Movie Night With Urbaniak: Ben-Hur

To fans of Movie Night With

, my apologies: Urbaniak and I have been watching movies together with more or less our usual frequency, I just haven’t been writing about it so much, as I’ve been busy writing a haunted house script. Anyway, in the past couple of weeks we’ve watched Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More and New York, New York. They’re good, you should watch them. Martin Scorsese, talented guy. You heard it here first.

And I mentioned Ben-Hur in somecontext or other in a conversation with Urbaniak, and Urbaniak replied that he’d never seen it before. And I was like “Dude! You’ve never seen Ben-Hur? It’s the greatest movie ever made.” So we set aside a couple of movie nights to watch this milestone in Hollywood Bible-movie history.

To be honest, I was nervous as a kitten. I’ve been watching Ben-Hur on a regular basis since I was a child and when I got the screenwriting bug I discovered it all over again, and for you young screenwriters out there I direct you to study Ben-Hur‘s structure because it’s really awfully good. And I’m not someone who sits around watching Bible epics as a rule. But I wasn’t sure how it was going to come off to a hepcat indie-stalwart like Urbaniak. I felt like I was bringing a date home to meet the parents — would he like Hur? Generally, when Urbaniak and I sit around watching a movie together, he talks about the acting and I talk about the screenplay. Or rather, he teaches me things about the acting I wasn’t seeing before and I jabber on about scene structure and dialogue and he makes grunts of understanding.

And while the screenplay of Ben-Hur is a relentless, stakes-ever-raising plot machine, the acting, mm, the acting is a little Technicolor let’s say. So I wasn’t sure if there was going to be much in it for Urbaniak to appreciate.

When I rediscovered Ben-Hur in my 30s it blew me away so completely that I went backward and forward from The Ten Commandments to Cleopatra watching every big-screen, big-budget Technicolor Bible and/or historical epic I could find to see if maybe there were other great screenplays out there that have somehow been overshadowed by their bloated production values. Nope, turns out not. Ben-Hur, as near as I can tell, is the only one of the genre that works. All the other ones feel like pageants and spectacles, visually stunning but dramatically inert.

[A digression: one Passover weekend, I was sitting at home flipping channels on my little black-and-white TV and landed, momentarily, on The Ten Commandments. This is the ten seconds or so that happened to be on when I landed there:

(The Egyptian queen is going to get to the bottom of this whole Moses thing.)
QUEEN. (to servant, imperiously) Fetch me my chariot! I am going to Goshen!

(Dissolve to:)

(Moses’s mom and sister sit by the fire, shucking peas. We hear the sounds of horses and wooden wheels, off. Sister looks up, alarmed.)
SISTER. (to Mom) What’s that? A chariot? Here? In Goshen?

End of digression.]

Why does Ben-Hur work when all the others don’t? Well, it contains some very good filmmaking, there’s one thing it’s got going for it. It’s visually sumptuous and splendorously spectacular in an old-fashioned Hollywood way, but in many ways it’s shot in a much more modern style than, say, The Robe. And while I can easily say that it contains Charlton Heston’s best, most accomplished, most nuanced performance, the fact remains that he is still Charlton Heston — a shiny golden boy with astonishing physical presence and little noticeable acting talent. When Judah Ben-Hur feels something, there’s little guesswork on the part of the audience as to what the emotion is — Heston doesn’t “indicate” or “emote” in the ham actor sense, he practically screams whatever inner turmoil his character is experiencing. He glowers, he snarls, he beams, he contorts his body into ridiculous, kabuki-level pretzels in order to show us Judah’s anger, pride, joy or misery.

No, what makes Ben-Hur work after fifty years is, you may have already guessed, the screenplay, which does so many things right it constitutes a miniature screenwriting course all by itself. It contains one of my favorite Inciting Incidents ever, when Judah’s sister accidentally knocks a roof tile down upon an Important Roman Guy during a parade. This tiny event sets a gigantic, life-changing set of plot-points into motion, culminating in, of all things, the crucifixion of Jesus.

