Wednesday, April 12, 2006

BEN-HUR: Hollywood's Intimate Epic

Weighing in at a whopping $15 million dollars and clocking out at almost three and a half hours, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959) was the most expensive motion picture ever made in Hollywood to date. A gargantuan unyielding spectacle; the movie’s response to television’s encroachment on its box office receipts, this was a project driven by the crumbling blind faith of executives desperately trying to maintain their waning autonomy in the face of slow financial decline. Actor Charlton Heston once mused, “If Ben-Hur hadn’t been a hit, that (by this, he means MGM, the studio footing the expense) would have all been a parking lot.”

In truth, by 1959 the studio system that had once seemed so secure had already given way to a new era in filmmaking. Misperceiving the monopolies once held in conjunction with national theater chains as detriments to the free market enterprise of independent film makers, the U.S. government’s Consent Decrees forced all studios to divest themselves of their talents – both in front of and behind the camera.

That MGM was the last studio to comply with this edict speaks to the studio’s reluctance to shed its communal atmosphere and close knit artistic community (all under contract until the mid-1950s). But long before Charlton Heston and company dazzled audiences in the most honored motion picture of all time (11 Oscars in totem) a very different sort of valiant hero emerged to tell the tale.

BEN-HUR – a tale of its author

General Lew Wallace’s novel represents something of a religious irony – for the tale of a Judean prince besought by tragedy and driven to revenge, culminating in his conversion to Christianity, has very little to do with the Biblically documented life and times of Jesus Christ.

In fact, Wallace - a civil war hero, lawyer, former Governor of New Mexico and Indiana State Senator - had not begun his literary career with an imbued passion or religious fervor in 1876. However, Wallace was forced to reconsider the novel’s premise when stirred by a chance meeting with ‘the great agnostic’ – Robert G. Ingersoll. It would be another 5 years before his book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published on Nov. 12, 1880 by Harper & Brothers, and another two years before its sales took off.

In 1882, Broadway producers Mark Klaw and Abraham Erlanger approached Wallace with an offer to transform Ben-Hur into a theatrical enterprise. They had not been the first to recognize the novel’s potential as an elegant stage spectacular.

But Wallace’s newly invested piety and his sincere commitment in not allowing the figure of Christ to be bastardized by the lowly profession of stage acting had precluded prior offers from attaining fruition. Together with Wallace, Klaw and Erlanger finally decided that Christ would only be represented on stage by a shaft of white light.

The producers thereafter set about mounting a $75,000 super production complete with moving cycloramas, motorized waves for the sea battle, live horses and no less than five racing chariots perched upon elaborate treadmills for the big finale. William Young rewrote Wallace’s words for the stage and the play eventually opened with direction by Joseph Brooks. Ben-Hur’s debut at the Broadway Theater in New York City on November 29, 1899 was an unqualified smash.

Klaw and Erlanger’s investment in the project was secured with an attendance of over 20 million and a gross of nearly $10,000,000 over the next twenty years. At the dawn of a new century – General Wallace could reflect proudly on the fact that he had created one of the most visceral, stirring and sincere literary adaptations loosely derived from Biblical texts; a novel that, to present day, has never been out of print or circulation.


At the time of his death, director William Wyler’s reputation as an American filmmaker was on par with that of veteran John Ford. Indeed, the superficial parallels between Ford and Wyler’s careers in retrospect seem uncanny. Ford was honored with four Academy Awards; Wyler – three. Ford was the first recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award; Wyler – its’ fourth. Yet, what has so often been overlooked in any critical analyses of the films of William Wyler is the director’s diversification in themes and genres. Perhaps Ben-Hur (1959) is William Wyler’s signature piece. Certainly, it remains the one most closely associated with his name to this day.

Wilhelm Weiller was born on July 1, 1902 in Mulhausen Alsace. Although accredited as an assistant director on 1925’s Ben-Hur, it would be another 33 years before the influence of that experience and resplendent themes made central in Wallace’s masterwork would envelope the director in a colossal undertaking of his own. Prior to his enlistment on 1925’s Ben-Hur, Wyler’s formative years in Hollywood were spent working as an errand boy for his mother’s cousin, Carle Lemmle Sr. at Universal Studios.

His directorial debut, the two-reel western Crook Buster (1925) was followed by five years in servitude inside Universal’s B unit. But in 1929, Wyler made the costly Hell's Heroes (1930), proving that he could handle an A-list production that was both commercially and critically success. Wyler left Universal in the mid-1930s, partly because the old Lemmle family regime had been forced to decamp the studio, but also because the product the studio was producing at that time was not up to the level of quality that Wyler sought to achieve for himself.

Making the move to Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Wyler was quickly disillusioned by ‘the Goldwyn touch’ which was tantamount to being bullied into submission, having his every decision scrutinized, and ultimately much of his own work recut before, during and after shooting, and without his input or consent. The ending of Wuthering Heights (1939) for example that depicts the ghostly deities of Heathcliff (Lawrence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon) departing for heavenly bliss was neither conceived nor shot by Wyler, but rather inserted into the film after he had already prepared his final cut.

The first of the Wyler-Goldwyn collaborations; These Three (1936), Lillian Hellman's lesbian-themed play, exercised this strain between producer and director. However, Wyler’s next venture; Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth (1936), the poignantly paced depiction of a sad and disintegrating marriage was both personally and professionally rewarding.

The film received Best Director and Best Picture Oscar nominations; the first of seven consecutive years in which Wyler earned these accolades, culminating with a win in each category for Mrs. Miniver in 1942.Throughout the 1930s and early forties, William Wyler’s professional reputation and stature continued to grow.

His scraps with Samuel Goldwyn, that might have otherwise terminated his chances for future employment, instead paved the way for his being loaned out to other studios. In collaboration with Gregg Toland, Wyler pioneered the use of deep-focus cinematography. He eased temperamental actress, Bette Davis through three of her most demanding assignments; including two at Warner Brothers - the Oscar-winning Jezebel (1938) and Oscar nominated, The Letter (1940). He exercised what appeared to be an effortless filmmaking prowess with equal aplomb on the gritty social melodrama, Dead End (1937) and the literary costume drama Wuthering Heights (1939).

Undeniably, Wyler’s most prolific works of this period serve as bookends to World War II: the patriotic weepy, Mrs. Miniver (1942) and bittersweet epitaph to those years of conflict: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The interim between these two films was interrupted by Wyler’s own service record and the now classic documentary ‘The Memphis Belle.’

Mrs. Miniver proved so rousing and idyllic in its representation of a lost way of life for the English that Sir Winston Churchill sited the film as being more effective at gaining America’s commitment to the war effort that a fleet of destroyers. Yet, in retrospect it is The Best Years of Our Lives that perhaps remains Wyler’s supremely visceral war time film; a powerfully emotive and darkly brooding examination of the awkward frustrations facing returning veterans, the film effectively tapped into the anxieties, apprehensions and misshapen identities of men miscast, misplaced and in some cases forgotten in their own time.

As the years wore on, Wyler continued to expand his repertoire on a gamut; from frothy romantic comedies (Roman Holiday 1953) to pensive melodramas (The Little Foxes 1941) and from sprawling westerns (The Big Country 1958) to gritty crime thrillers (The Desperate Hours 1955).

In more recent times, such scope of personal achievement has inadvertently denied William Wyler his rightful moniker as an auteur – since the term itself represents something of a measurable standardization in greatness and a testament for conformity in art rather than its diversification.

By the end of 1950s, all of Wyler’s ambitious craftsmanship would be put to the ultimate test in one magnificent and thrilling spectacle that has since become synonymous with his name.