistake”. I don’t mean to say that giving Ben-Hur 11 Oscars was a mistake (although I think it was). What I mean is that there was a serendipitous mistake in the picture itself that wound up making it a huge hit and winning it 11 Oscars.
The mistake happened during shooting of the one sequence where Ben-Hur unquestionably delivers the goods: the chariot race. It’s 8 min. 38 sec. of pure visceral excitement, and to get the full pulse-pounding impact of it you really had to see it in a huge theater on an 80-foot screen with 2,499 other people who were just as edge-of-the-seat excited as you were. (When was the last time you saw any movie with thousands of strangers? I’ll bet it’s been a while.)
The chariot race was the work of second unit directors Enos Edward “Yakima” Canutt and Andrew Marton (finally assembled by editors John D. Dunning and Ralph E. Winters). Yakima Canutt is far and away the greatest and most famous stuntman who ever lived, with a career spanning 60 years from Foreman of Z Bar Ranch in 1915 to Breakheart Pass in 1975 (when he was 80). He all but invented the craft of movie stunt work, and he literally invented any number of safety devices to minimize the inherent dangers of the job. As either stunt performer, stunt coordinator, second unit director, producer or actor (sometimes wearing more than one hat on the same picture) he racked up nearly 500 titles in his filmography. (He also has the distinction of being the first man to go before the cameras in Gone With the Wind, doubling Clark Gable in the burning-of-Atlanta sequence.) For Ben-Hur Canutt selected and trained both the horses and drivers for the race.
Andrew Marton’s career was almost as long as Canutt’s (from 1927 to ’77), most often as director (King Solomon’s Mines [’50], The Longest Day, Crack in the World, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion) but also as second unit director on many major pictures (The Red Badge of Courage, A Farewell to Arms [’57], Cleopatra [’63], Catch-22, The Day of the Jackal). On Ben-Hur Marton was in charge of the crew behind the camera while Canutt handled the human and animal crews in front of it.
Joe worked long and carefully with his team before the shoot. He took the horses up and over the ramp one at a time, then in pairs harnessed together, then threes, then all four, then the four harnessed to an empty chariot, and finally all four, the chariot and Joe. At last everybody, human and equine, was comfortable with the stunt.
Here’s how the sequence was planned, shot by shot — each shot, obviously, filmed separately, even on different days, to be assembled later, rather than as one continuous action:
First a shot of slaves scurrying to clear the wreckage and horses of two chariots before the racers come round again.
Messala, knowing what’s just around the bend, crowds Ben-Hur’s chariot (with Heston at the reins) hard against the spina as they come around the turn.
Joe’s chariot hit the ramp. In this frame you can see that the horses are just leaping clear on the other side. (You can also clearly see, with the frame frozen, that it’s not Charlton Heston driving.)
An instant later the team is safely clear and galloping away, but Joe’s trouble is just beginning.
The chariot begins to descend and Joe goes into free fall, hanging for dear life onto the front rail.
The heavy chariot is still coming down and Joe is almost perfectly perpendicular.
Now his feet are over, putting him in a back-bend. He’s a heartbeat away from either being crushed by the half-ton chariot or having the meat ripped from his bones by the bolts studding the underside. (And hey, look over to the right; see that? Yep, it’s one of Andrew Marton’s cameras. I’ll bet even the editors never saw it. The camera is on screen for eight frames, one-third of a second — just long enough to notice if you look that way. But of course nobody ever has.)
It was in this nanosecond that Joe Canutt displayed the combination of quick thinking and athletic prowess that marks the difference between a great stuntman and a dead one. It beggars belief, but here’s what he did: just before his body toppled completely over, he let go his grip on the front rail of the chariot, dropped to a handstand on the tongue just behind the horses’ flying hooves, and pushed himself to the side and clear away. Now I’ve never done a handspring off the tongue of a chariot at a full gallop, but I’m guessing it’s not the kind of thing you can practice for; either you can do it when you have to or you can’t. Joe Canutt could do it.
He didn’t escape entirely uscathed, though. Something on the passing chariot clipped him on the chin, requiring four stitches. He was back at work after half an hour.
Joe Canutt, against all odds, was alive and well, but the shot itself was a dead loss, and after seeing his son go halfway to glory and back again, Yakima Canutt was in no mood to try it again. But according to Heston, at the screening of the dailies the normally detached William Wyler nearly choked when he saw the shot. “Jee-zuss!“ he cried. “We have to use that!”
Yakima Canutt balked. “Don’t see how y’ gonna do that. I promised Chuck he’d win this race. I don’t believe he can catch that team on foot.”
But Wyler knew just how to salvage the shot. Neither Yak nor Heston was crazy about the idea but they did it:
Tristan Bernard once said, “Audiences want to be surprised, but by something they expect.” Joe Canutt (by accident) and William Wyler (by design) created a moment that achieved the near-impossible: it made Judah Ben-Hur winning the chariot race — which everybody expected — a genuine surprise.
For all the New York Times’s puffing about engrossing human drama, or Time Magazine’s mooning over lines of quiet poetry, I say Ben-Hur (1959) really pretty much boils down to the chariot race — and the chariot race boils down to that somersault Joe Canutt took on a miscalculated stunt. Don’t get me wrong, the whole race is brilliantly staged, shot and edited, but that moment makes it an emotional as well as a visceral experience. At that point, the chariot race still has nearly three minutes to run, and the picture itself nearly 50. But that’s the emotional climax of the race, and of the whole movie.
I admit, this hypothesis is something I concocted about a movie I didn’t like very much, to try to understand why so many people did. As I said, it’s no doubt an over-simplification. And yet, and yet — I can never prove it, but I’ll always suspect that some of those 11 Oscars, maybe even best picture itself, would have gone home with somebody else if Joe Canutt had been a little more cautious as he pointed his team toward that ramp.
Welcome, James, and thanks for leaving your comment. It was wholly a pleasure to read that you "totally disagree with [my] opinion of the film in every way"; needless to say, I return the compliment. Thanks again for stopping by!
BEN-HUR is the greatest movie of all time, a colossal cinematic achievement. I totally disagree with youyr opinion of the film in every way.
Thanks for dropping by, Bernie, and for commenting. However, you're mistaken: scroll back up to the top of these comments and you'll see my friend Kevin Deany is with you on Ben-Hur. (Likewise, in his quirky way, Vinnie Bartilucci.) Kevin and I have agreed to disagree, and I guess you and I will have to as well. As for those millions of others, they're more than welcome to come by and comment too — provided they can be as cheerful and friendly about it as you. Thanks again!
Oh come on Jim, there are millions of people like myself, who consider Ben Hur a work of pure genius.
I have seen this film many many times and still rate it amongst the greatest achievements in movie making ever, so its a great pity that your blog has not one comment that agrees.