Tag Archives: Charlton Heston

Soundtrack Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

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Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of composer Miklos Rozsa’s film scores. Rozsa (1907-1995) was a titan of film music and his epic score for Ben-Hur (1959) remains a benchmark that few have ever equalled (let alone surpassed).

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I am pleased to announce that Tadlow Music is releasing a completely new recording of this 157 minute score on October 3rd, one that will feature previously unrecorded music. The music has been recorded by the City of Prague Philarmonic and is conducted by Nic Raine.

If you haven’t seen the 1959 epic, it is NOTHING like the travesty that came out in 2016 (in fact, forget that movie even exists). The 1959 version of Ben-Hur is still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, winning a record 11 Academy Awards (a feat that has only been equaled twice and NEVER surpassed) as it tells the story of a Judean prince (played brilliantly by Charlton Heston) whose life is thrown into turmoil at the same time that a strange carpenter begins preaching a new message to the people.

When you listen to this soundtrack, I highly recommend starting with the Overture. While it may seem strange now for a film to have an “overture” like an opera, back in the day it was fairly common for an epic film to start with a musical overture of some kind (there was also intermission music and exit music) that would play as the audience took their seats.

Another track that I absolutely recommend is the “Parade of the Charioteers” (this is usually preceded by a series of fanfares). This is the music that precedes the climactic chariot race (where Ben-Hur and Messala settle their differences once and for all) and is rightly considered one of the greatest sequences ever put on film. Curiously, the race itself has no music, something I’ve talked at length about.

Another track that I must recommend is the music that accompanies the “Lepers!” scene. As I’ve said previously, this scene features some amazing musical work, as Rozsa must convey with music alone that something terrible has happened to Ben-Hur’s mother and sister without the audience actually seeing what it is.

Truthfully, I could recommend this entire soundtrack, as it is a beautiful masterpiece, whose importance to film music cannot be overstated. In fact, parts of the score were used as temporary music for Star Wars (1977) (and it is said you can still hear its influence in certain places). If you want to hear some fantastic music, please pick up this new recording when it comes out in October. My thanks to The Krakower Group for making this information available.

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TCM Summer Under the Stars 2016: Anne Baxter as Nefretiri in The Ten Commandments (1956)

This post is part of the 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film

ANNE BAXTER

Nefretiri when we first meet her

Anne Baxter starred in many films, but the role I will always know her for is her portrayal of Nefretiri in The Ten Commandments (1956). She actually auditioned for the role of Sephora, Moses’ wife, but it was felt she was more suited to the role of the Egyptian throne princess.

Nefretiri is already head over heels in love with Prince Moses when we first meet her. As Moses is returning in triumph from yet another military victory (this time over the Ethiopians), Nefretiri feels that nothing will stop Seti, the Pharoah, from naming Moses his heir (and thus allowing the two to marry, because Nefretiri can only marry a future Pharaoh). She believes this in spite of the fact that Seti HAS a son, Rameses, and he would definitely prefer to be Pharaoh over Moses. But Nefretiri makes it clear from the start that she loves Moses, and could never love Rameses.

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Nefretiri is so beautiful and so determined to have what she wants, that she doesn’t really know when to let go. In fact, a large part of her role (especially in part 2 of the film) centers around the fact that she cannot let go of her love for Moses, not when he was outed as being a Hebrew and condemned to exile, not even after he returns to Egypt as a prophet for the Hebrew God of Israel. Even the revelation that Moses is married and a father himself doesn’t stop her. Either Moses comes to her whenever she wants, or she will make sure the Hebrews never leave Egypt.

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All those years later, though Moses has changed, Nefretiri has not

Nefretiri’s selfish desires prove to be her undoing, as it is her final plot to harden Rameses’s heart against letting the Hebrews go that leads to the final plague on Egypt: the death of every firstborn. Despite her pleas to Moses to stop it from happening, her son dies in her arms.

 

I loved watching Nefretiri growing up because of the beautiful gowns she wore. As I got older, and learned how to appreciate performances in film, I grew to love Baxter’s portrayal of Nefretiri even more, because she is something of a tragic figure, in a way. All those years living in the palace, Nefretiri is used to getting whatever she wants, whenever she wants. And if someone says no, all she has to do is smile and use her beauty, and all opposition melts away.

