Today we’re talking about three deluxe Blu-Ray releases of three highly notable films, each hugely important and influential in their own way. Coincidentally, each film also deals with what happens when European powers decide they’d really like to control a piece of the Islamic and/or Judaic world.
* “Ben Hur”— I finally caught up with this most popular of religious epics many moons ago at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, where it was introduced by it’s then elderly but still fairly hale star, Charlton Heston. Heston might have still been in good shape in the late 1990s or early 2000s, but the 35mm print that was shown on the giant screen, theoretically the best then available, was washed out and wan.
That disappointment is now a thing of the past with a restoration made frame-by-frame from the original 65mm negative that was so painstaking this “50th Anniversary” edition of the 1959 film actually arrives 52 years after the original “Ben Hur” release. At last, the spectacle looks as spectacular as a spectacle should, even if it’s now on relatively small home screens. (My 42 incher is by far the biggest TV I’ve ever had, but it’s obviously not the Cinerama Dome.)
The film itself is a humdinger though, considering it was directed by William Wyler, it’s also kind of a disappointment as humdingers go. Because he lacked an obvious personal style, Wyler tends not to get the kind of credit that contemporaries like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks do, but he was an extraordinary director in his own way. Wyler had made a better epic, a thrilling and thoughtful Western parable made a few years prior called “The Big Country” (Blu-Ray coming soon!) which featured Charlton Heston in one of his very best roles as a morally ambiguous cowhand. Wyler had also made, much earlier in his career, a better film about Christianity. A too little known early talkie from 1929, “Hell’s Heroes,” is an emotionally profound version of the oft-filmed tale, “Three Godfathers,” and the finest and most moving embodiment of the Christian ethos this secular Jew has ever seen. Also, just in general, very, very few movies can match Wyler’s post-World War II classic drama, “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
“Ben-Hur” may not be as superb as these other films, but it’s mostly not chopped liver either. Also, lots of people really, really love chopped liver. In case you’re one of the relatively few movie fans who hasn’t seen the film — it’s currently at #176 on IMDb’s top 250 — this is the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Heston). Ben-Hur hales from Judea, not the San Fernando Valley or Long Island, but his is nevertheless literally a Jewish prince, whose loyalty to his own people drives a wedge between him and Roman former best-friend Messala (Stephen Boyd). This results in a series of grave injustices and a pair of fateful meetings with a certain superstar to be from Nazareth.
As seen on the new restoration, the 3 hour 42 minute mega production is beautiful and exciting but can get a bit windy at times. In particular, Heston, who found Wyler to be an unforgiving taskmaster, lets his hard work show too much with some overwrought thespian displays. Nevertheless, “Ben-Hur” is a heartfelt, class-A production from one of Hollywood’s greatest directors not far from his peak. The legendary chariot race, choreographed and second-unit directed by super-stuntman Yakima Canutt (“Stagecoach“), is easily one of the greatest chase action sequences of its type ever filmed, and the quiet conclusion is touching.
Monty Python fans, on the other hand, may find themselves giggling to themselves at a couple of points. A few moments would be spoofed a couple of decades on in “Life of Brian,” particularly in regards to how the film treats “the Christ.”
As for the Blu-Ray itself, the huge, and definitely not cheap, deluxe package also includes loads and loads of extras, including the equally ambitious in its day 1925 silent version of the story. Adapted, like the later film, from a once hugely popular biblical potboiler written by Lew Wallace and also a bit of a “make-or-break” project for MGM, it starred Ramon Navarro as Ben-Hur and the equally famous Francis X. Bushman as Messala. (At one point Wyler contemplated a similar two star strategy, imagining Heston as Messala and Paul Newman as Ben-Hur. Pardon me for saying it, but I think the result might have been an even better movie.) On the 1959 version, Charlton Heston also provides one of the two commentary tracks.
One more thing. Fans of the “The Celluloid Closet” take note: the famous story about famed author and personality Gore Vidal rewriting the crucial Messala-Hur reunion scene early in the film is, I believe, not mentioned in the bonus materials in the package. As the story went, Vidal — soon to become one of the first more or less openly gay public figures — and Wyler decided that it would be more interesting to have the ultimately villainous Messala nursing an unspoken but passionate romantic attraction to Hur. Heston always said he didn’t believe the story and would have nothing of it, but then Wyler’s idea was, I believe, that both Heston and Hur would be entirely in the dark on the matter and the attraction would be more or less one-sided. Gore Vidal had a slightly different idea about that, of course, but then Mr. Vidal has a slightly different idea about just about everything.
