Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ben-Hur Epic: Gordon Thomas goes long

Gordon Thomas and I share a fascination with epics. I know a couple of years ago I made a point to watch - largely by tapping Gordon's collection - El Cid, and the Pride and the Passion, and a bunch of other things with big music, big views and Sophia Loren or Chalton Heston.

But Gordon is more than just fascinated. He can write hundreds of words about this. Check out his Ben-Hur Epic on BrightLights Film. He zeros in on the author of Ben Hur, Lew Wallace, and Indiana cat.

Lew Wallace appears to have been one of those great American eccentrics, a loner interested more in proselytizing than in cranking out mainstream product, but who knew his fat sermon would sprout such legs? The Ben-Hur films could be seen as archetype for the whole sword-and-sandal genre that survives in Hollywood to this day — the revenge-motivated story arc serving projects like Braveheart and Gladiator surely originated with Ben-Hur — yet, when it was published in 1880, Wallace’s novel nearly sank without a trace.

Read Gordon's take on 'this vampy Egyptian business...

It all gets a little silly, this vampy Egyptian business in the ’25 picture, and Wyler was wise to drop it, but Iras, in the novel, gives the story a real shot in the arm. Final events may reveal her to be a crass opportunist — and Messala’s girlfriend — but Iras remains the most interesting character in the book. In sly rebellion against her aging wise man father, she presents a demure front to the world as she privately strives for everything the old man is against, i.e., worldly wealth and power. Alone with Judah, she acts surprisingly modern: forthright, witty, and demonstrative with her sexuality. She actually asks him out, and, with a pretty little lake in the Orchard of Palms providing an excuse for a boat ride under the stars, mans the rudder. Ben-Hur, sensing something amiss in the gender politic, comes off as simply inadequate, not morally superior to, this smart, powerful woman. In the epilogue-like last chapter, when the unredeemed Iras appears bedraggled and diseased in front of the smiley-faced, Christianized Hurs, the reader might feel like bitch-slapping Wallace.

Do better go read Gordon's complete opus.


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