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She can never get over the fact that she had to marry Rameses instead of Moses. She wasn’t content to be Queen of Egypt either. When the opportunity presented itself, she HAD to be Moses’ again, one way or the other, even though this had now become impossible. And because of her narrow minded desire, she lost her son (who she clearly loved), her husband really hates her (he nearly killed her except he had to admit he was unable to kill Moses) and all she has left are bitter memories.

Anne Baxter used all of her skills to bring Nefretiri to life on the silver screen and it is a performance I continue to enjoy to this day. I hope you enjoyed reading about her role in The Ten Commandments. Have a good day!

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*all images are the property of Paramount Pictures

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Hercules “Gospel Truth” (1997)

*the links in this post contain affiliate links and I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my link.

Hercules was Disney’s take on the legendary demi-god of Greek myth. Originally the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Hercules is now presented as a full god, the son of Zeus and Hera. Unfortunately, his godhood is short-lived, as the jealous Hades (who secretly wants to overthrow Zeus, go figure), having been informed that a grown Hercules would ruin his plans, decides to have the baby god turned mortal and then killed. Thankfully, his (un)reliable henchmen Pain and Panic botch the job and thus Hercules grows up as an awkward mortal with incredible strength.

But before we get to all of that, there’s a short prologue that begins in what appears to be an old museum filled with the relics of Ancient Greece. The narrator should sound familiar: that’s the legendary Charlton Heston in one of his final roles before he retired from acting in 2003.

There are actually nine Muses in Greek mythology, but I’m guessing that the animators wanted to simplify things and cut the number down to five.

With Heston’s voice, the first section of the prologue has a very serious tone until…the Muses (on the Greek vase) interrupt him and inform him that “we’ll take it from here darling.” After that, the entire feel of the prologue changes from serious to…well, a “Disney” feel.

Back when the world was new
The planet Earth was down on its luck
And everywhere gigantic brutes called Titans ran amok

It was a nasty place
There was a mess wherever you stepped
Where chaos reigned and earthquakes and volcanoes never slept

And then along came Zeus
He hurled his thunderbolt
(He zapped)
Locked those suckers in a vault
(They’re trapped)
And on his own stopped chaos in its tracks
And that’s the gospel truth
The guy was too type “A” to just relax

And that’s the world’s first dish
Zeus tamed the globe while still in his youth
Though, honey, it may seem impossible
That’s the gospel truth
On Mt. Olympus life was neat and smooth as sweet vermouth
Though, honey, it may seem impossible
That’s the gospel truth

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“Gospel Truth” serves multiple purposes: It introduces the Muses (who narrate various portions of the film), it summarizes how Zeus came into power (by defeating the Titans and imprisoning them) and finally it describes how all the gods live on Mount Olympus. The picture then shifts from a painted image of Mount Olympus to a “live” image that quickly zooms the audience up to the fantastic dwelling of the Greek gods.

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I love this song a lot. Given that this is a film about Ancient Greece, you would not expect to hear songs performed in the “Gospel” style, but it works! It gets a lot of story exposition across without boring the audience. I also love how the song is narrated through art “come to life” that’s done in the style of actual Greek pottery.

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Art like this inspired the animators

Trivia Time!

After the dark tone presented in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), the studio practically demanded that the next film be lighter and happier, and so that’s why Hercules is filled with so many comedic moments.

James Woods (the voice of Hades) allegedly enjoyed playing the character so much that he and Disney put a standing arrangement in place where anytime they needed him to voice the character, he would come do it.

Rip Torn (the voice of Zeus) was married to Geraldine Page, who voiced Madame Medusa in The Rescuers (1977).

And that’s my look at the beginning of Disney’s Hercules! Let me know your thoughts about this awesome song in the comments below!

*all images are the property of Walt Disney Studios

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See also:

Hercules “Gospel Truth II & III” (1997)

Hercules “Go the Distance” (1997)

Hercules “One Last Hope” (1997)

Hercules “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” (1997)

When the music says everything: The “Lepers!” scene from Ben-Hur (1959)

*the links in this post contain affiliate links and I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my link.

(yes I do indeed have Ben-Hur on the brain still)

Film music serves many purposes: it can set the scene, influence the audience, dictate the flow of an action sequence and so on. Occasionally, composers will even use no music at all simply to make a point. On the flip side, however, composers will also use film music when a visual is simply not possible.