Hard upon this great Inciting Incident is Judah’s Gap. Judah takes the blame for his sister’s accident, thinking his wealth and friendship with the local constable will protect him and his family. What happens instead is his family is thrown in prison and he is sent to work as a slave in the galley of a Roman warship. Judah’s Gap then widens when the ship’s ranking officer, Arrias, recognizing something noble in Judah’s character, undoes his chains prior to an important battle. It widens still further when, after saving Arrias’s life, Judah is made a Roman citizen, and so on.

(By looking at a crucial moment in history through the lens of one man’s journey through its various classes and societies, Ben-Hur anticipates, improbably enough, Forrest Gump. And the intimacy of Ben-Hur‘s story-line [it’s really about only a handful of characters] set against its spectacular, cast-of-thousands background is what sets it apart from “great man” epics like Gandhi or The Greatest Story Ever Told or the aforementioned, must-to-avoid Ten Commandments. Ben-Hur is a personal story, even a private story, not a historical drama.  Like The Godfather, Part II, the story it tells is epic, and its running time is quite long, but each individual scene is a model of compactness and efficiency.)

One of the key phrases in story construction is “But There Was One Thing They Had Forgotten.” Ben-Hur is a virtual compendium of “But There Was One Thing They Had Forgotten” moments. Judah thinks his wealth and political connections will save him, but he has forgotten that the Important Roman Guy the tile fell on is his Roman friend Messala’s new boss, who has been charged with getting the Jews in line in Judea. Pilate grants Judah Roman citizenship, thinking that Judah will be overjoyed to finally be on the winning side, but he has forgotten that Judah was thrown into slavery because of the same oppressive Roman regime that Pilate represents. Judah goes to Jerusalem to see Jesus crucified, but he has forgotten that he’s actually met the guy before, when he was on his way to the Roman galleys. And so forth.

Then there’s the still-awesome chariot race, which I’ve touched on before when discussing The Phantom Menace, but for those coming in late, the upshot of the thing is that the chariot race in Ben-Hur comes after about two and a half hours of relentless plot regarding Judah’s doomed friendship with Messala, his Roman ex-friend who consigned Judah’s mother and sister to prison and is responsible for what Judah believes is their deaths. The stakes are ratcheted up to absurd heights leading up to the race until the tension is all but unbearable, and then the race itself unfurls with a brutal elegance and technical sophistication still unbeaten in cinema history. In contrast, the pod race in The Phantom Menace involves a kid we just met racing against a creature we barely know, because some people who he ran into at the junk shop need a spare part for their space ship. The race itself is a technical marvel, but to compare the two in story terms is a futile exercise.

(The recent 4-disc reissue also includes the 1925 silent version of the movie, which, although it contains some pretty silly Silent Hollywood filmmaking, is well worth watching for the chariot race, which is, in some ways, even more accomplished and startling than the 1959 version.)

The story of Ben-Hur also works, by the way, as a drama about the hubris and folly of imperialism. Funny how I never noticed that before now.

Finally, I should just say, you know, I have very little patience in my life for Christian fundamentalism. But the whole Jesus aspect of Ben-Hur works for me because the filmmakers have chosen, wisely I think, to concentrate on the philosophical and humanist aspects of the Christ message instead of the “follow me or you’re going to hell” and the “all other faiths but mine are wrong” aspects. It makes Ben-Hur a drama about a man’s spiritual awakening instead of a tract designed to frighten or cajole.

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26 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Ben-Hur”
  1. medox says:

    Now I’m just embarrassed I haven’t seen Ben-Hur yet, either. It goes right on my Netflix “Queue of Shame”.

    And haunted house movies are some of my favorite movies ever. Not sure why, but seal up a bunch of disparate folks in a moldy old mansion for a night, and I am hooked. Especially if one of them has spent a night in the house before… and barely escaped with their sanity.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think you pegged this wonderful epic movie just right and I agree with your opinion on Charleton Heston’s acting ability. Judging by your occasional digressions into politics on this blog I would be comfortable in saying that your politics and mine are diametrically opposed, which is in part why I’d be interested someday in bouncing my theory off of you on why (in my opinion) liberals make better actors than conservatives. I’d add it here, but I really don’t want to horn in on and possibly derail your blog, which my various novel an comic book writing buddies and I consider a must-read on the craft of writing.

