Monday, August 25, 2014

Ben-Hur: Why the MGM Lion Didn't Roar

This weekend, my family and I watched the classic film, Ben-Hur. My boys, who are supposed to be a part of the low-attention-span generation, sat through all (nearly) four hours of the movie and were never bored. I realized, watching this restored Blu-ray version of the film, what an outstanding cinematic achievement it is. It doesn't feel dated (with he exception of some of the acting) and it certainly qualifies for the old "they don't make 'em like they used to" moniker.

Besides the fact that it is an excellent film, what struck me at my first viewing of the movie since my twenties, is that it is an extremely respectful portrayal of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. On the DVD commentary, film historian T. Gene Hatcher mentions that Wyler, the director, used to joke that "It took a Jew to make the ultimate movie about Christ." I love that, but maybe the reality is that it took a Jew to make the ultimate movie about a Jew affected by the life of Christ and by the domination of Rome.

Be that as it may, the reverence of the film, for all faiths, struck me -- especially, I suppose, in light of the times in which we live. I find us in a constant state of irony: a world in which people are constantly trumpeting about "tolerance" but in which religion-driven hate and violence thrive.

I'm not saying the world was any more tolerant, as a whole, in 1959, when Ben-Hur was made. Golden-age thinking is an impediment to clear-thinking. Instead, I credit William Wyler, a man who was known for his high moral standards (who also, according to the Hatcher's commentary, would freely hire "blacklisted" actors during the McCarthy era). He, at least, represented his time with a film of outstanding acceptance of various religions beliefs, even if it was, ultimately, a Christian-themed film.

Having made my disclaimer about golden-age thinking, I will say one thing that I "miss" (the quotes are there because I was born nine years after Ben-Hur was made) about times past is that there seemed to be a sensitivity that ran through the consciousness of Americans that no longer exists.

Now, there seems to be no sense of what is "proper". We have confused freedom of expression with what we seem to see as the right to say anything we want, any time we want, in front of whoever is there. This surfaces in film and in popular culture. When my sons ask to see certain films, I am reluctant; worried about the possible content. I never hesitated, though, to let them watch Ben-Hur. I was sure it was "safe" for young viewers -- and it was.

Many would say that the art of the past could potentially have been strangled by such adherence to what is "proper." I would argue that this sure didn't happen with Ben-Hur. We can consider propriety and produce fine art at the same time. I believe firmly in an artist's right to express him or herself in any way he or she wants (even when I, personally, think said expresison is stupid ot gratuitous). Not everything has to be Piss Christ, though. Great art can also be created under the guidelines of propriety.

And, honestly, the the presence of a regard for others' deepest beliefs in art really moves me. I do miss it -- so much that I became emotional when the commentator on he DVD, Hatcher, revealed that the MGM lion, which usually roars in the opening of films, was kept as a silent "still" photo for Ben-Hur. Why? The filmmakers thought it might be considered irreverent if the lion roared, given the film's religious subject matter. (The lion was still in a few other movies, but there was a roar in the background.)

I wonder how many people across the planet today would read or hear that fact and think, either "I don't get it" or "That's stupid." I do know that too few would regard the gesture as simply beautiful.

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