Art Vs Commerce: Musicals, Bible Stories, and Bad Choices (1950s)


And so it came to be, nine years after Samson and Delilah, after multiple biblical times epics crushing the box office, that the Academy gave in. After nominating three but passing them up for other movies, even a lesser movie that one year, finally it was time for a biblical epic loved by audiences to take home the big prize.

And sadly (for me) once again it’s a lengthy sumbitch.

The Joint Champion

I’d call this one the sword-and-sandal epic to end all sword-and-sandal epics, but we all know that ruling the box office and winning a slew of Oscars has never ended a genre. Studios don’t look at that kind of success and think “Welp, can’t top that, guess we’ll do something else, maybe 20s gangsters again.” Also we probably all remember what I have waiting for me when we hit the 2000s.

The Academy didn’t just say “Fine, have Best Picture,” they said “Fine, have all the Oscars you want,” as Ben-Hur set a record with eleven Oscar wins, a record twice tied but never broken. The audiences didn’t just favour it a little, it earned more than the next four highest grossing films of the year combined. Ben-Hur was a juggernaut. And lucky thing for the studio, since it was also the most expensive movie ever made at that point.

And how is it? Well… there’s about two maybe two and a half hours of decent movie scattered throughout the nearly four hour runtime.

Wealthy Israelite Judah Ben-Hur is involved in an accident that kills a Roman governor. His childhood best pal is now the second-in-command in Judea, and knows Judah’s innocent, but since Judah wouldn’t snitch on resistance leaders, he locks up Judah’s mother and sister and sends Judah himself to be a galley slave, one of the worst kinds of slave. Three years later, Judah saves the life of a high-ranking Roman, and gets a life of comfort and status that he can use to plot revenge on the old friend who wronged him, which ultimately happens in a high-stakes chariot race.

So it’s one part Gladiator, one part Ten Commandments, one hour too long.

That’s a movie. That could be a movie. But because 50s audiences demanded some Sunday school along with their period epics, along the way he bumps into Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and one of the Wise Men so we can all have some “Yeah ain’t Jesus great” moments shoved upon us. And so confident is the movie that everyone knows Jesus Content when they see it that they get through the manger birth and two additional scenes of Adult Jesus without ever openly stating “This here is Jesus, y’all,” and man but I wish a Batman movie would have that kind of confidence in audience familiarity. After we see Bethlehem residents registering with a pollster, the manger scene has not one word of dialogue, narration, or even a title card, they just trust that we know exactly what’s happening, but heaven forfend we go a few years without seeing Thomas and Martha Wayne gunned down in Crime Alley.

So there’s the birth, leaving home to do Jesus stuff, Jesus giving Ben-Hur water so he has the strength and will to survive a death march to his sentence of three years of rowing, and then once the main story is done, 45 minutes of Balthazar the Wise Man trying to get Judah on board with this Jesus guy while Judah mopes that his mother and sister got leprosy in prison and Rome sent them to die in a cave. Then their leprosy is cured because they hung around the crucifixion a while and bam, not lepers, everybody’s happy, except we in the audience who thought the movie was basically done almost an hour ago.

If you cut out all of the Jesus Content you’d have a leaner, better movie that wouldn’t be trying to combine “Jesus is pretty cool” with “Violent revenge against your enemies is neat,” which is a tonal clash. And you can’t even say “Well it’s a bible story, what can you do,” because it’s not, it’s a 19th century novel, but the Jesus part is pretty ingrained. Even the 2016 remake kept literally all of it, while still managing to be an hour shorter.

So let me wrap up this entry by spelling out my problems with all the Jesus Content in these biblical epics. They don’t really dig into the important messages of the New Testament: love thy neighbour, care for the poor and hungry, hate is always foolish while love is always wise, never be cruel or cowardly, never eat pears–no, wait, I slipped into the Twelfth Doctor, my mistake. Quo Vadis tries to get into it a little but that’s the worst one. No, it usually boils down to just having someone tell stories about the crucifixion and resurrection, or a character will stare offscreen at Jesus and be Changed as a result. It’s performative piousness and it’s everything wrong with modern conservative Christians: saying “We follow Christ so we shouldn’t have to be nice to the gays,” while also thinking poor people being able to afford medicine is dangerous socialism and that the figurehead of their religion wants them to own assault rifles. It’s how you get Evangelicals, who scream about how Christian they are while wholeheartedly supporting the least Christian president in living memory, because what they really worship is wealth, I don’t have time to go into that now, but here’s some videos examining just that if you’re curious.

Anyway the point is I find the Jesus Content in Ben-Hur and elsewhere hollow. In three movies you hear him speak one sentence, and you never even see his face. He’s always shot from behind or through a crowd, or at one point in Ben-Hur they seem to have scribbled over him with a marker. It robs him of his message, his philosophy, of greater meaning, it reduces Jesus to less than an idea, just an icon, something to wave at the camera so characters can say “Yes, he is Good” without delving too deep into why. It’s empty and I don’t like it and it made the last 45 minutes of Ben-Hur an absolute slog.

Wow this page got away from me a little. Guess we’re done here. If you need more takes on the movie itself, here’s a Twitter thread that cost me a follower. No idea who but whoever it was, hey I get it.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: The spectacle doesn’t get it high up the list, sitting at only #68. They call it “inconsistent,” and, yep, accurate.

But Why Not…? I get that 1950s audiences were insatiable for big spectacle pictures that also had what they probably considered wholesome Jesus Content, but maybe if they’d given it a chance they’d prefer Some Like It Hot, with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe. It’s quicker and holds up better.

Other Events in Film

  • The Three Stooges put out their final picture, Sappy Bull Fighters, doomed to be greeted by future fans with “Joe? Not even Shemp?” Wow. I surely have been checking in on the end of a lot of comedy teams.
  • Hitchcock managed an iconic moment with a plane and a cornfield in North By Northwest.
  • John Wayne did Rio Bravo if westerns do anything for you.
  • Steve Reeves’ Hercules attempted to prove you could do a sword and sandal picture without making it into a Sunday school sermon.
  • Sleeping Beauty is a disappointment for Disney at first, but becomes a sleeper hit over time.

Next Page: My only friend, the end

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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