Thursday, January 28, 2010

Movie Moments: Was Ben Hur gay?


Leo suggested a classic such as Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, for a Movie Moments, hence this selection.
One interesting item about Ben-Hur, released in 1959, is its underlying gay aspect.
The story:
Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy merchant of noble blood living in Jerusalem. His childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), a tribune, arrives in Jerusalem to command the Roman garrison. At first happy to be reunited, they argue over Messala’s belief in the glory of Rome and imperial power, and Judah’s commitment to his faith and the Jewish people. They part in anger.
When a tile is accidentally dislodged from the roof of Judah’s house, almost killing the newly arrived governor, Messala sentences Judah to the galleys although he knows him to be innocent. Judah’s sister and mother are sent to prison. On the way to the galley, Judah is given water by a then unknown Jesus.
A galley slave for 3 years, Judah saves the life of Quintus Arrius, the Roman commander, during a battle. All charges are dropped against Judah and Arrius eventually adopts Judah as his son.
Judah returns to Jerusalem and confronts Messala, demanding that his mother and sister be freed. Unbeknownst to Judah, they have become lepers and have been sent to live in the Valley of the Lepers, away from everyone else. Esther, a servant girl in love with Judah, discovers the truth but tells Judah that they are dead.
When Judah is offered the chance to race a sheik’s chariot and 4 Arabian stallions in an upcoming race before Pilate, Judah accepts when he learns that Messala will be racing and is considered the finest charioteer in the land.
The chariot race:
The chariot race is one of the great film moments in history, filmed before the days of computer generated effects.
Messala eliminates the other charioteers one by one but in the final confrontation with Judah, Messala’s chariot loses a wheel and he ends up being badly trampled.
On his deathbed, he refuses amputation which may save his life, stating that he will not meet Judah with half a body. When he is asked how he knows that Judah will come, he hisses that he will come. We then see Judah’s silhouette against the light in the doorway.
The following exchange takes place, one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the movie:
Messala: Triumph complete, Judah. The race won. The enemy destroyed.
Ben-Hur: I see no enemy.
Messala: What do you think you see? The smashed body of a wretched animal! Is enough of a man still left here for you to hate? Let me help you...You think they're dead. Your mother and sister. Dead. And the race over. It isn't over, Judah. They're not dead.
Ben-Hur: Where are they? Where are they? (shouting) Where are they?
Messala: (vengefully) Look for them in the Valley of the Lepers, if you can recognise them. (Grabbing Judah's clothing) It goes on. It goes on, Judah. The race, the race is not over.
He dies gloating at Judah's horror,
More than friends?
Hollywood in 1959 was not a place to make statements about being gay, or to portray “the love that dare not speak its name”, as Oscar Wilde referred to homosexuality.
There has been conjecture and commentary for many years that the relationship between Judah and Messala was more than friendship.
This has been denied by the studio but conjecture persist.
In the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, which examined how Hollywood treated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, Gore Vidal recounted that he had been brought in to rewrite parts of the script, including the relationship between Judah and Messala. Director William Wyler was not satisfied that two men who had been close friends as youths could end up hating each other after disagreeing on politics. Vidal came up with the idea and subtext that the two had been lovers as teenagers and that Messala’s anger and hate come from Judah’s rejection of him. Wilder agreed provided that there was no direct reference to the sexuality and he discussed it with Stephen Boyd, who played Messala. He was told not to discuss it with Charlton Heston, who would freak out over the subtext.
Heston later denied both the gay subtext and that Vidal had had any input into the script, a comment rebutted by Vidal by referring to Heston’s 1978 autobiography in which he stated that Vidal had been the author of much of the final shooting script.
A bit of trivia:
At about the 5.37 mark on the above Youtube clip, you will see Judah get thrown forward out of the chariot and get back in. The stunt man being thrown out and forward, and getting back in, was unintended but looked good on film so it was kept in. A scene was shot with Heston getting back in to the chariot to link with the above footage.
How’s that Leo?

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