Epics of '50s, '60s assumed a single national culture


May 05, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Once it ruled the known world. Its legions marched triumphantly from horizon to horizon, its leaders basked in theocratic splendor, its heroes were the avatars of masculine behavior, its maidens were the fairest of the fair. It was sheer imperial grandeur, unfolding to the sound of trumpets. And it has been on view in Baltimore for the past two weeks at the Senator in "Ben- Hur" and will be on display for another two or so weeks at the Westview in "Spartacus."

Ancient Rome?

Of course not.

Ancient Hollywood, circa 1955-1967 Anno Domini, the era of the epics.

Now that era is enjoying a brief revival in this town through the near-simultaneous arrival of these two movies. Seeing the two films a day or so apart fills one with a) serious toga fatigue and b) awe, not so much for the incredibly high level of craftsmanship which underlay each enterprise but for something far subtler and yet absolutely necessary: aspirit of complete confidence.

The two movies were driven by absolute faith in their makers' sense of audience. To see them is to be astonished at the degree with which they play common, universal chords, meant to reach across ethnic and class distinctions and unify their spectators. Like mass-circulation magazines of their era, they are based on an assumption that might be called the theory of the single audience: that there was such a beast as "the American People" and that it would respond, en masse, to certain themes.

In William Wyler's "Ben-Hur" of 1959, the theme is religion -- the liberating power of faith. Of course "Ben-Hur" is remembered today primarily for its spectacle, but it was a complete astonishment to revisit the mighty "Hur" booming off the Senator's screen and discover not how much spectacle there was but how little. The four-hour film boasts only two big action sequences to sustain its kinetic momentum, a somewhat rinky-dink sea battle with obviously fake triremes pounding up against each other in the Culver City backlot tank; and, of course, the legendary chariot race.

Yet even that triumph of stuntcraft turns out to be something of an anticlimax, particularly when compared to the extravaganzas of today. As thunderous as it is -- particuarly as it avoids the process shots that do much to undercut the sea battle, and actually places stars Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in the center of the action -- it is by contemporary standards a relatively incisive sequence, over in less than three minutes. Just as it seems to be building momentum, the evil Messalina is thrown from his chariot and mangled by his horses' hooves. And it's over.

The rest of the film is Sunday School piety which in some clever way actually engages the theater architecture of the auditorium as part of its strategy. I've seen "Ben-Hur" acouple of times on the tube, and it always seems comic with its cheapjack patina of the miraculous and its rock-jawed star sawing away like Sylvester Stallne in "Hamlet." But it's hard to laugh at such displays in a giant theater; the scale of the movie somehow manages to transmogrify the auditorium into a cathedral, to make its generic Christianity theatrical and impressive.

The meaningful subtext of "Ben-Hur," of course is the journey to God in the time of Christ. The story takes place during the Christian era. Christ is a figure, but not a character; his face is never seen but its power is: Five or six times in the film, men gaze upon it and are transfigured before our very eyes. That's the true punch of the film; not Messalina getting pulped by the four black beauties, but Hur and his family and a half-dozen others allowing themselves to know God through Jesus.

Such a strategy also presumes in the audience an abiding Christian self-awareness; it presumes that American culture is hTC Christian or at least Judeo-Christian; it counts upon universal reaction to such a cue. It is, crassly or not, the cinematic equivalent of a biblical injunction: Come unto me.

Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" of 1960, was, ironically, conceived an "anti-epic," a politically progressive document that would turn the smug precepts of the "Hur"-style epic on its ear. It was even written by Hollywood Ten member Dalton Trumbo, in his first credited job since going on the blacklist in the late '40s. However, in condemning what had come before, it became what it abominated.

Seen today, its radical spirit has all but deserted it; and the tawdry truth is that it aspires to work on its audience in almost exactly the same way that "Ben-Hur" worked on its audience: by presuming commonality and by further presuming within it a number of automatic responsesto certain cues.

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