AFI Challenge: Blade Runner

(Okay, so funny story. I actually had the entirety of this post typed out by midday yesterday, but I had no WiFi at the time, so I wrote it on MS Word. I figured I would just post it later on in the day; no big deal right? Well, as it turned out, I got absorbed in some other things and completely forgot to simply paste this from Word and onto WordPress, so that is why this entry is a day late. My bad guys.)

Another week has gone by, so here’s my newest entry into the AFI Challenge (see its About page). With this movie, we have a marked departure in tone and style from the previous entries on the list. Whereas the other films were very story centric, constantly moving from plot-point to plot-point, this one is much more contemplative and atmospheric. It takes its time getting from place to place, and gives you plenty of opportunities to soak in its visual delights. At #97 on the list is Blade Runner.

blade-runner

In my preparation for watching this movie, I ran into a very unique problem: I didn’t know which version to watch. To those unfamiliar, there was significant controversy surrounding the initial development of Blade Runner. Director Ridley Scott possessed a very clear (and undeniably genius) vision as to what this film ought to be like, and went about filming in whatever way he saw fit. However, in an effort to make this art-house project appeal to fans of Star Wars and other such films, the studio executives forced Scott into to re-shaping the film into more consumer-friendly fare. The end result of this was still a great movie, though everything about it felt just a little bit off. Years later, Scott released Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, his unaltered, original version of the film; this is the version of the film that I am familiar with, and is almost unanimously considered to the be better movie. So, for the AFI Challenge, which one was I supposed to watch?

Possibly in spite of my better judgement, I chose to view the theatrical release of the movie. As much as I love The Director’s Cut, the American Film Institute’s list displays Blade Runner as having been released in 1982, its original theatrical run. The Director’s Cut was not released until years later, and I decided to stay true to my original intent for the AFI  Challenge; I have to watch the films that are on the list, whether or not I particularly enjoy them. So with that, I began my journey into this neo-noir depiction of Los Angeles and the seedy elements that lay within.

Having seen The Director’s Cut, the first things I noticed were the (oftentimes major) differences between the two cuts of the film. Particularly egregious is the inclusion of voice-0ver narration by Harrison Ford; he sounds bored reading each line of narration, and with the above knowledge its clear that this was hastily added in post-production. There’s some other  quibbles here as well, such as a lack of development in the main romance, and the completely hamfisted addition of a “happy ending” that really does not fit with the rest of the story. It’s a bit disheartening to see how drastically the suits up top can force an artist to sacrifice his artistic vision.

What’s amazing about this movie, however, is that no matter how many surface-level changes were applied at the last minute, the core genius of the film remains intact. Back in 1982, when the gleeful, action-adventure style of Sci-Fi was most popular, it took guts to construct a dark, atmospheric, and methodically paced story where humanity is far from a shining paragon of excellence (the movie’s plot is loosely based of Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). From the opening shot of a dark Los Angeles skyline bursting with flames, you know you’re not watching Star Wars.

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Ridley Scott’s not-exactly-happy vision of the near-future Los Angeles skyline

In the future, humanity relies on humanoid androids (not the phone…) to perform harsh physical labor throughout the solar system. After a violent revolt, these androids, or replicants, are forbidden from stepping foot on Earth; if they disobey this mandate, a specialized police officer known as a “Blade Runner” will hunt them down and “retire” them. I think you can infer what “retirement” actually means in this context. The story follows Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, a retired Blade Runner who is coerced into taking one last job; four replicants have returned to Earth, and its his job to kill them.

What follows is a slow-burn detective thriller sprinkled with impressive detail and multiple levels of intrigue. The film takes its time, and you will undoubtedly check your watch once or twice, but it is simultaneously never anything less than utterly engrossing. Learning about these escaped replicants and their mission is fascinating, as is watching Deckard react to the new information he comes across. He’s killed dozens of these things before, but this time he’s starting to feel it. When it turns out that Sean Young’s character, Rachel, is a replicant, he doesn’t quite understand how to deal with his feelings for her. Ford gives an understated performance that’s filled with nuance; we may love his rogue-ish charm as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but he is quite capable of stepping outside this type-cast zone and showing off his acting chops.

