Sunday, April 6, 2008
Charlton Heston: 1923-2008
The obituary in the L.A. Times states that Charlton Heston’s “big break” was a 1949 role in a CBS production of Julius Caesar. That hardly comes as a surprise. Heston’s booming, emphatic acting style was perfect for stage work, even if it was stage work on TV. Throughout his entire career, in roles noble, outrageous and somewhere in between, Heston always played to the back row. He was meant for the Theatre of Dionysus but was born too late. Yesterday, Heston died at 84.
Over his career, he parted the Red Sea, he acted opposite some damn, dirty apes and he figured out what Soylent Green was made out of. But Heston’s greatest role, for which he won an Oscar (his only such nomination), came in the titular part of 1959’s Ben-Hur. As the obits note, Heston wasn’t the first choice for the role (Burt Lancaster, who certainly would have been up for the task, turned it down, as did Paul Newman and Rock Hudson). But it was Heston’s dedication to his craft that made Judah Ben-Hur so memorable and that made Ben-Hur the grand film it remains today.
Where the movie itself ranks is up for debate. For what it’s worth, Ben-Hur placed 72nd in the American Film Institute’s inaugural “100 Years…100 Movies” rankings in 1998 and fell to 100th for the 10th Anniversary re-ranking. Regardless of the results of such quasi-scientific analysis, it’s a tremendous film certainly, though at 212 minutes it has plenty of time for imperfection.
What is flawless, however, is the legendary chariot race sequence, which I believe still stands as the most remarkable achievement in cinema history. The statistics alone are impressive: an 18-acre set, thousands of extras, plus horses and stunt men and urban legends, oh my! One shudders to imagine how the same sequence would be achieved today in the digital effects era. The set would be CGI, as would be the crowd, the horses, the chariots and sometimes even the actors. Not to mention that you can bet your bottom dollar that screenwriters would find a way to work in some play-by-play commentary. Yet I challenge you to watch Ben-Hur and tell me how digital effects could enhance the existing product.
Tremendously edited, using a wide array of camera angles, the chariot race captures the enormity of its arena without losing the intimacy of Judah’s duel with Messala (Stephen Boyd). And here is where Heston’s work ethic comes in, because while stuntman Joe Canutt stood in for the actor for several portions of the race (including the famous flip over the front of the chariot), that’s Heston doing most of the riding. Heston’s athleticism in the chariot enabled Andrew Marton (credited with directing the sequence, though the film’s director was William Wyler) to get close enough to Judah to capture Heston’s expressions while still picking up the genuine racing action unfolding around him in the picture’s super-wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio.
At 6-foot-2, Heston’s physical stature made Judah Ben-Hur the heroic presence the epic demanded. Though Heston wasn’t the most unaffected of actors, his power of spirit was alluring. The Cooler pays tribute to the cinema legend with shots from the chariot race.