Is Ben-Hur really all that it’s cracked up to be?

Ben-Hur is one of the most celebrated and successful pieces of cinema in the history of the art. It had been on my bucket list for a long time, which feels like it’s getting longer rather than shorter. I’m 34-years-old now and this is a good age to be looking back beyond my 1984 birth year.

I make no apologies for the spoilers. It’s over half a century old, for Christ’s sake.*

The film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a prince living in Roman Empire-occupied Jerusalem under the watchful eye of guards working for Julius Caesar. His long-time best friend Massala has returned following extensive guard training and is now a fully-fledged devotee to the Roman Empire. However, when a guard’s march walks through the city and a tile falls from a roof and hits a guard, Ben-Hur is blamed and banished to slavery, whilst his mother and sister are sent to prison, all at the hands of a Massala keen to impress his superiors. This begins Ben-Hur’s plight to avenge this wrongdoing and seek justice.

Now, there are a couple of things that may have been prevalent in the marketing of Ben-Hur back in 1959, but 60 years on all we hear about is the chariot race scene and as such we’re left with a few surprises.

Firstly, this film is extremely religious. Indeed, the story is, at heart, a tale of how one man’s beliefs are tested and torn to shreds before eventually being restored to a place stronger than ever. Jesus Christ is an important character, even though he is never mentioned by name, nor is his face ever seen. The story uses Judah Ben-Hur as an allegory for Jesus, and it is an adaptation of a novel titles ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’. It is effective in doing so, albeit through the medium of a fairly slow-paced cinematic epic.

Secondly, whilst we’re on the topic of the slow pace, this film is almost four hours long! It is split across two Blu-ray discs.** This is a crazy amount of time, and it was proved to be far too long when the film was remade a few years ago in around half the running time. Admittedly, this version was far less successful than its most popular predecessor (itself a remake). Realistically, the only way to get through it is to watch it in installments.

Indeed, manually splitting it into a four-part mini series will make it more manageable to modern audiences. I hate myself for recommending doing that, but this film is no easy nut to crack based on what modern audiences are used to.

It’s typical of the blockbuster films of the time to be over-long and of epic proportions. The Ten Commandments. Gone With The Wind. Looking back, it seems the longer the film, the more likely it is to have stood the test of time.

It is no wonder that fans of the film concentrate so heavily on the brilliant chariot race and that horrific rowing slaves scene. True, when this film is good, it’s great. The scene where he discovers his sister and mother are still living in The Valley of the Lepers is truly heartbreaking. Watching him confront Massala on the operation table is as satisfying as it is horrific.

Of course, the chariot scene is rightly celebrated. Watching that in isolation, in all its grandeur, is something to behold. If you have the setup, I highly recommend you watch it at home in brilliant HD and surround sound. It is absolutely majestic.

It is wholly unfair to judge it by today’s standards, of course. Is Murnau’s Sunrise as entertaining as Jenkins’s Moonlight? Probably not. But it operates on a different plane. Both are excellent, judged by whatever standards, but modern audiences are more likely to enjoy a film made in modern times.

The same holds true for Ben-Hur. It’s of its time. It is definitely hard work, without a doubt. But if you can’t dedicate four hours to it in one sitting, then you’ll still get a lot out of it by splitting it up into bite-sized chunks.

* You see what I did here? Of course, this is a religious joke. And the film is religious. I’m a classy reviewer…

** Probably not a concern at the time.

Short film review – Donald in Mathmagic Land (Hamilton Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark, Joshua Meador)

As educational short films go, Disney’s animation about their ever-stressed duck taking a trip through a land filled with mathematical tales, quips and facts is pretty darn entertaining.

Released in 1959 alongside a poorly-remembered live action film called Darby O’Gill and the Little People, the film went on to receive a nomination in the Best Documentary – Short Subject category at the Academy Awards. [1] [2]

It charts Donald’s journey through Mathmagic Land, as guided by the voice of a spirit (Paul Frees). He learns about the origins of maths, starting with Pythagoras in Greece, then the pentogram and the golden section, the appearances of the golden section in nature, architecture and art, the application of maths in music and its relevance to games (especially chess, which features a nice reference to Alice Through The Looking Glass).

That the film covers a relatively thorough history of one of the most important and fundamental basic principals of life and remains interesting is somewhat of a miracle, so much so that the film went on to be used as an educational tool in schools across America. It’s easy to see why. Its relevance endures and it would still be useful in the modern education system.