* “The Battle of Algiers”— Gillo Pontecorvo’s legendary 1966 semi-fictional dramatic recreation of 20th century history of course has little to do in any obvious ways with a spectacular like “Ben-Hur.” Nevertheless, both films do actually take an strong anti-imperialist stance while going out of their way to humanize both the rebels and their sometimes ambivalent oppressors.
A panoramic fictionalized recreation of the events that finally led the French government to grant independence to Algeria, it’s easy to see why this brilliant blend of stylized fiction and realist documentary film techniques has been cited by film critics and political pundits from pretty much any perspective you can think of. If I were forced to compare “The Battle of Algiers” to any other modern film, it would be Spike Lee’s 1989 anatomy of a riot, “Do the Right Thing.” Both Pontecorvo and Lee had strong points of view of their own, but they were both mature enough filmmakers and human beings to explore the moral pluses and minuses of all sides in an essentially impossible situation in which no fully moral response actually exists. Pontecorvo clearly sees the terrorist tactics used by the Algerians as unacceptable but also an inevitable response when people are first made powerless by a thoughtlessly repressive regime, which employs both torture and sub-rosa agent provacateur terrorism of its own.
It has some thrilling sequences, but “The Battle of Algiers” is not a film to watch when you’re tired. Unlike “Do the Right Thing,” it doesn’t really have strong characters or plot in the usual sense and shows the director’s debt to Sergei Eisenstein, whose film’s often had “collective protagonists.” It’s a device that, personally, I usually find more interesting to think about than engaging to watch.
On the other hand, “The Battle of Algiers” is filled with insights on modern politics and warfare and more than rewards serious attention. It’s peppered with several terrific action sequences and some great music credited to both the director and Ennio Morricone. Some of that music will sound very familiar to many of you because one of the film’s major themes was featured prominently in “Inglourious Basterds.”
* “The Four Feathers” — Conservatives are often nostalgic for the more frequently right leaning films of old, but good movies dealing with politics are rarely simply “right” or “left.” Based on a adventure novel by A.E.W. Mason, which has been filmed seven times since the silent era, “The Four Feathers” would seem to be as reactionary as they come, since its sympathies are clearly aligned with English imperialists mucking about in the Sudan as if they owned the place.
The lavish English-made 1939 version was wartime propaganda largely concocted by the Hungarian-born Alexander Korda, a producer who was very close to the conservative, unabashedly imperialist Winston Churchill. On the other hand, his brother, Zoltan, was the director of the film, in the tradition of all good Jewish families, the Kordas were far from devoid of political disagreements. From such family arguments, good movies may often come.
“The Four Feathers” focuses on professional soldier Harry Faversham (John Clements), the scion of a British family raised by a father who believes him to be a coward and who is deathly afraid that dad might actually have been correct. As told by the left-leaning Zoltan Korda and the right leaning Alexander Korda in this version, Harry also disagrees strongly with the latest English adventure in the Sudan, though for reasons that sound oddly brutal and possibly racist to modern ears. Apparently unconcerned with the reaction of anyone, Faversham therefore exercises his option to resign his commission.
His three best friends (Jack Allen, Donald Gray, and Ralph Richardson, who unsurprisingly steals the movie) send their former pal three feathers, symbols of cowardice. Though his fiancee (June Duprez) agrees with him about the war, she doesn’t approve of his action either and Faversham awards himself another feather. Unable to stand the alienation of his friends, Faversham embarks on an insanely dangerous and painful mission which will prove more terrifying than what his old mates are enduring, though that’s no walk in the park, either.
I first saw “Four Feathers” back in 2000 at an an American Cinematheque screening of an ultra-rare nitrate print. While the Blu-Ray edition does a predictably terrific job of putting something very close to what I saw on a 1080p TV screen, the movie itself didn’t quite wow me the way it did last time, although I would still heartily recommend it to anyone interested in classic era adventure films. Was it my mood last time, or this time, that made the difference? I’ll be revisiting this one later, I promise.