The 11-Oscar Mistake — 16 Comments

  1. Jim, I left a comment for you before, but it seems to have evaporated. How odd and annoying! Anyway, I wanted to let you know I was wowed by your post. I've never been one for elephantine epics, but your details about the making of BEN-HUR was fascinating, especially the information about the happy accident (so to speak) surrounding the chariot race. Excellent post!

  2. Thanks, Dorian; always a pleasure to read your kind words (and as you can see, your first comment came through fine and didn't vanish into the void).

    Welcome, Vinnie; nice to meet you at last! You're right, the original stage Ben-Hur did present the race with real horses on a treadmill backed by a rotating panorama of the arena. Some of the larger productions had as many as five chariots — the backstage logistics must have been a nightmare! In his memoirs, William S. Hart (the original Messala) says that the black horses that traditionally pulled Messala's chariot were naturally stronger and faster than Ben-Hur's white Arabians, and that one night after hundreds of performances they refused to be restrained; they weren't going to take a dive for these little white pipsqueaks this time. Hart goes into amusing detail about his efforts on the reins and his desperate tearful pleading with his team to slow down, all to no avail. So that one night, at least, Ben-Hur lost the chariot race. Did it really happen? Who knows? But it makes a great story.

    The process of "tak[ing] out the religious subplot" was already well under way in 1959. In the novel Judah's mother and sister are directly and personally healed of their leprosy by Jesus as he approaches Jerusalem. Judah himself expressly accepts Jesus as the Messiah, and an epilogue tells how the Ben-Hur fortune went to build the Catacomb of San Callisto. This is more or less intact in the 1925 movie — probably less from genuine religious feeling than the fact that Lew Wallace's children and Klaw and Erlanger (the stage producers) were still alive. Things are, shall we say, much less explicit in the 1959 version, and the subplot with the Magus Balthazar is sharply curtailed (the Wise Man's daughter Iras, mistress of Messala who spies on and tries to seduce Judah is cut altogether).

    There was in fact a remake last year, a two-part German/British/Canadian co-production for TV. I haven't seen it, but the
    IMDb page
    lists several characters (like Ben-Hur and Messala as teenagers, and the Emperor Tiberius) not in the novel, while Balthazar isn't there at all. Jesus is, though, so I guess the religious subplot isn't entirely gone.

    And finally, a hearty thanks for introducing me to Tripod's "Get to the F***ing Monkey", which is flat-out hilarious; I urge my readers to check out your YouTube link (and witness the birth of a new catch-phrase). The boys make a good point; one of the beauties of the original King Kong is how they make us wait a full third of the movie before Kong appears, but by the time Kong (2005) shows up, Kong (1933) was already dead.

  3. Hey Jim! You know, it's altogether possible that we attended the same showing of BEN-HUR at the Alhambra Theatre in Sacramento in 1960. And I must say that I care a great deal more – even to this day – about the loss of the Alhambra than I ever did about BEN-HUR. . But now that you've written this post, I'm determined to watch it again – as soon as I can find a suitable block of time. Maybe we'll get snowed in again this year.

    One thing I do recall with clarity, however, is the sound of the Sacramento City College Marching Band practicing their stirring rendition of the Theme from BEN-HUR each fall. I do suspect that the music may, in fact, be the best part of the film – not counting the Chariot Race, of course.

  4. Jean: Really? Well, wouldn't that be something! My family moved to Sacramento in mid-August 1960. I clearly remember that I saw Ben-Hur on a Sunday afternoon, and my recollection is that it was before the school year started — which would pretty much narrow the window down to Sunday, September 4, 1960. I didn't keep my ticket stub for a souvenir or anything like that, so I can't confirm it, but that sounds about right to me.

  5. You're not alone in your low estimate of BEN-HUR. Both Dwight MacDonald and Stanley Kauffman (wonderful film critics in their time) disliked the film on its release; MacDonald loathed the film particularly for its violence (how times have changed!). I agree with your point that the sea battle looks cheap; and the chariot race is not that good either, compared with the superior silent version (I'm surprised that Wyler won an award for his directing, since his principle seems to have been non-involvement). And I was always amazed that no one seemed to cotton on to the implications of Jack Hawkins' ordering the galley rowers to row at "Ramming Speed!" all the while he's gazing with lust at a near-nude Heston.

    That said, I admit that I enjoy BEN-HUR as a cheesy Hollywood Biblical epic. It's like watching the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS — you can't help but think of jokes to crack while you're watching the flick.

  6. GOM, I much prefer The Ten Commandments myself; I once reviewed a revival screening by saying, "Cecil B. DeMille may have been a sancitmonious old humbug, but he sure knew how to put on a show," and I stand by that today. Long and loud and gaudy as it may be, I never find it dull, and for me that's the difference between the two: Ben-Hur positively bores me to distraction. Ironically, critics at the time (Macdonald and Kauffmann notwithstanding) carried on as if Wyler had shown DeMille how it is done; personally, I say Wyler's talents (which were considerable, as I've written before) did not extend to pulling off that kind of vulgar display.