Before Cinerama and CinemaScope, the movies contented audiences with screens whose dimensions averaged 20 feet by 16 feet. With the wide-screen technologies and formats of the 1950s, the movies engulfed their audiences, wrapping images as great as 64 by 24 feet around them (Belton, 2013, pg. 185). Belton went on to observe, that ‘The wide-screen revolution represented a dramatic shift in the film industry’s notion of the product that it was supplying to the public…shifting its primary function of providing entertainment to the public to include another function as well – that of recreation’ (pg. 186). The movie experience as mandated by the studios’ attempt to reverse the dropping audience attendance rate with spectacles of epic proportion, engaged their audiences through sheer illusory immersion, not only through giant images, but revolutionary multi-track stereo sound as well. Such an audio-visual effect was utilised to its zenith by a subset of gigantic productions during this period: historical epics.
Of course, such pervasive platforms of mediated messaging were utilised as catalysts of identity construction for the United States, and therefore, particular attention needs to be paid to a central conflict of the 20th century: The Cold War. As a key cultural export, Hollywood’s construction of the United States’ national identity as a country of God’s ‘Chosen People’, is tied intimately with what Rogan argues to be the ‘demonological impulse’ of tying the building of the modern America with the opposition against the sinful ‘other’ (1987). This essay will contextualise the technical, artistic and political backdrops of the 1950s wide-screen evolution and its legacies, through the focused lens of William Wyler’s 1959 biblical epic, Ben-Hur.
Sink Or Swim: Hollywood’s Extravagant Bet on CinemaScope
‘Only once or twice in a decade does a motion picture of the stature and importance of Ben-Hur come along and stimulate the interest and imagination of everyone in and out of the industry. It, therefore, deserves all the fine showmanship and care in its presentation that has been devoted to its preparation and production’, proclaims the MGM ‘Exhibitors Promotional Portfolio’ Press book, provided to exhibition presenters of William Wyler’s biblical epic (1959). With the keywords being ‘fine showmanship’, the cinematic experience of Ben-Hur in lavish, well-presented venues and an even grander picture, showcases an industry whose past decade had been obsessed with redefining its place in the post-war economy. The reasons for this change points to the changing spending habits of the American public in the 1950s: box office statistics, detailed a sharp decline in average weekly admissions from a post-war high of 90 million in 1948 to an all-time low of 46 million in 1953 (Steinberg, 1978, pg. 371).
Given greater leisure time and greater disposable income in the post-war era, increasingly more money was spent for recreation. With more money to spend on recreation and more time to spend it in, Americans could now afford more expensive forms of recreation than they had in the past. They could afford to spend more on entertainment than the relatively inexpensive cost of a movie ticket (Belton, 2013, pg. 187). In other words, the redefinition of the motion picture as a form of participatory recreation (as opposed to passive entertainment) took place against the background of its competition for audiences with other leisure-time activities. The motion picture sought a middle ground between the notion of passive consumption associated with at-home television viewing and that of active participation in outdoor recreational activities (Ibid).
The success in 1952 of director Mervyn LeRoy and Producer Sam Zimbalist’s Roman historical epic Quo Vadis (the latter went on to produce Ben-Hur); though not presented in a wide-screen format, still set a fitting precedent: its success alongside similar historical epics at the box office that year demonstrated that a considerable audience still existed for films of ‘super-scale proportions’, and that the potential earnings of such exception attractions were now proportionately far greater than when the market had supported a larger number of routinely profitable films (Variety, 1953, pg. 61). Variety’s review headline for Quo Vadis described it simply as ‘A box-office blockbuster’ (ibid, 1951, pg. 5). The newly adopted term ‘blockbuster’ – a film designed to make a big impact on the box office, one capable of generating exceptionally large revenues partly by virtue of its exceptional production values – came to be seen as the industry’s principal weapon in this peacetime ‘war’ between studios, exhibitors, the film industry and declining audience interest, and quickly passed into trade and public vocabulary to become ubiquitous by the mid-1950s (Neale & Hall, 2010, pg. 139).