The supporting cast is equally skilled. Sean Young does great work showing Rachel’s attempt to understand her new place in the world; it’s unfortunate then that her relationship with Deckard comes off as under-developed in this version. The romance aspect of the story is better executed in The Director’s Cut, so I fault neither Ford nor Young for the problems with their relationship. Although some of the replicants receive significantly less screen-time than the others’, each feels like a fully formed (human?) being by the time Deckard catches up to them. The most famous of the these performances is Rutger Hauer’s as the replicant leader Roy Batty, and for good reason. Hauer steals every scene he’s in, morphing himself into an antagonist that is as vicious and fearsome as he is sympathetic. His final speech, after his prolonged chase with Deckard, is some of the best acting/writing that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

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Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty

Also important are the film’s existentialist undertones, which are as evident as they are captivating. What does it mean to be human? Do you even need to be a human-being to deserve equal treatment within society. If Rachel believes herself to be a human and acts accordingly in her everyday life, then why don’t we treat her as such? Must she die simply for who she is? Can Deckard ever truly justify his countless “retirements” if they are no less human than he is? And how does anyone, replicant, human, or otherwise, truly come to reconcile with the inevitability of their own death? This movie brings up a bevy of question, and proceeds to answer very few of them; instead it urges you to consider them for yourself. The film’s excellently moody score, performed by Vangelis, serves to accentuate the pondering of these philosophical questions. This is the type of movie with the potential to change the way you view the world around you, or at the very least make you question long-held assumptions about the  nature of human life. The fact that it’s accomplished with such skill is all the more impressive.

In the end, Director’s Cut or not, Blade Runner is a landmark accomplishment in the realm of cinema. While I may have had my problems with the alterations mandated by the production company, the essence of the film shines just as brightly as ever. It’s pitch-black, contemplative, and visually stunning, featuring a wide variety of terrific performances. I simply cannot recommend it enough, and personally consider it to be one of my favorite movies of all time.

I give Blade Runner a rating of . . . .

Classic

It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

Yet another movie earns the Classic rating, and from looking at the next couple films on the list, I’m not sure when this trend is going to stop. I hope my ratings aren’t getting too dull!

So have you seen Blade Runner? If so, what do you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #97 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #96 on the list, Do The Right Thing.

Blade Runner Info
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, and Edward James Olmos
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: June 25, 1982
Production Company: Warner Bros.

Missing in Action

Hey guys, sorry I haven’t posted anything recently. I’m moving into college this week, so I’ve been quite busy saying goodbye to friends and getting ready to move out. Because of how jam-packed my schedule has been, I’m going to take a week off from the AFI Challenge. That means my review of Blade Runner will be moved from this coming Monday to the following Monday. As detailed on the About page for the AFI Challenge, I had a total of four weeks I could skip throughout the entire challenge. Now that number is reduced to three! Anyway, I currently have a review in the works for the movie Frank and another post I expect to put out in the next couple days. Sorry for the lack of content over this week, I promise there’s more coming!

AFI Challenge: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Here’s my third entry in the AFI Challenge (see its About page) and we’re finally reaching some uncharted ground. While I had varying degrees of familiarity with the previous films on this list, I didn’t have any clue what this movie was about, and knew even less regarding why it was given a spot on the list. I did some light research before watching it and wasn’t particularly thrilled by what I discovered: it was a musical (not my favorite movie style) chronicling the life story of Broadway legend George M. Cohan (whom I knew little about) that was supposed to be one of the most shamelessly patriotic movies ever made (the very thought of which made me grimace). At #98 on the list is Yankee Doodle Dandy.

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To address my primary concern going in: yes, this movie is very patriotic and doesn’t think twice when it comes to showboating “American excellence.” How receptive you are to this attitude will depend entirely on your personal beliefs. Some find unbridled patriotism to be one of America’s greatest qualities, while others think that it’s more than little bit annoying. Being perfectly honest, I fall into the latter category; I love the United States, but I often find the deification of American culture to be quite irritating. That being said, there was not a single point in this movie where I was bothered by its unapologetic display of patriotism. Above all else, this movie’s aims to paint a nuanced and loving portrait of the “man who owned Broadway,” George M. Cohan. His unbridled love for the United States was one of his most enduring characteristics, and it would be a crime to portray him any differently.

