Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: a third feature-length adaptation of Ben-Hur is, you know, definitely a thing one could choose to produce. While wondering who in the hell they made this movie for, let's return to the most famous, downright iconic version of this material.

There's nothing one lowly little film blogger can possibly do to diminish or burnish the reputation of one of Hollywood's all-time Classical Epic Masterworks, so I don't feel even the tiniest bit bad about saying in front of God and everybody: I really don't like the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. At all. It has the best action setpiece in any of the American and Italian Bible epics from the 1950s and 1960s (the chariot race, of course), which makes it a strong contender for the best action setpiece made during the whole of the 1950s; it has a second action setpiece (the sea battle) that's pretty damn good, though some of its charm is stolen away by comparing it the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and finding that the 34-years-older movie trumps its mega-budget remake pretty soundly in the staging of this scene (mind you, the '25 Ben-Hur was a mega-budget production in its own right, and from an era when if a filmmaker needed a full-scale sea battle, they'd damn well go out and film a full-scale sea battle - models? Forced perspective? What the hell are those?). So that gives us one sequence - a long sequence, to be sure - that does almost all of the work of justifying a gigantic mass of cinema stretching to some three and a half hours, and that without the overture, intermission, and entr'acte.

What remains is the most egregiously boring movie ever graced with the Best Picture Oscar, along with ten other statues - the film set the record for most Oscar wins, and has never since been surpassed, only tied - though in fairness, egregious boredom is one of the cornerstones of the Bible epic genre, with filmmakers generally spending more effort making sure that the film is appropriately solemn and denuded of any sort of fleshiness and emotional effect, in favor of the unsmiling earnestness of a boring day at Sunday School. I have mentioned in the past that of the two major strands of the Bible picture, the Old Testament adaptation and the story taking place alongside the New Testament, I much prefer the former: besides having inherently more dramatic source material, filmmakers have tended to be much less flattened by their own sense of sobriety in adapting narratives from the Torah, which tend to be much more action-packed, eventful, and (in Hollywood's hands, anyway), packed with sex.

As far as that list goes, Ben-Hur is about as resolutely sexless as the "early Christian times" movies ever got, which is perhaps why some of the people involved in making it took it upon themselves to smuggle some in: those being, first and foremost, Gore Vidal, one of several uncredited screenwriters who added odds and ends to the work of credited Oscar-winner Karl Tunberg, who had the wisdom to look at this gruelingly square, immaculately white-bread material, and realise that the way to fix at least parts of it was to add a hefty measure of camp, not that "camp" had that name yet in the late 1950s. At any rate, Vidal was by all accounts the one to decide that engine driving the entire bloated beast of Ben-Hur was a gay relationship back in the past history of the titular hero Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) with his childhood friend, the Roman soldier Messala (Stephen Boyd). Famously, Heston was left in the dark, probably as a means of self-defense rather than anything else (less famously, director William Wyler would later deny being aware of any homosexual overtones to the Judah/Messala scenes, which is really hard to believe - the tender shot of the two men's spear's touching tip-to-tip is so overt by '50s standards as to verge on gay porn. And then there's the group massage scene that opens the second act in an ultra widescreen tableaux of oiled male torsos). Heston, of course, was a campy enough actor by accident that it works anyway: his weird combination of stiffly declaiming lines and posing like he's the subject of a Renaissance portrait, with his pained, skin-stretching expressions and general hamminess are hardly the same as Boyd's focused, intentional portrayal of homoerotic love and lust, but Heston's robust way of "playing noble platonic male friends in ancient times" is so overcooked that it kind of seems like he's leaning into the gay subtext as well.

Anyway, regardless of who intended what and who knew what and if Vidal even added as much to the final draft as he claimed - Ben-Hur had a particularly contentious WGA arbitration session - Boyd at least seems to be playing his early scenes with Heston without any doubt as to his intentions: tenderly grasping his co-star's arm, looking at him with bright eyes starving for affection, line deliveries of exactly the tenor that a natural braggart uses when he's hoping to make his crush swoon with admiration. Even if for whatever reason - living in the 1950s, for example - one would prefer to maintain the fiction that this iteration of Ben-Hur isn't all about the tempestuous fall-out between lovers, the fact surely remains that Boyd's obvious passion and affection, and subsequently his acidic hatred and the animalistic pleasure he takes in watching Judah's pain, are the most human, feeling thing in the whole movie. It's close to being the only human feeling, though Jack Hawkins's unfortunately small role as the Roman Consul who adopts Judah and makes him a member of the Roman nobility is a pretty fine portrait of brittle bitterness yielding to fatherly warmth and patrician pride. Naturally, neither Boyd nor Hawkins were nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar that this film took for Hugh Griffith's one-note clown of Arab Sheik Ilderim in magnificently unpersuasive brownface makeup.

