Many years ago Ben-Hur screenwriter Gore Vidal dismissed the meaning of the title of Lew Wallace‘s 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” “It isn’t a tale of the Christ,” said Vidal. “It’s the tale of a war between a Roman boy and a Jewish boy.”
Which is why the movie ends after the chariot race sequence. Finito, resolved. Even though it continues for another half-hour or so because director William Wyler needs to be faithful to Wallace’s pious novel, and so we’re stuck with the sloggish remainder. And all you can do is look at your watch.
The crucifixion finale is supposed to be about Christ’s blood washing away the anger of an unjustly persecuted man and saving his mother and sister from leprosy. But the movie would be massively frustrating without the feeling of justice delivered to Stephen Boyd‘s Messala by what happens to him in the chariot race.
People don’t care about “happy” or “sad” endings — they want endings in which the characters receive their just desserts. Movies always “end” after the moment of justice occurs. The finale of The Godfather, Part II is satisfying because Al Pacino‘s Michael Corleone has met with a kind of justice, which is to say a state of solitude and spiritual frigidity after the murder of his brother Fredo. It’s a fate that he’s earned so it feels right.
And Vidal’s gay subtext in the relationship between Messala and Judah is unmistakably there in Ben-Hur. It’s an old story, but I love re-reading it:
Vidal, who wrote much if not most of the screenplay, says in the “Making of Ben-Hur” doc that he suggested to Wyler that the characters’ conflict scenes be written as “a lover’s quarrel.”
“Wyler said, ‘What do you mean?’,” Vidal recalls. “I said, could it be that the two boys had some kind of emotional relationship the first time around, and now the Roman wants to start up again and Ben-Hur doesn’t — and doesn’t get the point?
“Willie said, ‘Gore, this is Ben-Hur. You can’t do that to Ben-Hur.’ I said, well, if you don’t do something like that you won’t have Ben-Hur. You’ll have an emotiveless mess on your hands. And he said, ‘Well … you can’t be overt.’ I said, I’m not gonna be overt. There won’t be one line. But I can write it in such a way that the audience is going to feel that there is something emotional between these two that is not stated, but that blows a fuse in Messala. That he is spurned. So it’s a love scene gone wrong.”
Here’s that story I wrote yesterday about the forthcoming New York Film Festival showing of the restored Ben-Hur.