Once the movie ended, I immediately did some brief reading on the life of Cohan as to have a frame to center my thoughts on the film within. As with any Hollywood biopic, his life story was romanticized, purified, and all around doctored to fit that era’s general mold of what a film-biography looked like. Yet, even with the alterations, the movie succeeds in bringing its central character to life in a way few other biopics can make claim to. While the minute details may have changed, you can still feel Cohan’s soul echo throughout the picture’s entirety.

These sorts of movies live and die off their lead performances, and James Cagney’s portrayal of Cohan is far and away the best part of the film. It’s quite simply one of the better screen-performances of the past 75 years. Cagney doesn’t just play Cohan, but becomes him, inhabits his persona in a way that very few actors are capable of. For the most part, he’s cocky, self-assured, and doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of those who doubt him. He knows that he’s the very best in the business, and he’ll make sure to prove you wrong if you dare to disagree. To be frank, he’s a bit of an asshole. But fitting right into Cohan’s reputation, Cagney somehow manages to charm the audience into liking him. Early on in the film when a financier refuses to fund Cohan’s plays, you’re not hoping that he take their advice and change his work, but instead are rooting for him when he barges out of their office in a huff.

James Cagney as George M. Cohan

James Cagney as George M. Cohan

The film opens with an older Cohan’s presence being summoned by none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, then president of the United States. Cohan assumes the worst, considering that he’s currently playing a comedic version of FDR in a new musical. However, when he enters the Oval Office, he finds the president to be quite welcoming towards him (side note: the movie smartly shoots Roosevelt solely from the back, as to never see his face. Apparently, it was the first time a living president was ever portrayed on screen. It’s tastefully done, and makes his inclusion less distracting). Cohan, being himself, begins to tell the president his entire life story after being prompted by a simple question. And with that, we are whisked backwards in time, to decades earlier on the fourth of July, where little George M. Cohan is just being born. Patriotic indeed.

As we soon learn, the theater was in Cohan’s blood from the beginning. Both of his parents were performers, and once Cohan and his little sister Josie reach their teenage years, the entire family begins to tour the east coast as “The Four Cohans.” From his very first lead performance at thirteen, it’s clear that little Georgie Cohan always has been the best at what he does, and never has had any reservations about letting other people know it. Although its humorous to watch a young Cohan’s cockiness sabotage many of his family’s attempts at reaching prominence, these scenes also set up how important family is in Cohan’s life. His relationship with his father in particular is impressively done, as Cagney and Walter Huston (Cohan Sr.) have perfect chemistry. In fact, it’s his father that imbues him with the love for America that becomes so important to his life.

Walter Huston as George’s father, Jerry Cohan. Clearly patriotism runs in the family.

Although Cagney plays Cohan at his most boisterous for the majority of the film (which is not a bad thing), his performance is truly memorable for the brief snippets where we see Cohan’s innermost vulnerabilities. These moments don’t pop up often, but are all the more moving due to their sparse nature. Watching the pain subtly ripple through his face as he says goodbye to his dying father is a sad, yet remarkable thing. You can see he’s trying to maintain his composure, but can’t help letting some of his sadness leak through. It’s rather powerful when he eventually bursts into tears. Even in lighter moments, such as when an Army officer tells him he’s too old to serve in World War I, the viewer can see that there’s a real human being beneath all the energy and glitz of showbiz.

But that doesn’t mean the glitz of showbiz is a bad thing in this movie; quite the contrary! The film’s musical numbers are some of its most impressive scenes. Due to the manner in which they’re shot, it feels like you’re actually watching a Broadway musical. They’re all impressively choreographed and set to Cohan’s catchiest musical numbers (I found myself humming “Yankee Doodle Boy” well into the next day after watching). It’s in these songs that the movie’s patriotic vibes really come alive. Cohan made his music to uplift the American people, and its clear he takes great pride in this effort. He and his music are a singular entity; his musicals are simply an extension of his patriotic personality, and these scenes expertly convey this. And did I mention the dancing? Even if Cagney’s portrayal lacked nuance, it’d still be noteworthy solely for his tap-dancing performances. Man, those are impressive.

As the movie progresses, Cohan’s narration occasionally pops in to remind us that he’s still telling his story to Roosevelt, and it eventually catches up to the present-day. So, what was the reason for the president summoning Cohan to his office? The answer shocks Cohan into disbelief: he’s being awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service to the United States. All throughout the film, Cohan seems to have a perfect response to every situation, yet here, he is speechless. He eventually musters up the strength to ask “Are you sure there isn’t a mistake?” After all, he was too old to fight in any war; how could he be given such a prestigious honor? The president calmly tells him that there are many ways to serve your country, and that Cohan gave the nation strength in its times of need.