Anyway, Boyd and Hawkins, and I am quite out of anything positive to say about the film's human drama, or anything else to do with its sluggish narrative. Look, we don't need an argument that the material of Lew Wallace's weighty novel can be covered more quickly than the 1959 film: the 1925 film is right there to make the argument for us, snapping along with more urgency and excitement than this film, and requiring an hour and change less time in which to do it. The '59 Ben-Hur takes its time to do just about everything: scenes pass by with an exaggeratedly slow pace, which I imagine was probably meant to somehow evoke a stately, pageant-like sense of Ancient Rome and Judea as a more elegant, ritualistic place. Maybe that's giving the film too much credit. At any rate, the effect is nothing so lofty; it feels instead like a we're being dared to find the sets sufficiently interesting to keep staring at them during the glacially long takes of conversation slowly crawling back and forth between slow-talking actors.

Wyler, it is known, was hostile to the MGM 65 process he was obliged to use (65mm film with an anamorphic lens, for the ludicrously wide finished aspect ratio of 2.76:1), finding it difficult to come up with ways to fill the frame with enough detail that it felt functional, but not so much detail that it led to clutter. The solution he and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees ended up landing on was to rely on the deep staging which had been a hallmark of Wyler's career since the early '40s or before, exploiting the increased clarity the larger film stock permitted for background elements, and using long takes to allow our eyes to move through the composition to find the actors. As solutions go, it's really not very effective: there's a grand total of one composition of human beings that I find particularly admirable, in the very first meeting between Judah and Messala: Heston is a tiny dot all the way down a long hallway, while Boyd's shoulder and head fill the frame. It neatly evokes the sense of distant friends reuniting and even underscores the homoeroticism of the moment, by virtue of placing us in Messala's perspective and presenting Judah as a revelation to whom all the lines in the composition direct themselves (okay, that's a lie: there's also a shot of Heston's silhoutte in the foreground, with the chariot circus stretching deep into the background, after Messala's death, that is striking and appropriately grim. So two).

Otherwise, it's pretty much the usual list of awkard rooms full of empty walls, and close-ups that cannot do anything to overcome how barren the frame is around the character's head. The result is a profound lack of visual dynamism that's helped not at all by the subdued cutting, nor by Wyler's self-evident lack of passion for the material, which manifests in the actors being permitted to give some of the slackest performances in any Wyler film: in particular, Jewish-Palestinian Haya Harareet, making the first film in English in her brief career, is clearly not comfortable with the language, and wears a perpetual look of alarm no matter what the scene requires; it doesn't help that she's saddled with playing the romantic leading lady in a male-dominated movie whose ideological underpinnings demand that it have no sexuality. But there are other weak links: Heston clearly hasn't been given much instruction, and at one point, Wyler and the editors even left in a take where he stepped on Harareet's line and had to repeat himself.

All of this is largely extrinsic to the story and screenplay itself, which was probably never going to result in a terribly compelling movie. Even the in-all-ways better (save the chariot race) 1925 film can't handle the requirement that this story of First Century revenge amidst Roman politiciking in Judea transforms into A Story of the Christ, and that film dealt with it by trying to recklessly compress it as much as possible. The 1959 film exults in this tacked-on material, devoting almost a full fifty minutes to fleshing out this subplot, and that is after it has more or less satisfactorily wrapped up its sole conflict, the hatred between Judah and Messala - which is to say, after it kills off its best character and performance. The film's hands-off, bloodlessly generic depiction of Christ (Claude Heater, seen only in chaste, sterile shots from behind) is presumably somebody's idea of spiritually inspiring, but I cannot imagine why; all of the explicitly religious material is so prim and carefully managed to avoid offending anybody of any religious or non-religious bent. Which of course means that it has almost no real sense of zeal driving it; just a few choice quotes from the Sermon on the Mount to try and give some kind of shape to the film's jerry-rigged new conflict, between Judah and the whole Roman Empire, all without having to actually get its fingers dirty with such nastiness as theology or morality. I will concede that Heston's expression of shock when he realises that the bloody man he's trying to give a ladle full of water is the man who did the same for him years earlier is the most subtle, effective bit of acting Heston does in the whole feature, but it's not much to salvage 50 minutes of screentime, especially when they end in a crucifixion sequence that looks baffling cheap, given how much money was spent on this movie.

Beyond this, there is a whole script full of awkward, over-written dialogue about Life In These Ancient times. Among the worst is an early expository discussion of the signs and portents of the so-called Messiah that rivals any half-assed biopic in its clunky foreshadowing and attempt to situate the material for the audience. Though I think I will always hate most the cartoon slogans foisted onto Sheik Ilderim, which strive to be both old-timey and comically exaggerated.

But the chariot race is so good! For one thing, the wide aspect ratio turns out to be ideally-suited for capturing two or three teams of horses at different planes along the Z-axis all at once; there's also no beating the physical heft and gravitas of actually going out and filming a goddamn chariot race in full-scale and depicting the whole of it in 12 minutes of real time. The sound mixing is amazingly loud and violent for the era, insisting on the physical truth of the race even more. And MiklΓ³s RΓ³zsa's film-long flirtation with Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War" is never more appropriate nor effective. It is really quite perfect as action cinema, truthfully among the most essential stretches of American filmmaking in the 1950s. A bit of a pity that it's stranded in the back half of such a logy, undisciplined sprawl of meandering narrative and pointless, protracted scenes, but at least we live in an age of big televisions and DVD chapter selections.