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Ben Hur

Up next in My Year with Oscar we have 1959ís winner Ben Hur, a movie that brings to mind Jesus Christ, as in, "Jesus Christ, this is one long movie." Just a thought here guys, but when the four hour mark is firmly in the rearview mirror, it may be time to cut a few scenes.

The movie starts with the birth of Jesus, including all the modern assumptions about the event, complete with all the wrong ones, like three wise men visiting the manger. Who ever said there were three of them? Who said it was in the manger? Ah well, at least they didnít claim the whole thing happened on December 25.

Meanwhile a new Roman Tribune shows up in Jerusalem and is greeted by his old friend, a Jewish prince named Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston. At first all is well, until the new Tribune asks Judah to turn in some rabble rousers, which he refuses to do. On the way home he flirts with one of his female slaves. Then as the new governor is riding into town, a tile falls from Judahís roof, nearly striking the big boss man, resulting in Ben Hurís imprisonment without a trial.

He is shipped off across the desert where he is given water by a long haired hippie (and guess who thatís supposed to be). Eventually he ends up rowing on a Roman galley, but the commander tries to recruit him to be a gladiator. Ben Hur refuses, but the commander saves his life during a battle anyway, and Ben Hur returns the favor. The commander brings him back to Rome, turns him into a great chariot racer, and adopts him as his son. But that doesnít satisfy Ben Hurís need for revenge for the mother and sister who were imprisoned with him. He heads back to Jerusalem, flirts with that female slave a bit more, then confronts the man who threw him in the clink. It turns out his mother and sister are alive after all these years, but have contracted leprosy and as such are thrown out of the city. Outside the door they run into the female slave, Esther and beg her to tell Ben Hur that they are dead, since they donít want him to see them like that. Esther complies, telling Ben Hur that she saw the two women dead years before. Hilarity does not ensue.

What does ensue is the chariot race for which the movie is known. When he was on his way back to Jerusalem, Ben Hur met an Arab who had a team of horses he wanted to race. Ben Hur helped give him a few pointers and the two became friends. Now with Ben Hur wanting to take down the people he blamed for killing his family, the Arab makes a bet with several Roman charioteers that his team will win. Ben Hur himself steps into the chariot, and along side him, the Tribune, his old friend turned adversary. At the end of the epic race the Tribune tries to whip Ben Hur, but Judah grabs the whip, starts whipping the Tribune, causing him to fall off his chariot and get trampled by the team behind him.

On his death bed, the Tribune tells Ben Hur his mother and sister are still alive and in the valley of the lepers. When Ben Hur goes to see them, he runs into Esther who convinces him they donít want to be seen, but on their way out they run into Jesus again and suddenly think he can heel his mother and sister. However they take the two lepers to see the big guy at the time he happens to be getting nailed to the cross, but their leprosy is cured anyway and Ben Hur doesnít feel all pissed off at the Romans anymore.

Though Jesus is a major character, this movie may be too liberal to be made today. The most powerful country on Earth invades a middle eastern nation whose people rise up in rebellion, and the empireís governor on the ground wants the names of all who might oppose them, then throwing people in jail without a trial. What does that sound like? We even get the line "Youíre either for me or against me." Then at the end Ben Hur claims the words of Jesus made him embrace peace, which happens to be the exact opposite of the effect theyíve been having for much of the 2000 years since then.

Quite frankly the treatment Ben Hur receives at the hands of the Romans brings to my mind, not the words of Jesus, but the words of Thomas Jefferson, "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it." Of course that idea didnít pop up until 17 centuries later.

I do like the recurring theme of the characters hearing about this Jewish rabbi with odd ideas, then finally running into the guy, and I give them some mad props for showing crucifixion with nails through the wrist, instead of through the palm like everyone seems to think these days. The chariot race is a great scene too, very well filmed and packed with action from beginning to end. Another nice surprise is Hestonís acting, which is far better than his previous best picture turn. However he doesnít get a whole lot of supporting help. None of the other characters really has enough of a presence for us to get to know them.

But the thing does drag on and on. Not only that, many of the major plot points are skipped over. Ben Hur becomes a chariot racer and we just kind of skip that part entirely, going from his rescue in the naval battle to his being adopted by the man he saved. Even more puzzling is the choice to skip over every speech by Jesus. He never says a word in the movie (he doesnít even show his face, but that may be to hide the fact that he was black from the audience in the 50ís), instead we see the main characters preparing to hear him talk, then we cut to them reacting to what they heard.

This is good, especially the chariot race, but not great, especially when you consider the fact that Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger turned out masterpieces that year. I am of course partial to Premingerís work, Anatomy of a Murder, for doing such a great job of capturing Yooper sensibility and the fact that at one point I could watch it on TV and see the Marquette County Courthouse, then look out my window and see the same building. However North by Northwest is one of the great overblown reaction movies of all time (right up there with Mel Gibsonís Payback) in telling the story of a man who brings down an international spy ring in order to get out of a DUI. Wilderís offering that year is the one that most people have seen today. Some Like it Hot is a very fun movie about jazz musicians who witness the St Valentineís Day Massacre and hide out in an all-girl band, while one falls in love with Marilyn Monroe. Now I could recommend any of the three, and I would have loved to see Wilder and Hitchcock go mano-a-mano as they did the following year, but pressed to pick just one Iíd have to go with North by Northwest. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint turn in wonderful performances and Hitchcock is his usual self. One other interesting note, both North by Northwest and Anatomy of a Murder incorporate US 41. Hitchcockís crop duster scene is set on that road outside Chicago, and Preminger filmed James Stewart pulling out onto it leaving Mt Shastaís in Michigamme. Ben Hur is not set anywhere near US 41, but does present a revenge motivated pseudo sports movie set in the Roman Empire, which beats Gladiator to the punch by four decades, and also adds in main characters who have run ins with Jesus, although Life of Brian did this much better, and Michael Palin makes for a better Pontius Pilate than Frank Thring.

Oh, and the fact that this is part 69 of the series in no way is a comment on Christianityís views on lesbianism.


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