Cohan literally dances out of the White House, tap-dancing his way down the stairs and to the exit (a masterful work of improvisation by Cagney, who apparently came up with the idea in the midst of filming). The man adored his country, so the filmmakers made a movie that expressed this love as clearly as possible. It’s important to note that this movie came out in 1942, as the United States was in the midst of fighting the Second World War. There was no guarantee that America was going to succeed in its fight against tyranny, and many Americans must have been quite afraid. For a movie such as this to release in those difficult times must’ve had an enormous impact; when things seem hopeless, an uplifting and patriotic film such as this can change hearts. Part of the reason movies are included on the AFI List is for their cultural significance, and I have no doubt that this movie made a splash during its initial release. Although I normally find myself annoyed by excessive and brazen patriotism, I’m willing to make an exception on this one instance.

I give Yankee Doodle Dandy a rating of . . . .

Classic

It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

So far the American Film Institute is going three for three, let’s see if they can keep it up.

So have you seen Yankee Doodle Dandy? If so, what do you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #98 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #97 on the list, Blade Runner.

Yankee Doodle Dandy Info
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Robert Buckner and Edmund Josephy
Starring: James Cagney, Walter Huston, Joan Leslie, and Richard Whorf 
Running Time: 126 minutes 
Release Date: June 6th, 1942
Production Company: Warner Bros.

AFI Challenge: Toy Story

This is my second entry in the AFI Challenge (see its About page) and it’d be an understatement to say that I enjoyed watching this movie more than the last one. Whereas Ben-Hur was a 3+ hour long epic with classical sensibilities (that I still found to be great; check out my review here), this film runs at brisk 80 minutes, filling every second with fun and creativity. At #99 on the list is Toy Story.

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When you watch this movie today, you laugh at the jokes, admire the creativity, and enjoy the simple story of an emerging friendship. Amidst this all, it’s easy to forget just how monumental this movie was at the time of its release. Do you want to know how many 3-D animated films were released so far just this year? Well, there’s The Lego Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Rio 2, The Nut Job, Planes: Fire and Rescue, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, along with several others that I’m forgetting. That’s just the theatrical realm, not even taking into account how many came out via the straight-to-DVD format. Obviously, this method of filmmaking is quite popular in today’s culture.

Do you want to know how many 3-D animated films were released in 1995? Just one: Toy Story. And prior to that film, there were none. When it initially came into theaters, nothing like this had ever been seen on the screen. Sure, there were a couple of short films released to limited audiences (all produced by Pixar), but most people had no familiarity with this sort of silver-screen magic.

I was born a year too late, in 1996, so I never got to experience the sense of wonderment from seeing this type of movie for the first time. These were the sort of movies that I grew up with, and I just became accustomed to them after a certain point in time. However, if you put yourself in the proper mindset beforehand, I think anyone can watch this movie and see it through the eyes of someone sitting in the theater back in 1995. I’ve probably seen this movie at least ten times (I was Buzz Lightyear for Halloween one year), but I found myself marveling at the animation as I watched it once again . As familiar as I now am with the use of 3-D animation, there were certain sequences in this movie that took my breath away.

The animation process at Pixar

The animation process at Pixar

Toy Story‘s greatness, however extends far beyond its exquisite use of technology. It’s true claim to its spot on the list lies in its touching and imaginatively told story. One of the major reasons it works as well as it does is because of the convincing world it establishes. I think that, as children, everyone  imbues toys with their own distinct characteristics and backgrounds; to the innocent child, these toys are alive in much the same way as any other living person. Pixar just takes the next logical step: what if every time a child was absent, the toys truly came to life? It’s a genius concept, one that can capture the imagination of any child and tickle the nostalgia of adults. In its execution of this world, the most important aspect is Pixar’s meticulous attention to detail. Be it the layout of Andy’s (the owner of the toys) room, similar to that of any rowdy kid under the age of ten, or Andy’s name written in faded marker on each toy’s foot, complete with an adorably accidental upside down “N”, everything exudes an air of authenticity.

