A 20 Minute Chariot Race + Homoerotic Undertones = Good Movie

Did you know that the subtitle of Ben-Hur is “The Tale of the Christ”? I had no idea. After watching it this past weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find Christ as an uncredited but monumentally influential character in the film. Who knew? J.C’s appearance was so surprising in fact that it has me thinking about Christ’s absence (as a character) from the majority of mainstream film today. Of course, his name is mentioned in the – I’m just going to say it – subpar “Christian” films released today, but that’s about it. With the exception of The Passion of the Christ when was he last seen on screen in a big budget, quality, mainstream film? Better yet, when prior to The Passion of the Christ was he last seen on screen in a big budget, quality, mainstream film? Are directors/writers/producers scared to include him? Have we just already seen THAT movie and telling his story again would be redundant? Are studios afraid he’s not marketable? I have to admit something, and it might point to an answer.  When I saw the subtitle, I was afraid the movie (despite its spot on the AFI’s best films list & wide spread fame) was going to be another one of those cheesy Christian films. Does my knee jerk reaction explain Christ's PHYSICAL absence in modern film?  (Especially considering that I'm a Christian??!)  Maybe that’s why Jesus isn’t headlining any movies this summer. My generation and those behind me haven’t seen truly epic, engaging and noteworthy films where Christ plays a role lately, so we're not open to the possibility.

But let me tell you, Ben-Hur IS epic. It is engaging and it is noteworthy.  And the Jesus factor didn't change any of that.  Despite its nearly four hour length I was invested in the characters. While it is obvious that its pace was set for generations past (lengthy shots that are heavy on dialogue with next to no choppy editing to keep you on the edge of your seat) it maintained a constant flow and drew the viewer into the story.

Something this film had going against it for me before the credits even rolled is that I’m no Charleston Heston fan. Personally and professionally the guy doesn’t do it for me. I think he’s an over-actor. Whether director William Wyler wanted that or just couldn’t shoot around it, Heston is true to form and over the top. But, really he fits right in because the whole film is over the top. The famed Chariot race was shot on the largest single set that had ever been built and included more extras than any film up to that point. It was the most expensive film made in the 1950s and its budget surpassed anything that ever came before it. Rightfully, the lavish production was rewarded for its extravagance with 11 Academy Awards. Which it turns out was the most Oscars ever awarded to a single film. Undoubtedly, in production value, cinematic grandeur and accolades Ben Hur epitomizes over the top film making.

After doing some research I felt much better about what I perceived to be SUPER homoerotic undertones between the two male leads. Turns out, I wasn’t imagining it. Gore Vidal, who did some re-writes on the script, admitted in a documentary called The Celluloid Closet hat he intentionally included an unspoken romantic connection between the Ben-Hur and Messala (the film’s antagonist played by Stephen Boyd). Heston and Vidal had a bit of a cat fight over this assertion. You can read more about that here. (You got to love the off screen drama, too). Vidal’s admission has me wondering if he was responsible for the greased up Roman bath house sequence or the shirtless, galley slave, man candy. Ben-Hur is RAINING MEN for sure.

Seriously though, after watching this iconic piece of film history, it’s easy for me to see how it earned its place on AFI’s top 100.  Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ is a challenge to contemporary film makers (I'm talking to you Sherwood Pictures).  Including Christ or his message in your film doesn't have to result in an end product that is syrupy, sub-par and predictable.

*Ben-Hur marks the start of my endeavor to watch or re-watch all of the AFI's top 100 films. To follow my progress check the "AFI 100" tab at the top of the page.  I'll be updating the list as I watch and review each film.*

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