At a loss for titles to add to my Netflix queue recently, I decided to catch some classics that I've always been meaning to watch. I don't know why, but suddenly I was in the mood for sword-and-sandal epics, so I rented Ben-Hur and Spartacus. I've heard these two films mentioned a lot by film historians, so thought I'd finally check 'em out.
Ugh, why did I bother?
I know I'm going to be criticized for judging these works with a contemporary eye, but trust me, I tried really hard to watch both films in the spirit of the times in which they were made. And I'm sorry, but I guess I just prefer plots with a little more sophistication. Stuffy, old film critics would call it blasphemy to place a movie like, say, Gladiator, in the same consideration as Ben-Hur and Spartacus, but despite its popular appeal with the action crowd, Gladiator has a far more mature and complicated script than this pair of nearly 50-year old films.
I guess movie-goers were not as jaded back then as they are now. I realize that it is precisely because of films like Spartacus that Gladiator even exists, but its an interesting study in filmic evolution to watch both works side by side.
My critique notwithstanding, however, I will say that Kirk Douglas did an amazing job as the Thracian slave turned gladiator turned rebel leader. It's also eerie how much Michael Douglas takes after his father. Although, whereas the son always strikes me as sleezy and smarmy in the roles he portrays, the elder Douglas comes across as humble yet stately at the same time. I might have to check out his other films.
Growing up in my household, The Ten Commandments was an annual rite of passage. We would watch that long ass movie without fail every year on Easter Sunday. But, honestly, I can never get enough of it! Don't know why, but TTC never ceases to fascinate me with its epic, decades-spanning plot and insightful examination of the human condition. Which is why I thought I was primed to receive Ben-Hur in a positive light. After all, it hails from the same time period of Hollywood extravagance and Golden Age filmmaking. And it, too, stars Charlton Heston, who I actually like as an actor.
So where did it go wrong for me? Well, it's not to say the movie is bad, actually. It's very well-made and acted. But, like with Spartacus, the story is not very creative. At times it tries a little too hard to leech off on the Jesus mythos, with Judah Ben-Hur poised to be the second-coming of the messiah himself. Luckily, things scale back by the third act and, by the end of the movie, Ben-Hur is just a modest man content to live out his days in privacy with his family. Unfortunately, this gives the film a sense of going nowhere, and which is why I found it ultimately BORING!!!
Hmm, guess I struck out 0 for 2 with my picks.
But fear not! While not in the same genre or category as the former two, the third title from my Netflix queue was much better received. I'm talking about the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli classic, Romeo and Juliet.
I confess to having watched this one already back when I was just a freshman in high school--which, I didn't realize until tonight, placed me at exactly the same age range as the titular star-crossed lovers. How surreal! At the time, I could barely follow the film as Shakespeare was quite a difficult read for a kid from the South Bronx to wrap his head around. But even back then I recognized the film as something quite special. Or perhaps it was the mad crush I had on Olivia Hussey! :)
Suffice to say, rewatching it again now was quite a different experience. Having read virtually all of good Mr. Shakespeare's works in college, following the lines in the film was a much easier affair this time around. It's amazing what a little book learning and maturity can do for one's viewpoint, eh? :)
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. What a true masterpiece, and well-deserved of all the praise it received at the time of its release. And, even though I feel like a lecherous old perv now in saying this . . . but, damn, that Olivia Hussey is quite the beauty! Of course, she's pushing 60 these days, but like another big-time crush of mine, Madeline Stowe, she makes great use of her mixed Latin American and Anglo heritage. Whoo boy!
So, what's next up on my list of old classics to purview? I don't know, but I was thinking of popping in Lawrence of Arabia at some point. I own the re-mastered DVD version released a few years back, but for one reason or another never did get around to watching the film. So maybe that.
Unless someone out there can recommend me another? I don't really have a preference. Just that it be somewhere around 30 to 50 years old and can be considered by most movie buffs to be a genuine classic, if not a masterpiece.