Contributing to the film’s authenticity is that every supporting character, no matter how minor, has their own unique (and wholly original) personalities. There’s the wimpy Tyrannosaurus Rex trying to be scary, the cynical and insolent Mr. Potato-Head, the well-intentioned but slow-witted slinky dog who’s unwavering in his commitment to his friends, and many more. The tiny-green army men, just as intense and focused as any real member of the military, orchestrate an impressively intricate operation near the film’s opening in an attempt to discover the new toys Andy’s getting for his birthday. It’s a subtly engrossing sequence; it’s ridiculous to feel such suspense from watching these miniscule toys dash around the house, yet you get nervous for them nonetheless.

The toys and the world around them feel so vividly alive that this film would warrant a spot on the list just for this aspect in conjunction with its groundbreaking animation. It’s a mark of great filmmaking when you fall in love with a movie within the first twenty minutes, before the plot even kicks into high-gear. And when it comes to Toy Story, the central story that the movie eventually evolves into is its best part. After all the world-building and character establishment, this a very human tale about self-doubt and the power of friendship. These themes are expressed through the character developments of Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

Woody and Buzz's friendship is at the heart of the movie

Woody and Buzz’s friendship is at the heart of the movie

At the film’s start, Woody is far and away Andy’s favorite toy: he gets the most playtime, his posters adorn the room, and he even earns the coveted resting spot on Andy’s bed. That’s right: out of all his toys, Andy chooses to sleep with Woody. All of this changes on the day of Andy’s birthday party, when the young boy receives the brand-new, space-ranger action figure Buzz Lightyear. Suddenly, all of the luxuries that Woody took for granted are transferred to Buzz. The movie expresses this change through a skillful montage set to Randy Newman’s score (which is universally terrific). And the worst part of it all? Buzz doesn’t even know he’s a toy; he actually thinks he’s a space-ranger who’s going to save the universe. The film sets both of these characters up to be our protagonists, but they both have crucial flaws: Woody is extremely jealous of all the attention Buzz is receiving, while Buzz is arrogant (and a bit delusional) in his belief that he is an actual space-ranger.

Much of the credit for pulling these characters off in a realistic manner has to go to Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, the voice actors for Woody and Buzz respectively. We see Woody take some very selfish actions in his effort to win back Andy’s favor, some of which could construe him as almost a villainous character. But Hanks offers  an air of credibility to Woody; he feels as though Andy has abandoned him and he doesn’t know how to respond maturely. Buzz, on the other hand, could have come off as simply annoying (and he sort of does), but Allen also makes him quite endearing. You root for him in his efforts to be a superhero, even though you know that he isn’t. The personal connection you make with Buzz’s dreams and aspirations makes it all the more heartbreaking when he discovers that he is, in fact, just a child’s toy. Watching Buzz approach a stairwell after this moment, still believing that he is a space-ranger who can fly, provokes true empathy from the viewer. As he jumps, you know he’s going to fall straight to the floor, but you silently hope that, somehow, he will be able to fly.

These two characters start off the movie hating each other, which is what makes their eventual friendship so delightful. When trapped at Sid’s house, a child who enjoys mutilating and blowing up his toys, the two must come face-to-face with their imperfections: Buzz discovers that he’s just an action figure, and Woody realizes that he’s simply not as cool a toy as Buzz is. But they both reconcile and eventually overcome their innermost flaws through the help of the other. When they enter Sid’s house, they are enemies; when they leave, they are great friends. It’s poignant in a way that you don’t expect from an 80 minute kid’s movie about talking toys.

Also, it’s worth pointing out: this movie is funny. And I don’t mean in a juvenile slapstick way, or in that it throws in two or three adult oriented jokes throughout its runtime: I mean that it’s consistently hilarious. I picked up on so many little jokes on this viewing that I would never have noticed before. When Woody and Buzz are trapped in the arcade-game with “the claw,” I actually laughed out loud when Woody called the little green aliens inside zealots (because they worship the claw as a deity). Or there’s when Buzz is forced to partake in a little girl’s tea party, and Woody walks in to find him completely drunk; he takes the tea away from Buzz, saying “I think you’ve had enough to drink.” There are so many humorous comments that never would have registered as a kid, but really took hold this viewing. It’s just another great feature in this already awesome movie.

