Sunday, March 31, 2013

Holiday viewing

On this Easter Sunday, many teevee channels regale viewers with such fare as Ben-Hur, King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. My ladyfriend ignored all of that to watch Bride of Chucky, another fine film about a guy who survived the grave. I guess Jennifer Tilly plays a variant of Mary Magdalene.

One cable channel has run ads for an upcoming made-for-teevee remake of Ben-Hur. The commercials give the impression that A Tale of the Christ has been transformed into a movie about schtupping -- perhaps The Greatest Schtupp Ever Schtupped. In the 1925 silent film, there's an absolutely hilarious bit (presumably derived from the novel) in which Judah B-H loses his maidenhead to a first century vamp. The 1959 remake wisely removed that subplot, leaving viewers with the impression that Charlton Heston keeps his virginity. Believe it or not, the latest retelling is the fifth cinematic version of the story; Heston did the voice for a 2003 animated rendition.

Why does this story fascinate Americans so deeply? Most viewers/readers don't understand that this plot is really just an extended metaphor concerning Jewish assimilation, in which our hero must decide whether he wants to be called Judah or Arius. I always thought those names were a bit on the nose.

If all goes well, I'll be back a little later today with some weird stuff about Jesus. This blog has a history of posting such posts during this season, and the most notorious of those posts may be found here. (NSFAA -- Not Safe For Anyone Anywhere.)
The 1925 version is actually better than the '59 remake. The making of this film is pretty interesting.
Susan, it has been a while since I saw the silent version (lovingly restored by Keven Brownlow, as I recall). It's a good film -- I really like the way they did the "nativity" prologue -- but I think the '59 remake is better. If memory serves, the 1925 movie puts both the sea battle and the chariot race in the first half, which kind of unbalances the story. The second half of the movie is mostly given over the "Judah and the vamp" subplot, which is just just plain stupid.

What passed for sexy in the 1920s seems kitschy and laughable these days. Although I guess you could make the argument that vamps were that era's version of goth girls.

Gore Vidal once said that he wrote (or rewrote) the first half of the script for the 1959 film while Christopher Fry wrote the second part. If you pay attention, the first half of the film is a model of good screenwriting, with nary a wasted line. The Fry half, by contrast, has lots of draggy bits. But it also has the best bit of dialogue in the whole movie -- the final scene between Ben-Hur and Pilate is very well written.

One other thing: The model boats in the 1959 version look AWFUL, especially on the big screen. (I've seen the movie at the Cinerama Dome in 70mm.) Although I normally don't like the idea of modern special effects artists "fixing" a classic film, in this case...

Final note: The 1959 movie is one of a handful of films in the ultra-ultra-wide system "Camera 65," later called "Ultra-Panavision." The image is nearly three times as wide as it is tall. Modern Blue-Rays present the film in the correct aspect ratio, and it looks terrific.

Why doesn't someone bring back Ultra-Panavision?
You wrote:Why does this story fascinate Americans so deeply? Most viewers/readers don't understand that this plot is really just an extended metaphor concerning Jewish assimilation, in which our hero must decide whether he wants to be called Judah or Arius. I always thought those names were a bit on the nose.

I'm not American born, nor Jewish, nor even an organised Christian, but the film has fascinated me since I saw it first in the early '60s. I didn't "get" the metaphor you mentioned - but then I'm a simple soul. ;-) It's my favourite movie of all time.

For me the 1959 version of Ben Hur is simply a great adventure story, with undertones of a new philosophy arising in the land - a philosophy which was good - still clean and unsullied by those greedy for power and control who came along later and added their own frills to it.

Having learned about Charlton Heston's political leanings and "cold dead hand" diatribe many years later, oddly didn't lessen my admiration for his depiction of Judah Ben Hur. I cannot think of any other actor of the time who could have played the part.
Can't think of anyone up to it among today's crop either.

You're wrong that the '59 version is better. Furthermore, the chariot sequence in the 1925 version is far better and better-executed.

Well, Susan, we'll have to differ on that one. I like the version where our nice Jewish boy doesn't lose his virginity to a shiksa. In both films, the chariot race is magnificent.

The 1907 version is on YouTube. It's so unbearably primitive (even compared to the earlier work of Melies and Porter) that it's very hard to sit through.

Twilight: Heston was a liberal until the 1970s, and probably had liberal views on at least SOME subjects for the rest of his life. I don't care what anyone else says -- the guy was a terrific actor. Did you ever see his Marc Antony? Better than Brando's, by a mile.
I haven't seen that version of "Julius Caesar". Joseph - but it's now on my list to dig out of the "used" section at Amazon or elsewhere. Thanks for the tip , and for the info on Heston's politics - didn't know that. :-)
Twi: I should warn you that the 1970 "Julius Caesar" -- the one with Heston as Antony -- features Jason Robards as Brutus, and he's TERRIBLE. Very odd; Robards was great in every other film I've seen him in. Also, the budget was low and it shows.

Everyone who has ever seen this film remembers Heston's delivery of one line: "So is my horse, Octavius." You'll see what I mean.

Also, this was actually Heston's second go at the role onscreen. His first film was an ultra-low amateur version made by some college kids in the mid-west in 1950. I've never seen it -- for years it was unavailable. Now it's on YouTube.

I also haven't seen Heston's "Antony and Cleopatra," which he directed in 1972. So far as I know, that's the only version of the play ever put on film.
Our family (husband and I) love Moses. We make up dialog and change the story each time.
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