Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur is an incredible feat of cinema which well deserves it’s reputation as one of the greatest films made.  It tops Gone With The Wind is it’s scope and high-stakes (what is a farm-owner’s plight next to that of a Prince?), it’s action scenes are utterly impeccable, and it’s rhythm and pacing superb.

This is director William Wyler’s third oscar, and by jove he just gets better every time.  His first two winners, Mrs Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, were enormously successful experiential chronicles of the Second World War.  Wyler has an amazing ability to perfect the mise-en-scene of a shot.  Stillness and motion play a huge part in his arrangement of people and bodies – have a look at any of his films and you’ll notice that people stand still a lot, and the way he arranges his pictures channels the energy of people and action.  As a little test, watch this film with a friend and pause at random moments, then each draw a line in the air that follows the film picture.  I’ll bet that 9 times out of 10 you’ll draw the same thing.

Judah Ben-Hur is played by Charlton Heston, a familiar face from The Greatest Show On Earth. He’s ruggedly handsome and every bit believeable, though I must say that the most memorable performance has to be from Stephen Boyd playing the villain Messala, who’s gruelling death scene stunned me in it’s intensity.  Another highlight is the music, my personal favourite being the beating of the drums in the slave ship, where the internal sound of the film and the external score become blurred and the excitement which builds as a result is utterly palpable.

I found Ben-Hur’s tagline, ‘A Tale of Christ’, quite an interesting way to approach the film. I was surprised that the main action is kind of a side-note to major world events at the time, occouring simultaneously with the story of Jesus, whom we never fully see.  By using only shots of the back of his head, Jesus’ words and actions are given an otherwordly power. At the close of the film, Judah Ben-Hur reclaims all that was taken from him; amidst the greatest loss humanity could know, Jesus has given man all the tools it needs.

Of course, no review of Ben-Hur can be complete without mention of the chariot scene.  This is without a doubt one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever.  There’s no CGI here, every shot is for real.  The rhythm and pace of the scene is phenominal, the lead-up brimming with intensity and the pay-off just sublime.  Ben-Hur is unarguably one of the greatest films ever made – real action, real emotion, and a damn good story too.

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Gigi (1958)

Gigi (1958)

For the ‘last great MGM musical’, Gigi is pretty full of life.  As with An American In Paris, Minelli’s other addition to the BP canon, stunning imagery abounds in the form of colourful scenery and drop-dead gorgeous dresses.  After seeing three films in cinemascope it has become strikingly clear how closely film has been tied to technological advances, though this should really have been obvious.  Picture quality and dynamic has been hugely improved in such a quick space of time.

Lesley Caron struck me as an Audrey Hepburn doppleganger for most of this film and I can’t say I was surprised to discover that Hepburn had previously played the role in a Broadway version.  It really makes you realise how packaged these stars were, though again this should be obvious in a film released by a major studio like MGM.  And blimey, for Caron to be playing a teenager in this picture she must have bloody young during American In Paris.

Considering that both American In Paris and Gigi are musicals, their form is quite different.  American focuses on dance and, of course, utilises a stunning Gershwin score.  Gigi pulls the spectacle of dance and music back significantly, allowing us more access to the humanity of the piece.  There’s still tonnes of songs, but they’re sung in more of a recitative, ‘sing-speak’ style, and the dancing is much more casual than in the 1951 film.

While Gigi looked pretty, I didn’t think the story was edgy enough for my taste.  Researching a little into the history of Gigi and it’s famous French writer, Collette, I didn’t read predator or ‘courtesan’ into Gigi or her aunties.  Perhaps I am just uneducated in French high society of the late 1800s?

All in all, Gigi is a tale about being true to yourself and to others.  You can’t be something you don’t want, and nor should you be.  A relevant theme coupled with stunning imagery completes the key ingredients needed for a worthwhile film.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, a battalion of British soldiers are ordered to surrender themselves as prisoners of war.  As hostages they are pushed by their Japanese captors into physical work and forced to construct a rail bridge for their war enemies.  During the course of the film the bridge comes to take on a symbolic dimension; amongst other things, it represents the need for faith and strength when faced with the problem of adversity.