In comparing the theatre and the cinema, Bazin argued that the theatre, featuring a live performance presented in a space shared by both performers and audience, elicited the participation of the audience in a much more direct and intense way than did the cinema, which separated the space of the performance (that is, the space depicted on screen) from that of the audience (space of the movie theatre) (Belton citing Bazin, pg. 188):
‘The theatre is based on the reciprocal awareness of audience and actor…The theatre acts on us by virtue of our participation in a theatrical action across the footlights and as it were under the protection of their censorship. The opposite is true in cinema. Alone, hidden in a dark room, we watch through half-open blinds a spectacle that is unaware of our existence.’ – Bazin (1967, pg. 102)
As it so happens, wide-screen cinema expanded the cinematic keyhole to a point where, though it did not quite disappear, it provided spectators with a spectacle that possessed an increased sense of presence, especially in theatres with curved screens in which the image engulfed the audience. Wide-screen cinema had created an entirely new category of participation; a greater illusion of participation. Advertisements for CinemaScope films were practically advertised on the grounds of them drawing audiences into the space of the picture, as if they were attending a play in the theatre. Publicists compared the panoramic CinemaScope image to the oblong ‘skene’ (stage) of the ancient Greek theatre, and insisted that ‘due to the immensity of the screen, few entire scenes can be taken in at a glance, enabling the spectator to view them…as one would watch a play where actors are working from opposite ends of the stage.’ (Spellerberg, pg. 30)
Aesthetics of the Biblical Epic
Ben-Hur adopted an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, a picture that is wider still than the more standard 2.35:1 of CinemaScope. The sheer technological overhauls such as this brings to the foreground aesthetic changes and evolved shooting and editing processes that can best fit the new format. Director William Wyler himself expressed discomfort with Zimbalist and MGM’s decision to film the picture in a wide-screen format (Herman, 1997, pg. 406):
‘Nothing is out of the picture, and you can’t fill it. You either have a lot of empty space, or you have two people talking and a flock of others surrounding them who have nothing to do with the scene’ – Wyler
However, that is not to say that Ben-Hur didn’t inspire Wyler and his cinematographer Robert L. Surtees to re-situate the new technology at hand for new narrative purposes. What Wyler cited as wide-screen’s difficulties were surely advantages of the format as well. The Ben-Hur production featured gigantic sets, tens of thousands of extras, shot on location in Rome and Libya, and matte paintings that extended the illusion of ancient Rome further still. MGM’s Camera 65 lenses’ capacity to capture an expanded amount of the picture were complemented by the awe-inspiring establishing shots of Roman extravaganza, showing marching columns of Roman soldiers advancing across Judea, lines of ships arrayed for battle, a triumphal entry into Rome, and the massive arena hosting the chariot race, the screen is fully taken up by great numbers of extras, large architectural structures, lavish costumes and props, expansive land- and seascapes, and furious action (Neale & Hall, 2010, pg. 156). These key aesthetics of spectacle, scale, stunts and action have survived in Hollywood to this day in what constitutes a ‘blockbuster’, with subsequent cultural cornerstones such as George Lucas’ Star Wars and the contemporary Mission: Impossible franchise’s key selling points still reflecting what Ben-Hur was marketed upon.
However, Neale and Hall noted ‘the facility of even the widest of screens for both spectacle and subtlety (sometimes simultaneously)’ in blockbusters, citing Wyler’s own artistic tendencies and talents. Despite Wyler’s own initial discomfort with the new format, the dual purpose of grandeur and intimacy were both achieved by the Camera 65’s extreme width. For one, the lenses’ shallow depth of field and its wideness means Wyler’s talent for long takes and composition in depth were given a new venue (ibid). The wide picture negated the constant need for shot reverse shots and cause/effect editing when multiple characters engage in dialogue on screen or when a character is shown to throw an object towards something else, and the extended long takes allowed Wyler’s staging to breathe, giving the actors a more theatrical rhythm to feed off each other’s performances, whilst allowing the audience to absorb reactions and facial expression changes within the same frame as the dialogue continues.
When Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) invites his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) to his home after the latter’s long absence, Messala presents a gift to Judah’s sister Tirzah (Haya Harareet). As Messala spoke of his campaign in Libya, talking of burning the country’s capital to the ground, Judah, his mother (Martha Scott) and sister all remained in frame, their expressions solemn, despite having greeted Messala warmly minutes earlier. Later, Judah’s instant affection for Esther (Haya Harareet) was preceded by a shot of her descending the stairs from the background upper right of the frame, while Judah gazed upwards in the foreground bottom left, as if he was admiring an angelic figure. Subtle emotional narratives were weaved by the still camera in these scenes, as the composition in depth in Ben-Hur’s stage design allows for more immersive spaces, while the still camera emphasises the actors’ relative freedom to move and react within the more organic stage.
