Screening History: “Ben-Hur” and the Tragedy of the Might-Have-Been

I went into Ben-Hur with the lowest possible expectations. Critics and audiences alike seemed to disdain the film, and its opening box office was truly abysmal. I was worried that somehow this box office and critical disaster would taint my love for the 1959 version.

As sometimes happens, however, the film actually exceeded all of my expectations. While it does not hit the same notes of operatic grandness achieved by its predecessors (including, it is worth noting, the 1925 version, which seems to have been largely forgotten in the discourse surrounding this one), it is nevertheless a competent and at times quite moving film.

The film basically follows the same trajectory as the previous versions, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his boyhood friend and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves pulled apart by the historical times in which they live, in which the power of Rome continues to oppress the people of Judaea. Their own personal rivalry–which culminates in the famous chariot race–takes place at the same time as the ministry of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) whose sacrifice and Crucifixion lead to the eventual reconciliation of Judah and Messala.

Though he lacks the larger-than-life monumentality that Heston brought to his interpretation of the role, the young Jack Huston brings something else equally valuable. He manages to bring both a measure of vulnerability and sensitivity to the role, neither of which are traits that Heston could ever have claimed to embody. For that reason, I actually found Huston’s lack of star power refreshing, in that it allowed me to put aside my preconceptions of what Judah should look like and instead appreciate what this relatively unknown star (who nevertheless hails from an illustrious Hollywood lineage) was able to bring to the role.

Indeed, I thought there was a great deal of chemistry between him and his fellow lead Toby Kebell. The latter brings a powerful, brooding energy to the character of Messala, a young man overshadowed by a tainted family legacy and his own desire to prove himself worthy of being a Roman. It’s hard not to find him compelling, in much the same way as it was difficult to not find oneself attracted to Stephen Boyd (who played the role in the 1959 version). However, I do think that Kebbell brings a softer, more vulnerable–and thus, ultimately, more redeemable–characterization to the role.

Of course, Morgan Freeman also deserves credit for the gravitas that he brings to the role of Sheik Ilderim. Whereas his earlier counterpart had been a rather egregious example of blackface, Freeman imbues his character with a powerful, brooding solemnity. We learn, for example, that his son had also been a zealous enemy of Rome, a position that earned him an ignominious and horrific death at the hands of the Roman state. One cannot help but feel the resonance with the ways in which black bodies are still rendered subject (and abject) to the violence of the state.

Of course, the two of the most affective and intense scenes were the scene in the galley and the chariot race. Both allowed for a feeling immersion, of being there and inhabiting two very different moments. While the galley sequence (as such sequences frequently do) forces us to inhabit a claustrophobic world of the abject, the chariot race represents a reclamation of embodied agency. In fact, I actually think the scene in the galleys is more terrifying and visceral than the 1959 version, in no small part because so many of the shots are from Judah’s hampered point of view. The race, for its part, is quite as stirring as the original, and seeing it on the big screen was absolutely a part of the phenomenologically powerful experience.

It’s a tad unfortunate that the Crucifixion scene–which should, one would think, land with the greatest possible emotional impact–comes off as so stilted and emotionless. Santoro, bless him, just doesn’t bring a great deal to the role of Christ. Not that this is entirely his fault; the script doesn’t really allow him to do anything other than utter a few incredibly flat-footed platitudes. In this instance, it seems that the practice of the earlier films, which resolutely kept Christ out of the frame, proved to be the better move.

That aside, I do think that the latter half of the film holds together much more effectively than the first. Part of this, I think, has to do with the gratuitous number of cuts throughout the first half of the film. One would think that the opposite would be the case; after all, these early scenes are designed to establish the personal level of the drama. Unfortunately, however, Bekmambetov is a bit too fond of the cut, and it becomes distracting more than it should be.

Despite the choppy and often gratuitous editing of those early scenes, however, the film does succeed in showing how much Messala and Judah care for one another, a crucial bit of backstory that we don’t really see in the 1959 version (though Gore Vidal’s juicy gossip suggests that his script had a homoerotic undercurrent). As a result, we get to know and care about these characters and their relationship. And you know what? That final reconnection between Messala and Judah actually brought tears to my eyes. Because, despite everything else, it felt earned. These two actors bring enough emotional resonance to their roles that we actually care about what happens to them. At a broader level, it also provides hope that, even in this time of historical conflict, that somehow solidarity can and will win out of hatred.

