Picturing the Best: Ben-Hur and The Sound of Music


The icy death grip of the classical Hollywood era was not unapparent to the producers of the late 1950s, when worldly art cinema and the more pulpy, vigorous American independents were all the rage and rising like a tide of acid-water ready to wash away the nostalgia and romance of the classical Hollywood way. Much like the inflection point of the late ’70s, when the New Hollywood breathed its last gasps and curdled into the more audience-friendly realms of ’80s entertainment, the producers of the late ’50s and early ’60s reacted the only way they knew how: doubling down on the moment, creating films of sensual pleasures that could bowel over any formal concerns about filmmaking.

If you can’t beat ’em, wow ’em essentially, and the turn of 1960 brought with it a particularly garrulous, widescreen, implacable form of “wow”. The arguable progenitor of which was William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, a valiant attempt – like much of the most grandiose Hollywood films in the ’60s – to return cinema to its blithe, care-free roots in the pomp and circumstance of the ’20s silents, back when cinema was first and foremost a means to shock, awe, and surprise audiences rather than to engage their minds.

This is not inherently an ignoble impulse – the Cinema of Attractions school is not incorrect in proposing the value of cinema as a primarily sensory experience that should be left to what is on the screen, rather than what is embedded within it. If international cinema and the grottos of the American independents were pushing cinema in new directions – Ben-Hur was released the same year as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Shadows, three more different films you will never find – then all Hollywood could do to survive was look back. With Ben-Hur, crypto-remake of the 1925 silent film by Fred Niblo, MGM – the studio most prone to spendthrift, bludgeoning epic cinema throughout the ’60s – strove to do just that.

Where things went wrong is a vastly more interesting story, but the obvious answer is that the mystique, majesty, and playfully inventive, scorchingly challenging filmmaking that enlivened the great epics of the 1920s was replaced by a one-size-fits-all cudgel of self-imposing grandeur courtesy of the Cecil B. Demille school of tonal monotone and drowning, solipsistic visual cues. Ben-Hur’s chariot race is unimpeachable, yes, but should not that scene’s film-hogging fame clue one in to the fact that the rest of the film has nothing to offer? The treacly, stultifying doldrums of the other 200 minutes of this bruising behemoth of a motion picture are a hunt-you-down-and-tie-you-up drag, directed by a talented man – William Wylder – whose personal style was about as antithetical to the texture of a Roman Epic as humanly possible.

Incidentally, that final fact kickstarted a bizarre trend, perhaps the fallout of Demille’s death in 1959, of relying on the talents of rat-a-tat directors like Anthony Mann, Robert Wise, and Nicholas Ray – genius filmmakers best served by a clipped, expressionistic precision and tightly coiled imagery that diametrically opposed the verbal logorrhea of the scripts they were matched with around this time. Thus we have the hair-raising spikes of psychosis and paranoia that characterized the best American ’50s filmmaking left out to rot to make room for the elephantitis-in-the-room of the indolent, self-canonizing works like Ben-Hur that eventually, munificently, beget the rise of the New Hollywood.

The film is turgid filmmaking all around, enlivened slightly by Gore Vidal’s uncredited rewrites (and boy does this film feel like the battleground of the nearly half dozen uncredited writers vying for supremacy in the finished product). Vidal injected slivers of clandestine homoerotic commentary into the film’s molasses-thick Biblical parable, but viewing Fellini’s decade-later Satyricon, where that subtext would bloom and flower in full, only hurts Ben-Hur in comparison. It also reminds one that, around 1959, Fellini was actually doing grandeur right with works of irrepressible beauty like La Dolce Vita that took to Hollywood resplendence as a two-fisted, dialectical expression of the joy and horror of living for the moment. In comparison, Ben-Hur’s beauty is a monolith to one’s head being trapped in ones innards, so there you go, Hollywood in 1959. You, one. Common sense and humility, zero.

Score: 4/10

the_sound_of_music_1The Sound of Music

Of course, sometimes, Hollywood can just about pull itself out of its own distended intestines, or at least find a diamond in the rough up there if it spends enough time looking. But enough excrement metaphors, for they don’t necessarily belong in the occasionally, although certainly not exclusively, effective The Sound of Music. It’s not inherently more incendiary, subversive, or conspiratorial than many other bubbly, lush romantic epics of the 1960s, but there’s a bracing, somewhat cutting aura to the piece – probably the bemused, accidental circumstance of several of the major participants quietly seething about or otherwise openly disdaining the material – that is not found elsewhere in the decade’s more voluptuous exercises in gluttonous self-indulgence. Now, The Sound of Music is no vituperative New Hollywood assault with the classical ways of Hollywood directly in its sights. But for an ostensibly liturgical epic, there’s a surprisingly piquant quality to the film that adds just a dose of edge, like cotton-candy spiked with shards of peanut brittle.

Perhaps Robert Wise’s return to his small-scale roots with the deliciously subfuscous The Haunting latently manifested in The Sound of Music, but compared to the purely buoyant West Side Story, the film Wise directed prior to The Haunting and the obvious progenitor for The Sound of Music, this 1965 film is a little more cunning and a great deal more energetic in its refusal to submit to the languorous, indulgent tendencies of ’60s filmmaking. Don’t go calling it rebellious, but it’s a thorough-going rambunctious ne’er-do-well in comparison to the stodgy tyrant of Ben-Hur.

The basic narrative is still quite moored to social convention, following a nun played by Julie Andrews as she charms and otherwise convinces the devilish rapscallions that are the Von Trapp children while consoling their aristocratic, widower father, himself immanently concerned about the rise of the bullyish Nazi Party. The film’s fractional treatment of Nazism is hardly anything more than counterpoint to its feverish musical grandeur, but it’s enough of a primal underpinning of threatened joy that the buoyancy of the material is always lightly undercut by the realization of its tentative, temporal frailty. The film’s visuals are still more boldface than they are revisionist or revolutionary, admittedly, although Wise sneaks in a few luminous moments of subtly critical imagery, mostly related to singular moments of parched negative space in a film mostly defined by its excessively kaleidoscopic color fantasias of Alpine lifestyle.

As for the Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers, you can take or leave ’em. Much like Wise, at that, who films them with a surprisingly effective “let’s get these over with” dexterity that reigns them in from the overburdening impulses of ’60s corporate filmmaking. Andrews and Christopher Plummer are also surprisingly thorny and even churlish, as if they’re trying to bat away the simplicity of the characters with a more discourteous air that adds just enough tang to the picture. The end result is a mixture of sugar and spice, a Frankensteinian monstrosity of flatlining moments and soaring sequences that is equal portions calculated for profit, cynically self-critical, naively innocent, and tooth-decayingly saccharine. I can’t tolerate the nearly three-hour runtime, but half the time, the film can’t be bothered to either, which is what makes it so interesting.

Score: 6/10


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