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A man gave me comics to read, and I went on living… – Ben-Hur (Four Color #1052)

August 3, 2013

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We all await with trepidation the day — we know it’s coming — when some dumbbell movie studio executive will get the bright idea, or what he believes to be the bright idea, to remake Ben-Hur. There will probably be a press release touting the wonders of the 1959 classic, and promising to bring it to a new century — a new millennium, actually. There will most likely be some verbiage mixed in there about how that screen gem was itself a remake, that the story of Judah Ben-Hur had actually been movie-fied twice before, once as a short, once a silent film standard. Also that it was based upon Lew Wallace’s (turgid) book. And all this will totally ignore the central beauty that makes the Charlton Heston movie so special: it doesn’t have to be remade. (Has no one learned anything from the pointlessness of Peter Jackson’s King Kong?)

Yes, there was a TV mini-series in 2010. Heston even returned to the role when he voiced Hur in a largely unknown animated feature. Those doesn’t count, mainly since they passed by with nary a ripple. What really counts is when big money and big promotion is put into a spectacle, and that’s just what the Ben-Hur we all know and love was (and is): a spectacle like no other. Its centerpiece, the heart-stopping chariot race, is still at the top of the action sequence mountain. It will never be equaled, mostly because THEY ACTUALLY BUILT A GIANT STADIUM TO FILM THE DAMN THING. What would today be crafted with shiny but ultimately unconvincing CGI was, in director William Wyler’s grand vision, built stone by stone, load of sand by load of sand. In Heston’s autobiography the best chapters recount his own awe at filming on such a movie set writ large, with thousands of extras herded into the stands every day. And would CGI have had the happy (almost tragic) accident of stuntman Joe Canutt launching over his chariot? No, no it wouldn’t.

(An aside: One of my happiest movie-going experiences was seeing Ben-Hur about ten years ago at the great Uptown Theater in DC, in one of the screenings they used to have for old classics. The chariot scene when projected on that giant screen was spectacular, with thundering hooves that rattled your sternum, and you almost got whiplash from the extra-wide aspect ratio (2.76:1) on the extra-wide screen. The only downer: a woman in our group who shall remain nameless — mainly because I can’t remember her name — who asked sourly during the intermission “How much longer is this?” And followed that up with “I didn’t know there’d be so much Jesus in this.” December must be rough for her. I wanted to smother her in rancid popcorn butter.)

And then there’s Heston. He unfairly became a subject of snarky mockery for the cynical left in his later years, as he took over figurehead leadership of the National Rifle Association, and a few *cough*GeorgeClooney*cough* even mocked his Alzheimer’s. (Many conveniently forgot that he was marching side by side with African-American civil rights leaders when the Kennedys were making them enter the White House through the back door.) Yes, he made his share of goofy duds in his long and varied career. (My favorite bad Heston movie? Airport 1975, in which he looks like he wants to be anywhere but in this dopey mess, and in which he also calls a stewardess “Honey” roughly 8,000 times. The latter makes for a great drinking game.) True, his acting never had the subtleties of Brando — the late Phil Hartman’s impersonation, in whatever the context, was spot-on. But his upright, square-jawed dignity carried the weight of more than one epic, and it did so in Ben-Hur, from the depths of the Roman slave galley to his final reunion with his no longer leprous mother and sister. The scene in which he reveals himself, alive and well, to the traitorous Messala can still give you chills — even when it’s in a language you don’t speak:

To rip Ben-Hur from Heston at this point would be — forgive the use of the word — a sacrilege. It’s doubtful that any of the stars of today have the (literal) chops to handle it.

Which brings us to the comic book adaptation of the movie. Why? Because it was completely scrubbed of Heston. Right down to the hair color.

This is a bit odd, since the comic came out in 1959, contemporaneously with the film. There are a few production photos included, so it wasn’t as if the cast was a mystery at this point. This complaint is mainly focused on Ben-Hur and Messala, as their hair colors are the respective opposites of Heston and Stephen Boyd — like dueling negative images. (Jack Hawkins’s Quintus Arrias fares a bit better in rendition, since Hawkins was and remains a template for “distinguished older gentleman.”) Take the famous spear-throwing with the two characters — it’s like someone reversed the polarities on us:

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Oddly enough, it was almost like the comic folks were working with the old screen-tests of passed over actors, like Leslie Nielsen. Yes, that Leslie Nielsen, who auditioned for the role of Messala. Seriously:

(I’m very much convinced that Nielsen’s ATROCIOUS spear skills — like Lamar’s in Revenge of the Nerds — kept him from winning the part.)

Much of the plot of the very long script is condensed, though all the highlights are in there (even the Jesus stuff, much to the chagrin of that dreadful one-time movie companion). Here’s the classic water scene, once parodied so wonderfully by The Simpsons (complete with Hartman-as-Heston-as-Hur), with its silently chastened Roman soldier:

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And, of course, that great reveal, which loses some of the majesty without the slow emergence from the shadows and the ring slammed into wax:

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Perhaps what the comic does best is recreate the chariot race. It comes nowhere near what made it into theaters, as such a feat would be impossible. But large panels like this, from artist Russ Manning (who also drew, strangely enough, the Liam Neeson-less Rob Roy), do their damnedest to get the job done:

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It’s odd reading something associated with the 1959 film that’s so devoid of Heston. It’s jarring, even. And his expulsion isn’t just limited to the comic story itself, but also the production stills, which are long-shots of various set-pieces. True, the other stars are given similar treatment (or lack thereof), but it’s almost as if the comic went out of its way to scrub almost all traces of the man who was the face of the film. It’s quite possible that there were issues with the licensing of the actors’ images, though that seems somewhat unlikely since Heston’s mug was all over the 55 Days at Peking comic. And if that’s the case, then they were flirting with danger, since you can still see them if you squint real hard, as you can on the back cover, which pimps, naturally, the chariot race:

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So what we’re left with is a Ben-Hur comic that doesn’t feel like a Ben-Hur comic since it lacks Heston, who so embodies Judah Ben-Hur for us all. For whatever that’s worth.

And the big payoff to this post? The thing that brings us back around to the fear about a new, Heston-less Ben-HurTHERE IS A REMAKE IN THE PIPELINE, gathering hellish strength like an Atlantic hurricane. God help us all.

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