81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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September 20th, 2009 · No Comments · 1959, Adaptation, Ben-Hur, CGI, Charlton Heston, Color, Composer: Miklós Rózsa, Drama, Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins, M-G-M Studios, Panavision (Widescreen), William Wyler

Ben-Hur You know you’re in trouble when the overture to a movie lasts six and a half minutes.

And when the word “OVERTURE” is superimposed on the image is of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.

And when the movie begins with the birth of Christ.

And when a reported 100,000 costumes, 8,000 extras, 300 sets and a staggering budget were required to make it.

When such elements align like stars in the firmament, you know you’re not dealing with a run-of-the-mill movie.

And, in the case of Ben-Hur, you’re not.

Ben-HurBen-Hur held the record for winning the most Academy Awards (11), a record that stood until 1997’s Titanic some 40 years later, and then The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004. In other words, only three films in history have won 11 Academy Awards. Ben-Hur is one of them.

Which awards? Nearly all of them for which it was nominated, 11 out of 12:

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Charlton Heston, 1923-2008)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hugh Griffith, 1912-1980)
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color
Best Cinematography, Color
Best Costume Design, Color
Best Director (William Wyler, 1902-1981)
Best Effects, Special Effects
Best Film Editing
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture
Best Picture (Sam Zimbalist, 1904-1958, who died during filming)
Best Sound

Director William Wyler was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won three of them (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years Of Our Lives, and Ben-Hur).

Ben-Hur was adapted (there’s that magic word!) from the novel “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ” by Lew Wallace (1827-1905). With this movie, Hollywood has chosen as Best Picture films that were adapted from novels, plays, short stories, or characters in them, 72% of the time.

The Plot (from IMDB):
Judah Ben-Hur lives as a rich Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century. Together with the new governor his old friend Messala arrives as commanding officer of the Roman legions. At first they are happy to meet after a long time but their different politic views separate them. During the welcome parade a brick falls down from Judah’s house and barely misses the governor. Although Messala knows that they are not guilty he sends Judah to the galleys and throws his mother and sister into prison. But Judah swears to come back and take revenge. (Written by Matthias Scheler.)

Ben-Hur Chariot RaceBen-Hur is the kind of movie for which the word “epic” was coined. Everything about the movie is larger than life. The score is massive, the battle scenes (the ships on the ocean exchanging arrows, using catapults to fling flaming projectiles at one another, ramming and overrunning the gunwales…not to mention the famed chariot scene) are massive. The themes are massive. The chutzpa of a studio to think it could make such a movie is massive. In fact, if this were The Bridge On the River Kwai it would be “Madness! Madness!”

It’s great to see movies made the old-fashioned way: with so many extras that they blot out the landscape. Today, with The Lord of the Rings, for example, everything in the movie would have been created by computer. I really hate CGI (computer-generated imagery). It costs as much as real people. Yet it looks phony. And too often studios rely on it to buttress a thin plot and terrible acting.

But I’ll save that argument for another time.

Today, I am watching one of the biggest movies ever filmed. And enjoying every stinkin’ last extra in it.

I’ve come to realize that size matters to the Academy. The bigger the picture the more important it is. And the more likely it will be chosen Best Picture. Most of these Best Picture movies are at least two hours, some crowd three hours, and a couple of them are between three and hour hours. Maybe people 50+ years ago had more patience. Or their butts had more staying power. But a movie like Marty proved that a movie could be short (just 90 minutes) and still be great. So just because Ben-Hur is nearly four hours long, doesn’t mean I should get all wibbly-wobbly and say, “Ooh, what a great movie.”

Yes, Ben-Hur is a remarkable movie. Epic. Any story told against the backdrop of the birth and crucifixion of Christ is An Important Movie. But it wore out its welcome around the three-hour mark. Judah Ben-Hur’s leper family and their quest to see Jesus of Nazareth (too late! for he’s on trial and about to be crucified) is a clever way to end the movie, which begins with Jesus’ birth. At this point, though Judah’s family is physically sick, it is Judah who is at greater risk; for he is spiritually sick. “I know this man,” he says as Jesus is marched through the streets carrying a cross. Judah leaves his family behind and follows Jesus. How apropos.

Yes. A Big Movie about Big Subjects. Very, very well done. Well acted. Well scored. Well directed. Not a movie I could watch repeatedly (mostly because of its length). But a movie I’m glad I watched.


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