Is Ben-Hur a perfect, or even a great film? Absolutely not, and there are a number of reasons for this. At the risk of continuing to compare the film to its predecessor, I do think it’s noteworthy that this reboot did not have a major directorial name attached to it. While Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to Hollywood, he doesn’t have the same sort of resumé as or cultural capital as a director like William Wyler, who had already established himself as a formidable artist director of stature. Bekmambetov, for better and worse, does not have quite that amount of presence to help lift Ben-Hur to the heights of true greatness to which it might otherwise have aspired.

In the end, I strongly suspect that the 2016 iteration of Ben-Hur will go down in history as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful reimagining of a cinematic and literary classic. Still, I do hope that those who watch it take it on its own terms, for it really is quite a good film in its own way. And that, perhaps, is its greatest tragedy.

 

Screening History: “The Sign of the Cross”

Welcome to my official entry in the Pre-Code Blogathon!  Today, I will be focusing on Cecil B. DeMille’s (in)famous classic The Sign of the Cross (1932).  Released just prior to the implementation of the Code, this film utilizes that freedom to paint the ancient Roman world as full of dangerous yet pleasurable sexuality and violence.  The film tells the story of the virtuous Christian maiden Mercia (Elissa Landi), and the pompous, brutally masculine Roman soldier Marcus Superbus (Frederic March) who falls in love with her.  Their fraught relationship emerges against the backdrop of the reign of the villainous, corpulent, and childlike Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) and his lascivious wife Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), who plots against Mercia in her attempts to claim Marcus for her own.

If all of this sounds like a dangerously merry romp through ancient Rome, it is.  There is something sinfully delightful about this film, in keeping with DeMille’s penchant for combining the flagrantly sexual with a supposedly uplifting moral message.  There are points in the film, however, that definitely veer more toward the former than the latter, such as the infamous seduction scene in which Marcus convinces a famous courtesan named Ancaria to perform a lewd song and dance number.  Naturally, Mercia resists, but this moment highlights the film’s investment in showing ancient Rome as a place where sex remains inextricably intertwined with power and manipulation.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

This all pales, however, in comparison to the arena scene, which serves to highlight the violent depravity of the ancient Romans and their attempts to squash the burgeoning Christian faith.  DeMille throws everything he has at the viewer, including a highly suggestive moment in which a gorilla assaults a vulnerable Christian maiden, much to the jeering and excited delight of the crowd.  Such scenes invite us as contemporary spectators to join in the fun, to relish the carnal nature of the Roman past, even as it also invites us to disavow that enjoyment, to remind ourselves that are (supposedly) live in a more civilized, order, and disciplined present.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

As far as the characters go, Marcus and Mercia nicely complement one another, with Marcus providing the masculine hauteur that must gradually be tamed by the patience and everlasting virtue of the Christian maiden.  What sets this film apart, however, is the very incompleteness of Marcus’s conversion.  Even at the end of the film, when he decides go with Mercia and her fellow Christians into the certain death of the arena, he states that he will be saved not by faith in Christ, but instead through Mercia herself.  His excessive pagan masculinity can only be tamed and channeled into appropriate Christian morality through the body and soul of the Christian maiden, and even there it remains startlingly incomplete.

I have to admit that, before I first watched this film, I was a little skeptical of Claudette Colbert as the sultry and sensuous Poppaea.  I had already seen the 1951 Quo Vadis (based on the same source material as Sign), and was very much taken with Patricia Laffan’s heavy-lidded and sensuous depiction of the character.  However, Colbert managed to surprise me, though she is much more of a coquette than a traditional femme fatale (she would later adopt a similar persona for her interpretation of Cleopatra in DeMille’s film of the same name).   She pales, however, in comparison to Laughton’s delightfully corpulent Nero, who emerges her as a slightly pathetic man unable to control his own fleshly appetites and tempers.  As he later would in Spartacus–in which he portrayed the world-weary and hedonist Senator Gracchus–Laughton’s own pudgy physique lends Nero a certain child-like essence that makes him a study in pop Freudian psychology.

While seemingly uplifting, the end of the film is actually rather pessimistic in its worldview.  Unlike the 1951 Quo Vadis (in which the two main characters are saved by the arena and end up sparking the revolt that topples Nero from his throne), the two main characters meet their presumed deaths in the arena, the film fading to black as both Marcus and Mercia walk to their deaths.  Salvation, the film suggests, can never take place on this sinful earth, but must instead be achieved in the some other realm.

