Well, continuing my recent penchant for all things epic, last night I rewatched what is arguably the mother of all epics, Ben-Hur. They don’t make ’em like they used to- Hollywood does ‘big’ now in ways that were undreamed of in the pre-CGI era, but I think its clear that many of those old Hollywood epics can teach us a thing or two about characters and drama… and old-fashioned things like well-structured, cohesive scripts.
Music, too- I think its an important thing we are missing in current films, the role music used to play. Miklós Rózsa’s score for Ben-Hur, which won him one of the film’s eleven Oscars, a single films record Oscar-haul at the time later equalled by Titanic and The Return of the King (and frankly, neither those two later films should be mentioned in the same breath as Ben-Hur– they simply aren’t in the same league) takes such a major part of what makes the film work, from the Overture through to the Main Title… indeed, almost every scene of the film (barring the actual Chariot Race, really, where its absence serves just as much importance) features music score. Its almost like a musical narration informing the viewer what is happening and why. Watching Ben-Hur and taking in the role of the Rózsa score I am always reminded of Basil Poledouris’ brilliant score for Conan The Barbarian, which likewise provided a wall of sound throughout its film (in Poledouris’ case, lending meaning and gravitas to Arnie’s monosyllabic Cimmerian).
The work of the actors and their performances in Ben-Hur cannot be over-stated; it occurred to me re-watching the film last night how the scenes must have seemed when being filmed on-set without that score lifting and intensifying every moment, every victory, every betrayal. The level of intensity in the performances in the cold light of a midweek morning or afternoon, on-set over multiple takes, minus that music carrying and lifting, well, it must have been a whole different experience on-set. I guess that’s the magic of movies: ‘magic-time’ indeed, as Jack Lemmon used to describe it. Its possibly a skill of actors we take for granted- reaching a level of performance and drama ‘cold’, without having that music helping.
Such a pity George Lucas was never that good a film-maker, or had the necessary ambition, to lend his Star Wars prequels the level of ‘epic’ and meaning that Ben-Hur has. Its clear that the Pod-race of The Phantom Menace takes so much inspiration from the Chariot Race of Ben-Hur, but this sequence has a drama and meaning that Lucas’ film totally lacks. Why couldn’t Star Wars prequels be as serious and dramatic and self-important as Ben-Hur? Why couldn’t the Evil Empire of a galaxy far, far away be as mighty and real and tyrannical as Rome, and Anakin be as strong a character as Judah Ben-Hur or, perhaps as flawed and doomed as Messala? Star Wars is often described as modern myth for our times, but it seldom had the ambition or self-seriousness of mythology, always content to be ‘just’ entertainment or ‘just’ a children’s matinee serial.
Oh well, I’ve caught myself daydreaming movie what-ifs again. What a thing it must have been, back in 1959 and 1960, watching Ben-Hur in cinemas for the first time, that sense of epic spectacle, of event. We have ‘event’, tent-pole releases these days but I doubt anything could really recapture what Ben-Hur must have been like when it came out.