Viewer Guide: Ben-Hur and Take Shelter with Richard Peña

April 27, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


Ben-Hur (1959)
Directed by William Wyler
Shown in chariot race: Charlton Heston (as Judah Ben-Hur)

Tonight’s classic is Ben-Hur, the 1959 biblical epic based on the novel by Lew Wallace, directed by William Wyler.

Produced at the height of Hollywood’s increasingly desperate effort to lure audiences away from their television sets and back into movie theaters, MGM pulled out all the stops with Ben-Hur on a truly stupendous scale, lavishing the production with reportedly the largest budget of any movie up to that date. As the saying goes, they sure don’t make them like this anymore.

After a prologue sequence establishing the birth of Christ, the scene shifts to Roman-occupied Judea in 26 AD. Charlton Heston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman, who is overjoyed to be reunited with his childhood friend Messala, the son of a former Roman governor, played by Stephen Boyd. Messala once saved Ben-Hur’s life as a boy. Now he has returned, after several years of military education, as an elite Roman tribune and the acting commander of the region.

The pair’s warm reunion is short-lived, as Messala’s request to help him suppress the increased uprisings in the area is politely rebuffed by Ben Hur. After all, aren’t these so-called rebels little more a new breed of preachers and prophets described by the Roman as “a wild man in the desert named John who drowns people in water,” and a “carpenter’s son who goes around doing magic tricks,” teaching that “God is near, in every man?”

The growing rift between Ben-Hur and Messala represents an unfortunate parting of the ways for the two boyhood friends who come to realize that they’ve simply grown up in opposing political camps. Yet a fateful accident will propel Ben-Hur on a dramatic odyssey, both geographic and spiritual, that will inevitably bring him full circle to confront his once dear friend Messala as an arch nemesis.

Based on Civil War general Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1959 film adaptation was actually the third version of Wallace’s book, preceded on the silver screen by silent versions in 1907 and 1925. Initially viewed as an atypical choice to direct, William Wyler had actually been an assistant director on the 1925 version, and joined the new production after director Sidney Franklin withdrew for health reasons. Initially reluctant, Wyler decided to undertake the project as an “intimate epic,” focusing more on relationships than elaborate sets and costumes, although frankly they are pretty lavish.

Most of Hollywood’s A-list actors were offered the title role, including Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson and Leslie Nielsen, but all passed for various reasons. Kirk Douglas wanted the role, but with the great success of The Ten Commandments already under his toga, Charlton Heston was MGM’s final choice. Angered by losing the chance to star in the film, Douglas concentrated on developing his very own sword and sandal epic; the result was Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, released one year later, in 1960.

Although Karl Tunberg is the sole credited screenwriter, as so often in Hollywood a project of this scale was passed across many writers’ desks, including Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, Christopher Fry and Gore Vidal. In his interview for The Celluloid Closet documentary in 1995, Vidal claimed that to give the reunion scene between Ben-Hur and Messala some missing passion, he suggested to director Wyler that they should play it as if the pair had once been lovers. Heston’s co-star Stephen Boyd was coached to play his scenes with this “motivation” in mind, but it was agreed by all that Heston wouldn’t be able to handle the subtext, so he wasn’t informed of the “undercurrent.” Years later, this revelation triggered an irate rebuttal from Heston, who countered that none of Vidal’s material was actually used. William Wyler himself never publicly confirmed this strategy, but watching Ben-Hur and Messala’s euphoric reunion, it’s hard not to wonder if there might have been a “Brokeback” dimension to their relationship just waiting to emerge.

Ben-Hur was largely filmed at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios over a grueling nine-month schedule. The climactic chariot race, essentially a movie within the movie, was largely staged and shot by Second Unit Director Yakima Canutt, a legendary master of Hollywood stunts and riding scenes. It required a year of pre-production and ten weeks to shoot in often blistering Roman summer heat. Contrary to popular legend, no stuntman was killed during production of the sequence, but Heston’s stunt double experienced a spectacular near miss when his horses trampled over wreckage on the track, flipping him head first over the front of his chariot. Wyler decided to keep the heart-stopping moment in the film, match-cutting in a close shot of Heston to create one of the race’s most memorable moments. Winning a record-breaking 11 Academy Awards from 12 nominations, William Wyler would reportedly later quip that, “it took a Jew to make a good film about Christ.”


Take Shelter (2011)

Tonight’s indie is Take Shelter, a dramatic psychological thriller starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, directed by Jeff Nichols.

Shannon and Chastain play Curtis and Samantha LaForche, a young married couple living a blue-collar existence in the flat, tornado-prone farm country of northern Ohio. Michael works for a construction company, while Samantha busies herself as a homemaker, with her number one responsibility being the care of their deaf kindergarten-age daughter Hannah. It’s not a fancy life, but solid and reliable, with regular church attendance and Lions Club dinners providing the social framework of their lives.

However, there are some storm clouds on the horizon, but whether they are literal or figurative is the movie’s central dramatic question. Curtis finds himself deeply unnerved by the strange visions and sounds that only he seems to experience, like ominous roiling clouds, startling thunder claps on sunny days, and masses of birds flying in spiraling patterns, to say nothing of the terrifying nightmares that have him bolting awake drenched in sweat.

Gradually, Curtis starts convincing himself that these hallucinatory images are terrible premonitions of things to come. Even more unsettling is Curtis’s fear of what could really be going on. His mother, played in a cameo appearance by Kathy Baker, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her mid-30s, right around the same age Curtis is now. Despite Samantha’s growing concern, confusion, and anger at Curtis’s increasingly bizarre behavior, his visions and nightmares steadily become just too powerful for him to ignore.

Film often plays with the difference between the physical and psychological reality of the world. Is what we see on screen the world itself, or how a character feels about, and thus sees, the world? Take Shelter plays effectively with this attribute of the medium, forcing us to ask if the storm clouds gathering are merely a reflection of Curtis’s inner torment or something else.

With its startling ending, Take Shelter brings to mind the O. Henry-style surprise twists that have become the trademark of director M. Night Shyamalan in films like The Sixth Sense. Rather than looking to the supernatural, Take Shelter’s director Jeff Nichols roots the anxieties and fears that torment Curtis and his family in the hard truths about American middle-class life today. All too often, losing your job, your house, and financial stability is only one crisis away, regardless of whether it is a catastrophe of the natural or personal variety. As the movie effectively dramatizes, sometimes such a crisis can easily be both.

Representing only his second feature film directing credit, Jeff Nichols debuted in 2007 with the acclaimed film Shotgun Stories, also starring Michael Shannon. The pair reteamed again for Midnight Special in 2016, the same year as the release of Loving, Nichols’ dramatization of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose relationship led to the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision permitting interracial marriage in 1967.



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