by Jennifer Valencia
I don’t remember a lot about the first time I saw William Wyler‘s Ben-Hur, probably because I was 8 and had the attention span of a Jack Russell. What I do remember was the famous chariot race scene. Who doesn’t remember that scene? It was intense, massive, epic! I remember my eyes weren’t big enough to take it all in. Even on a regular T.V. it is hard not to miss the sheer size and excitement of that scene.
As I watched the film for the second time I was impressed with the scope of the film. Ben-Hur was made in 1959, the film technologies of today weren’t even possible, yet the film accomplished the same sense of greatness that you see in a modern epic. This film came out at a key time in Hollywood as it was desperately fighting against the rise of television. One of Hollywood’s answers to the television was to make the epic of all epics.1 It did something no other epic, such as The Ten Commandments, had not yet fully accomplished. Ben-Hur brought the audience into the epic.2 It showed us a world of biblical and historical proportions while drawing us into its mise-en-sense by focusing on the life and journey of Judah Ben-Hur. The director, William Wyler, and Cinematographer, Robert Surtees, did a fabulous job of using the space that 70mm film gave them. They managed to capture the grandeur of the Roman empire while still being able to focus on the central characters and the story. The spacing of characters, objects, and lighting within the frame lends a lot to achieving this intimacy in such a vast landscape.
There are two scenes in particular that I am thinking about when I talk about the use of spacing. There is the scene where Messala comes to visit Judah at his house. They are talking one on each side of the screen, framed in sort of medium shot. The figures do not over power the image yet their bodies take up most of the frame. The positions in contrast to the negative space that is inherent to 70mm bring us right into the action as they are interacting with each other within that space.
The second scene takes place when people are gathered on the hill to hear Jesus speak. Judah and Esther are walking back home from the Valley of the Lepers. They pass the hill and here Juda runs into an acquaintance of his, Balthasar. There’s a lot going on in the background with people assembling on the hill but we are able to focus on the conversation that Judah and Balthasar are having in the foreground. The intimacy of the scene and focus is not completely based on the fact that the characters talking are in the foreground, it is because of their angle and position within the foreground in comparison to the constant moving background. The background figures are moving back and up into the frame yet we are not distracted. This movement enhances the action taking place in the foreground.
This intimacy is also achieved by the great performances. The setting give way to the audience wanting to focus and engage in the conversation happening in front of them. The above scene is set like so many others in this film whereby we see fantastic settings that allow for the characters to move and interact within the space so effortlessly that their performances come through organically.
Ben-Hur was also a film that helped bring American cinema into a new era. The use of 70mm film brought audience a grandeur they had never seen before and opened the imaginations of the next generation of filmmakers. Robert Surtees adopted a form of modern lighting that used more shadows and dark lighting to set scenes that were either more emotional or in essence darker.3 This brought forward the use of lighting as a means to keep the audience engaged to the feel and emotion of the scene. I particularly recall the scene where Judah’s mother and sister come back to the house after they have become lepers. Esther finds them and tries to force them to stay but they insist on not letting themselves be seen. Their need to hide, fear, and shame is enhanced by the fact that they are mostly cast in shadow while Esther is completely well-lit.
I was watching Gladiator (2000) the other day and it is not hard to see that Ben-Hur was on Ridley Scott‘s mind while he was making his film. It isn’t hard to miss how influential Ben-Hur has been historically. It was the epic that started it all. The chariot race chase scene has influenced either consciously or subconsciously every chase scene since it was made. The modern chase scene would not have been what it is today without the Ben-Hur chariot race scene.4
Ben-Hur’s grandeur, setting, cinematography, ingenuity, and acting has made it an American classic that is without a doubt part of American cinemas history. It can also be said that it helped shape the genera of the epic film and made it what it is today.
1 Thompson, Kristin and Bordwell, David. Film History: An Introduction. New York. McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994 (376-380)
2-4 Ben Hur-The Epic That Changed the Cinema. Dr. Gary Leva. Turner Enterainment Co., a Warner Bros. Entertainment Compnay, 2005.
Ben Hur. Dir. William Wyler. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959