Admittedly, the style is now somewhat dated but it has a classic feel of 1950s era Disney about it. This is hardly surprising. Two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” worked as directors on the film. [3]

It is a great shame that so many of these old Disney shorts are hard to locate in a good quality transfer and few are held in high regard, largely due to the lack of knowledge of their existence. Anyone who enjoys watching the early Disney animation films is doing themselves a disservice if they are yet to discover the shorts being released around the same time. These are the same animators, story writers and directors, throwing together ideas and experimenting with animation, perhaps to try something out for a future release, or maybe just finishing ideas that were started with a plan for a full release before ending up as a short instead.

There are so many to choose from, many of which were released in the UK on the Disney Fables series of DVDs. Owning all six of them is a great start – you will have in your possession six hours of short animated films, covering 25 animated films, several of which were Academy Awards nominees and winners. It’s about time that Disney worked out a way to get these out there again so yet another generation can enjoy them.

[1] I can’t imagine people were overly-fond of the film at the cinema.Having paid to see a film that’s 93 minutes long, imagine the dismay when you sat down and realised it had a 26-minute short film about maths tagged at the beginning of it.

[2] Quite why this wasn’t nominated as an animated short is beyond me. I incorrectly assumed that the category didn’t exist at the time but this proved to be an incorrect assumption, having been around for over 25 years in 1959.

[3] Wolfgang Reitherman and Les Clark were two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men”, a group of nine original animators that worked at the Disney company. Many of them went on to direct feature films themselves and every Walt Disney Animation film featured at least one of the nine until 1985’s The Black Cauldron.

Film review – Day of the Outlaw (Andre De Toth, 1959)

Andre de Toth’s unusually complex Western ‘Day of the Outlaw’ has found its way onto the Master of Cinema label this month as a dual-format release. A forgotten and under-appreciated film, shining the spotlight on it will hopefully mean it finds a much-deserved wider audience.

The film is set in an isolated town called Bitter in Wyoming. The story opens with a couple of men on horses riding towards the camera in a frosty snow storm. It is a clever opening scene by De Toth, setting up the rugged main character Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan) with the ominous line, “I’m through with being reasonable.” We know he’s got a bone to pick with someone, with the assumption that we’re going to find out who and why pretty quickly. That we do.

What is essentially a boundry dispute about the location of a barbed wire fence reveals a hidden layer of complication when we learn that Blaise is having an affair with Helen Crane (Tina Louise), wife to Hal (Alan Marshal) of said boundry dispute. She seems absolutely loyal to her husband despite evidently being in love with Blaise.

As tensions continue to rise, the two men end up in a standoff that will likely lead to one or both being killed. This is poleaxed by the arrival of an out-of-town gang headed up by Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), who pose a much greater threat to the men, their wives, their land and their livelihood.

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At 92 minutes long and a reported budget of just $400,000 (a little over $3m in 2016), De Toth has to work with what he has and work fast. It’s a great achievement that this was done so well, especially in what appears to be torrid weather conditions. Characters are fully realised despite often not being afforded enough screen time to develop them. A good example of this is young gang member Gene (David Nelson), who goes through an internal psychological journey in what amounts to about 10 minutes of screen time.

The film was cited by Quentin Tarantino as a reference point in the run up to The Hateful Eight and it’s easy to see the resemblance [1]. The opening sequence was a direct homage to Day of the Outlaw, with a long shot allowing the lead character(s) to naturally approach through a snow storm to join the viewer at the front of the screen. The secluded setting in increasingly worse weather, high tensions, conflicting characters having to live side-by-side whilst the story unfolds. Nothing is stolen, but it is clearly a film Tarantino rates.

Ryan’s Blaise makes a fantastic focal point around which the film plays out. He is a man who stands by his own morals. His affair with Helen is justified by him essentially saying he has no respect for her husband and thinks she deserves better. He undertakes an openly noble act of self-sacrifice for the good of the townspeople he thinks little of, though refuses to take any credit for it. He is the film’s only hero and he plays it coolly throughout. It isn’t Ryan’s most celebrated role but one worthy of a second look if you’re a fan.

Day of the Outlaw may be a flawed film but there’s enough on offer for fans of the anti-Western subgenre that seems to have found its way back to popular interest following the likes of Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant. If you liked any of these films then this is worth checking out.

[1] In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Tarantino stated, “I can definitely say that as bleak as our movie is, we are definitely the funniest snow Western ever made. This is funnier than The Great Silence, it’s funnier than Day of the Outlaw.” Quite what he means by this isn’t exactly clear. There isn’t much humour in Day of the Outlaw.