Buzz drunk after a tea party

Buzz drunk after a tea party

There’s a scene early on in the film where Woody challenges Buzz’s claim that he can fly, and Buzz sets off to prove him wrong. Instead of actually flying, Buzz ricochets around the room with the help of a bouncy ball and a model airplane attached to the ceiling, which gives the illusion of flying. When he lands, all the other toys crowd around him in amazement, while Woody simply says “That’s not flying, that’s falling with style.” Then, at the film’s climax, the two desperately chase after Andy’s moving van (the family is moving to a new home), having been left behind at Sid’s house. In an effort to catch up, they light one of Sid’s fireworks that was attached to Buzz’s back, propelling them high into the sky. Woody screams, thinking they are going to fall to the ground and die, but Buzz has other plans: he activates his wings, which catch the air around them and allow them to slowly glide to the surface. Woody shouts out “Buzz, you’re flying!” but he calmly retorts “This isn’t flying, this is falling with style.” Randy Newman’s excellent score accentuates the moment, as Woody then yells out Buzz’s classic catchphrase “To infinity and beyond!”

This quick moment is such a perfect culmination of Woody and Buzz’s friendship, tying up loose ends and connecting all the way back to the beginning of the movie. It’s one of my favorite movie moments of all time, and is one of the many reasons that I think this movie is absolutely terrific.

I give Toy Story a rating of . . .

Classic

It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

This is one of those movies that is going to be an undisputed classic for years to come, because I think everyone loves it.

So have you seen Toy Story? If so, what do you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #99 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #98 on the list, Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Toy Story Info
Directed by: John Lasseter
Written by: Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, and John Morris
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 1995
Production Company: Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures

AFI Challenge: Ben-Hur

Well here we go. This is my first entry in the AFI Challenge (see its About page); after this there’s only 99 left in store! And as far as first entries go, this one was pretty daunting. At #100 on the list is Ben-Hur.

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Although I had never seen it, I of course knew of Ben-Hur. The record-breaking winner of eleven Academy Awards that single-handedly saved MGM Studios from financial ruin in the early 1960’s. However, when talking about Ben-Hur today, it seems that other, less positive superlatives arise. Superlatives such as “really, really, really long,” and “really, really, really boring.” While I could respect what Ben-Hur once meant for the film industry, I fully expected to hate this movie as I went into it. It is because of this that I am happy to report that Ben-Hur managed to exceed all my expectations and prove the doubter within me wrong.

This film, based on the nineteenth century novel of the same name, is simply epic. Epic in scope, epic in execution, and, yes, epic in length. At the time of its release, this was the most expensive movie ever made. If you were to apply that label to a film in today’s market, it would mean only one thing: lots of CGI. But what Ben-Hur achieves, with its ambitious use of sets, extras, and practical effects, is more awe-inspiring than the majority of the big-budget blockbusters released this past year. Watching a line of hundreds of Roman soldiers march through green pastures is marvelous because you know that the men you see in the back, at least half a mile away from the primary on-screen action, are real. It all exudes a level of care that feels more epic than most other movies, then or now.

The film’s epic status is cemented in large part by its two primary action scenes, the most famous of which is the chariot race that occurs around two-thirds of the way through the movie. This sequence is thrilling to watch even today, and I’m sure it must have had audiences writhing in suspense during its initial release. As an action scene, it is remarkably well executed for a film that is over fifty years old; it focuses primarily on the riders within the race, but cuts to enough landscape shots of the grandstands surrounding the racers to give the viewer room to breathe. In fact, it was during these wide shots of the grandstands that I caught myself thinking “How on earth were they able to realistically depict a historic racing circuit without actually building it all from the ground up?” Subsequent research answered this question: they did build it from the ground up. One million dollars was allotted specifically to construction of this individual set, used only once in the film; they literally carved the area for the set out of a rock quarry. Epic indeed.