I think that my key response to this film rests in it’s similarities to Frank Lloyd’s incredible winner from the 1930’s, Mutiny on the Bounty. Both are fascinating studies of control; how does one assert and maintain one’s position of power?  In The Bridge on the River Kwai we watch, for the better part of the film, the English Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese Colonel Saito jostle for power in the form of the word of law to, as with Mutiny on the Bounty, an assertion of power through violence against bodies.  In some instances this violence is in the form of actions against the body, such as Saito’s beating and long imprisonment of Nicholson, and in others it is through the physical task of building the bridge, thereby enforcing the idea that the body, and by extention the self, belongs to a higher being or entity.

This idea of self runs through the film as a dichotomy between east and west.  Saito sees himself as being governed by a higher authority, employing the idea that the whole is greater than the sum, and thinks that his prisoners should follow suit.  Nicholson works hard to keep his officers from having to work, thus asserting the clause of the individual.  What is playing out is not just a clash between war enemies, but a clash between cultures and attitudes toward subjectivity: how does one ‘bridge’ this gap (see what I did there)?

A stunning performance in this film from Alex Guinness, who won a Best Actor award for his role as Nicholson, but even finer still in my opinion is the amazing performance from Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito, whose raw and intense acting might well be my favourite across these pictures thus far.

The film’s climax puts us into a difficult position.  We should by now have learnt that the sum is greater than it’s parts.  The bridge over the river has been an instrument for the soldiers to get them through their imprisonment.  When the climax hits, it’s no wonder Nicholson responds with such passionate anguish.  He’s stuck between his personal feelings – pride and accomplishment at having completed his task – and the greater good of his own nation – knowing that Britain, and himself by extention, must destroy this bridge if they wish to win the war.  Thus, in the film’s final moments we see a crystalisation of the heart of the film’s major thematic conflict – the individual, or the group?

I wonder if I sense a faint whiff of 1950’s anti-communism here.  And fair enough too – it’s important to open a dialogue about these things, and On The Waterfront never really did justice to higher questions of unionism and capitalism. But whatever we’re supposed to take away from it, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a focussed, fascinating and compelling film.

Around The World In Eighty Days (1956)

Around The World In Eighty Days (1956)

By opening with a quirky silent film about adventuring to the moon and meeting it’s exotic inhabitants, director Michael Anderson not only sets up a vital spirit of adventure and discovery, he foregrounds the advances in film technology which make this indelible piece of cinema possible.  For some reason I have always looked at this film and assumed it must be a total bore, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Around The World In Eighty Days is as exciting today as I’m sure it was in the 1950’s.

The film is about a man named Phineas Fogg making good on a bet that he can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days or less.  The film quickly becomes a vessel for one entertaining spectacle after another, as Fogg and his servant encounter all sorts of people, places and events.

Travelling sequences are given a sizeable portion of screen time.  There are huge segments where we are invited to simply observe a train travelling or a balloon flying and to take in the magnificent sights which accompany it.  With new camera technology cinemascope, the primacy of the screen image becomes intrinsic to the film, and with it’s lush musical score replete in voluminous brass and glittering strings, these long sequences quickly become the most unguilty of pleasures.

Fogg travels to numerous lands – Spain, Hong Kong, India – and given a) the period setting (late 1800s) and b) that the film is made in the 1950’s, there is a distinct lack of racial intolerance; that is to say, the film celebrates a love of cultures and people.  Aside from some questionable representations of American Indians, the film embraces this meeting of people and places.  Admittedly this meeting is always conducted from the view of ‘the other’, but this is clearly marked and doesn’t make me feel embarrased or awkward.  It’s nice to see film beginning to move beyond typical representations of race and ethnicity.

With various cameos and twists at every turn, this lengthy film is a great watch.  Around The World In Eighty Days is entertainment of the highest degree, full of interesting characters, music, dancing, bull-fighting, battles and pictures….So many pictures to look at.  Watch this film with friends or family and have a blast.  It’s what cinema is for.