The final confrontation between Judah and his friend-turned-enemy Messala, after the latter was mortally wounded in the chariot race, also presented an interesting case study of what Neale and Hall argues to be Wyler exploiting and overcoming Camera 65’s aptitudes and weaknesses (ibid). As Messala withers and struggles against the surgeons in the darkened and grimy foreground, the camera shifts right to subtly reveal a standing figure, backlit by the exterior but still out of focus. “I told you, Drusus, I told you. There he is” Messala declares weakly, as the lens rack-focuses to shift attention to Judah. The earlier note of wide lenses risking audience attention by the lack of focus on screen was rectified, by Wyler making sure the frame was filled with purposeful subject and depth and taking advantage of the camera’s depth of field to serve the storytelling.
Destiny Mythology of The United States
The historical epics of the 1950s formed much of the iconography of the Hollywood blockbuster that is still seen in high budget action blockbusters of today. However, as I’ve argued before: something more pervasive can be observed in this era when Biblical and historical epics dominated the box office domestically and globally. While this love affair with the historical epic had faded by the mid-1960s, the forging of the American identity during the Cold War era follows a decidedly familiar formula. As mentioned before, the demonological impulse in the United States’ construction of identity places oppositional logic as a centrepiece. It also; argues Wallis, reflects the ever persistence of the Founding Fathers’ Christian affinity, especially ancient Jewish mythology of their people as ‘God’s Chosen’ and its historical centrality to America’s self-imagining (2016, pg. 9). This linked destiny of ancient Jews and modern America is persistently a central theme of Hollywood historical epics of the 1950s.
Wyke contextualises the New Testament epics as follows:
‘The United States takes on the sanctity of the Holy Land and receives the endorsement of God for all its past and present fights for freedom against tyrannical regimes…In such narratives, a hyperbolically tyrannical Rome stands for the decadent Other, forever destined to be defeated by the vigorous Christian principles of democratic America’ (Wyke, 1997, pg. 23).
Whether it was imperial Britain, Nazi Germany or Communism, the United States’ mythology proclaims victory against her enemies, as they have liberty on their side.
Ben-Hur is preceded by a seven-minute overture, with the title stamped against Michelangelo’s fresco of The Creation of Adam. Miklos Rozsa’s music trumpets heroically the story of Ben-Hur’s stand against Rome’s tyranny and oppression. Messala’s treacherous betrayal of his old friend to satisfy his own ambition for power, is tied explicitly to the Godless corruption of Rome. As Judah renounces the Roman citizenship that he had attained in his journey, Judah speaks of Messala’s treachery to Pontius Pilate: “The deed was not Messala’s. I knew him, well. Before the cruelty of Rome spread in his blood. Rome destroyed Messala as surely as Rome has destroyed my family.” It can be argued then, that in the context of the United States’ opposition against the communist Soviet Union, the Romans acted as cinematic stand-ins for the latter as an overwhelming military force, hell-bent on world domination, while the destiny of Judah; the oppositional stand-in for America, is to oppose and reject it.
Destiny is a prevailing theme in Ben-Hur. Judah’s trials in the film points figuratively to a larger conflict between ideologies of the cold and enforced order of Rome, against the Jews of Judea, whose “strange, stubborn’ faith will imbue them with God’s will and find their way to the Promised Land. As such, the era of the 1950s and the Hollywood industry’s technological innovation in their desperation to reverse the tide of weakening audience interest, comes in the form of extravagant productions meant to astound audiences with new experiences, but always making sure that the stories remain…familiar and agreeable to the entrenched social imaginary of the American Identity. Ben-Hur’s significance as the accumulation of the decade were its blockbuster aesthetics that had remained a blueprint of cinema iconography. Despite the new preference for quick cuts, kinetic editing and increasing reliance on computer graphics, the central trademarks of the blockbuster, ‘epic’ wide-screen, entertaining spectacle, scale, astounding stunts and action; exemplified by the wide-screen historical epics of the 50s, still prevails in Hollywood today.
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Wallis, R. (2016). (Re)Imagining the Promised Land. University of New South Wales, Sydney.
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