This individual shot probably cost around $5000

This individual shot probably cost around $5000

While I do agree that the chariot sequence was enthralling, I was most impressed by the other, less-appreciated action scene from the film: the episode of naval warfare that occurs around an hour into the movie. Roman galleys clash with barbarian frigates, exchanging volleys of arrows and cannon-fire (which look more like fireworks than anything else, but are impressive nonetheless). When two ships collide, hundreds of men clash in armed combat, attempting to overtake the opposing vessel. On top of this, we see all of the action take place in the middle of a vast ocean. Now, you’re probably thinking, “well, duh, it’s naval warfare, of course it takes place on an ocean.” But my question is how, back in 1959 no less, were they able film these chaotic scenes while simultaneously depicting the water in a realistic way? I don’t know. They could have used miniatures, but then how do you explain the shots where the actors are seen in the water, all while the giant boat is in frame? And how would they have been able to get all of the static shots of the boats (of which there are many) in the middle of an empty ocean? It’s not like they could have constructed a half-dozen life-size Roman galleys and transported them into the middle of the ocean, then proceed to film it all with the less-than-advanced technology from 1959. Then again, they carved an entire set out of a giant stone quarry, so perhaps I shouldn’t assume. In any case, whereas the chariot race had me in a state of suspense, this sequence had me in a state of wonderment. Simple movie magic, through and through.

I think I’ve appropriately demonstrated the epic nature of this film, but I haven’t really touched on the fact that it also contains a lot of heart. The story of Judah Ben-Hur, an exiled Jew from Jerusalem seeking vengeance, is as soulful as it is compelling. Some may complain about the film’s length, but it is necessary in order to serve the purposes of the story. We see enough of Judah’s life before his exile to truly sympathize with him when it’s all taken away. This is bolstered by the fact that his exile comes as the result of a betrayal from the Roman tribune of Jerusalem, a childhood friend of Judah’s. The tribune, Messala, is played with skill by Stephen Boyd who, along with Charlton Heston who plays Judah, establishes a very authentic friendship between the two. While Messala becomes evil a bit too quickly for it to come off as genuine, the context surrounding his betrayal seems very real.

Judah and Messala as friends, before the whole "despicable betrayal" thing

Judah and Messala as friends, before the whole “despicable betrayal” thing

Charlton Heston gives a good, if not great performance as Judah. But whatever skill is lacking in his performances is more than made up for by the compelling story around him. It’s epic, yet intimate. Suspenseful, but full of heart. However, my favorite aspect of the story is that it is all framed around the tale of Jesus Christ. The film focuses almost exclusively on Judah (no need to retell the story of Christ, already retold thousands of times as is), yet the Messiah has an almost overriding presence in this tale. I am by no means a religious person, and I wasn’t moved by the depiction of Christ in any spiritual way, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the extra level of meaning it brought to the film. The few scenes concerning Christ are delicately executed and never seem out of place. By the film’s conclusion, it becomes evident how instrumental Christ’s brief interjections were to Judah’s development as a human being. Christ saves his physical life, then his spiritual life as well. For a film with such grand stakes, this part of the story is rather poetic.

The story’s impact should be credited in large part to the direction by William Wyler. The film is shot beautifully in widescreen format. Wyler apparently did not care for this method, but he and his cinematographer, Robert Surtees, make great use of it, depicting vast landscapes and bustling cities all in a single shot. Everything seems to brim with life, whether its the sets or the characters themselves. And when the story reaches its emotional moments, Wyler isn’t afraid to bring out a monumental orchestral score to drive the point home. It may be heavy-handed, but boy is it effective.

There is a romance in here somewhere, along with some quite depressing scenes involving lepers and some ruminations on the nature of family and self-identity. If they come off as unimportant, it’s simply because the film has its priorities straight. This is a movie with a lot on its mind, but it has the good sense to stick closer to what’s interesting (epic action and Judah’s spiritual journey) than to what’s not (I’m looking at you Esther, you and your forced romantic subplot). All in all, in spite of an uninspired lead performance and a running length surpassing three and a half hours (there’s an intermission at around 2 hrs 15 min. I highly advise you to take advantage of it), Ben-Hur is still an extraordinary feat in the realm of filmmaking. I marveled at the action, empathized with the characters, and felt moved by its conclusion. So much of this movie just seemed to be larger than life, achieving things that no other film of its time could make claim to. In a word: epic.

I give Ben-Hur a rating of…

Classic

It without a doubt earns its spot on the list.

I surprised even myself with that ranking, but what can I say? I thought it was a great movie.

So have you seen Ben-Hur? If so, what did you think of it? Do you think it earns its spot as #100 on the AFI list of Top 100 Greatest American Films? Be sure to respond to the poll, and then let me know your thoughts below. See you around next week for my review of #99 on the list, Toy Story.

Ben-Hur Info
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Karl Tunberg
Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, and Jack Hawkins
Running Time: 212 minutes
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Production Company: MGM Studio