    Bill Willingham

    • Anonymous says:

      Mr. Willingham,
      I’d just like to say I love Fables very very much. Your book got me back into comics. So thank you for awesome comic books.

      C. Woodward

    • Todd says:

      I’m sure that the liberal-vs.-conservative-acting-styles thread would be a popular thread all by itself, and we should do that some day. But let me start by saying that while it’s true that George Clooney is our greatest living movie star, he hasn’t yet come within striking distance of John Wayne.

    • tinyjoseph says:


      Your series was one of the reasons I got back into collecting comics regularly again; I’ve introduced at least a dozen people to your wonderful series, thank goodness for graphic novel collections.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I truly hope you’re writing the full-length version of Don’t with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg.

  4. planettom says:

    When I was in Rome about ten years ago, there were still these big decaying statues from the BEN HUR chariot race scenes outside the Cinecittà movie studio.

    You’re walking around millenia-old ruins all the time in Rome, but there’s something oddly majestic about these bits of 40+ year-old crumbling movie fakery with the chickenwire poking through.

    We also walked around the real Circus Maximus, which of course is little more than a field now, but we also went about ten miles outside Rome to the Circus Maxentius, which is much more intact. You get a much better feel of where the track and where the seats were, and it was easy to imagine the chariots thundering around…

    • Anonymous says:

      Gotta agree about the Cinecitta’ statues. But here’s one of the biggest differences between the Circus Maximus and Circus Maxentius now: The Circus Maximus is covered in dog shit when it’s not being used for soccer celebrations or political rallies, and the Circus Maxentius is always empty except for maybe one little old man gathering weeds for his salad.

  5. curt_holman says:

    “When I rediscovered Ben-Hur in my 30s it blew me away so completely that I went backward and forward from The Ten Commandments to Cleopatra watching every big-screen, big-budget Technicolor Bible and/or historical epic I could find.”

    I take it this was long before ‘What Does The Protagonist Want’ could have taken a film-by-film journey through the genre. Alas, the loss to posterity.

    BTW, where does Spartacus fit in your Bible and/or historical epic calculus?

    • Todd says:

      I have an uncomfortable relationship with Spartacus. I think it’s a pretty good movie, but it’s pretty clumsy for a Stanley Kubrick movie. I’ll probably get to it at some point.

  6. popebuck1 says:

    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the excellent documentary The Celluloid Closet, but it contains some great reminiscences by Gore Vidal about the filming of Ben-Hur – Vidal being one of many people hired to punch up the script during the long filming process.

    Specifically, Vidal came up with the idea that Messala and Judah had been lovers long ago, and asked Stephen Boyd to play that subtext – without telling Heston. Heston has denied any of this ever took place, but the clip they play is pretty damn persuasive.

    At any rate, I would recommend The Celluloid Closet completely on its own merits – I’d be curious to see a straight guy’s reaction to it.

    • Todd says:

      A few years back I was watching Ben-Hur with a woman who had never seen it and she just about got the vapors from watching the Judah/Messala scene, the sexual tension just comes off those guys in waves.

      In the “making-of” documentary that comes with the 4-disc set, Heston says only that director Wyler took him aside before shooting and said “Chuck, you have to be better in this movie,” without further elaboration. Which sounds about right to me.

  7. craigjclark says:

    Ben-Hur the “greatest movie ever made”? I don’t know if I would go along with that, but I’m sure it goes over like gangbusters on the big screen.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Me, I’m just hoping Mssrs. Publick and Hammer to throw us a Ben-Hur bone next season.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’m glad you gave a shout-out to the 1925 version, because that chariot race sequence is one of the most exciting pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen.

  10. sasha_khan says:

    One of the key phrases in story construction is “But There Was One Thing They Had Forgotten.”

    like Columbo?

  11. sheherazahde says:

    But There Is One Thing You Have Forgotten!

    What did think of it?