Like many other representations of antiquity, ancient Rome here is a world obsessed with the promise of death, though it takes on very different valences for the pagan Romans and the Christians.  For the former, death can be both combated and embraced by feverishly indulging in the pleasures of the flesh (Poppaea’s ass’s milk bath and seductive gestures toward another female bather is a case in point) and by watching the tortures of the arena.  For the Christians, however, death is a not a thing to be warded off nor to be encountered only through sublimation, but instead embraced as the escape from the confines of the flesh, the body, and the pagan Roman world.

Given the intensity of the images in this film, it’s small wonder that it was severely edited for its subsequent re-releases (one of which featured a brief introduction featuring soldiers fighting in World War II against fascist Italy).  However, the trends that it set, especially its visceral depiction of the ancient world, would re-emerge after World War II in renewed force.  Beginning with Samson and Delilah in 1949–yet another film directed by DeMille–the world of antiquity in all of its violent, splendid glory would come to reign supreme at the box office throughout the 1950s.  A golden age, indeed.

History in the Media: Vibrant Spectacles of Sublime Destruction

It should come as no surprise that a group like ISIL would seek to efface any traces of pre-Islamic history from areas under its control.  Indeed, they have done precisely that, destroying large parts of a museum in Mosul and bulldozing excavated parts of the ancient city of Nimrud (though it should be noted that the extent of the damage has yet to be fully ascertained).  Every time I hear of another piece of history being destroyed, I feel a profound sense of loss, something that strikes me deeper than just the thought that these traces of antiquity (for which I have a particular fondness) are being forever eradicated.

I want to state up front that I am fully cognizant of the fact that there is a great deal more than just objects being lost.  The horrendous losses of life that have swept through so many portions of Western Asia are truly some of the most ghastly of the 21st Century, and I do not want to in any way dismiss the importance of human life.  At the same time, however, I also think it is necessary to think about why it is that we respond with such heightened emotions and such profound feelings of loss when we see objects of historical importance (however nebulously defined that is) subjected to the chisel and the bulldozer.

I think there is something paradoxically vibrant, vital even, about the objects that so frequently appear in the news media, their pitted surfaces being brought to ruin by the vengeful sledgehammers of those determined to eradicate the traces of a past that proves troublesome and resistant to newer narratives of national and religious identification.  These objects carry with them the sedimented meanings and experiences of civilizations that have long since ceased to exist.  At the same time as they possess vitality, however, they also inhabit a space of abjection, cast off and out of the teleological march of history.  They also seemingly provide us access to an intimate and intricate skein of human lives that goes beyond the individual located in a specific, bounded location in a particular temporal and spatial location.  Though they may be in ruins, they still remind us of our past, that we belong somewhere in history.

The sight, or really even the description, of this destruction elicits a deep, guttural, visceral reaction in most of us, and for a variety of reasons.  As Lana Asfour and Michael Scott put it at Al-Jazeera English, “ We were shocked by the wanton destruction of artefacts because material culture is not only about people but also about identity. It connects us to the past and embodies and represents our collective experiences and achievements.”  It is precisely this sense of collectivity that, I think, helps to explain my own response when I see these signs of destruction.  These scenes, with their sharp juxtaposition of the technologies of modernity with the seemingly archaic ruins of antiquity, threaten our collective sense of being embodied in a particular temporal location, of being a part of something greater than ourselves.

Just as importantly, however, the sight of destruction serves as a potent reminder of the fallibility and ephemerality of even the greatest of imperial and cultural ambitions.  Of course, the ruins themselves already have within them those layers of meaning and those cautionary notes of imperial hubris and ephemerality, but seeing those destroyed, I think, brings out intense feelings of the sublime.  When I see a city like Nimrud subjected to demolishment, I cannot help but feel a profound sense of the sublime, as the scale of what is being destroyed goes beyond my (or, I would argue, any individual’s) ability to come to terms with it.  In other words, what is being destroyed is not just the ruins of an ancient city, but also everything that city has come to represent, the layers upon layers of meaning and significance it has attained throughout the millennia of its ruinous existence.

Finally, and I must admit to this being a bit more speculative, the destruction of these objects also pose a powerful threat to our sense of time, of being individuals situated in a discrete historical moment.  In other words, seeing objects and ancient ruins destroyed detaches us from our sense of being located in time.  We take great comfort in the idea that we have deep histories.  Ancient cities, even those that exist only in ruins, are a claim that we as a species have roots that we can point to in order to justify our existence.  Such a feeling becomes particularly acute for those in the U.S., for whom the ancient world has often held out the promise of a richer history than we (falsely) believe we possess.  It is that feeling of temporal dislocation and pastlessness, I think that more than anything helps to explain my own profound feelings of loss and melancholia at these spectacles of sublime destruction.