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A good case in point is the “Lepers!” scene in Ben-Hur. For those not familiar, I’ll explain. In the 1959 version of the film, after Ben-Hur’s mother and sister were unjustly arrested and imprisoned for over three years, the titular character makes his miraculous return to Jerusalem and demands their release (or he’ll have his former best friend’s head on a platter). The order is given to retrieve them, but once the cell is opened, a horrifying discovery is made…

Ben-Hur “Lepers!” (1959)

Even before the dreaded word is uttered, you KNOW something terrible has happened, the music and the jailkeeper’s expression say everything. This was a moment that HAD to rely on a combination of music and expression to carry the severity of what was going on, because leprosy was (and still is) a very awful disease.

While leprosy is treatable today, back in the ancient world, contracting leprosy was a slow death sentence, and those who suffered from the disease were condemned to live out their lives in isolation, shunned by the world. We could not see Ben-Hur’s mother and sister because the images would have been too graphic for late 1950s cinema (Google pictures of leprosy and you’ll see what I’m talking about).

I love Rozsa’s music for this scene. The shock chord that coincides with the jailer’s face being illuminated gets me every time. The underlying tone set by the music is “they have leprosy, this changes EVERYTHING.”

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See also:

Soundtrack Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

When silence speaks volumes: The chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959)

A Random Thought on The Ten Commandments (1956)

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Yesterday I got the chance to do something I thought I would never get to do: I got to see the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments on the big screen at my local theater (it’s a program that Turner Classic Movies runs every year where each month select classic films are run in theaters for a very limited time). While this movie was made long before my time, I grew up watching classic cinema, and watching The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur (1959) was an annual tradition at our house.

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How was it? In a word, INCREDIBLE! I’m not sure what excited me more: seeing the film in a theater or hearing Elmer Bernstein’s standout score in surround sound (probably both). This is the film that made Elmer Bernstein (no relation to Leonard by the way) famous, as it was his first major film score.

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My favorite moment (and I knew it would be going in) was the incredible “parting of the Red Sea.” They could completely recreate this scene in CGI and the original would STILL look better, simply because it feels REAL, there’s a reality to the special effects in this film that CGI could never touch. When the moment began and the music swelled, I tell you, I was covered in goosebumps from head to toe.

Watching this classic film in the theater brought it home to me that Hollywood does NOT make movies like this anymore. Think about it, of all the movies coming out since the year 2000, how many can you honestly say you would watch 60 years from now?

This was an amazing experience, and I can’t wait for the chance to see another classic film in the theater!

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When silence speaks volumes: The chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959)

*the links in this post contain affiliate links and I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my link.

Film composers have the difficult task of choosing music that correctly fits the intended mood of a particular scene or action sequence. But on a rare occasion, the composer will make the decision to give a scene no music at all, because doing so would actually detract from the moment.

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Credit to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

A good case in point comes in William Wyler’s 1959 epic Ben-Hur. Scored by film composing legend Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995), the film broke a record for winning 11 Oscars at the Academy Awards, a feat that has never been surpassed (though Titanic and Return of the King have since matched it).

Rozsa’s score contains a number of musical moments: the “Overture” (covered in Soundtracks); the “Rowing of the Galley Slaves”; “Parade of the Charioteers”; and the ever beautiful “Nativity.” However, what many consider the action climax of the film, the chariot race in Part II, has no music at all after the initial “Parade of the Charioteers.”

Rozsa considered for a long time whether or not he should give the actual race any music, but he quickly determined that the action itself would be “music” enough.

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The chariot race of Ben-Hur was an event over two years in the making. Not only did the race track have to be built from the ground up, but also the horses had to be trained to run in groups of three and four, the various stunts had to be planned out, and the chariots had to be built and tested to make sure they would hold up under stress. Once everything was ready and the cameras were rolling, the entire race was filmed in one take. The production had become so expensive that it was only possible to do the entire race once.

The entire clip runs for about ten minutes, but it is well worth it to watch all the way through. One moment in particular that always stands out to me comes at 5:35 when Ben-Hur’s (Charlton Heston) horses (in white) and Messala’s (Stephen Boyd) horses (the blacks) are running stride for stride down the track. And on a quick side note, the moment when Ben-Hur nearly falls out of his chariot was NOT scripted. The jump over the fallen chariot was planned, but Heston’s stunt double refused to wear a harness, insisting that he could ride the jump without it (oh was he ever wrong).

Please watch the race here: Ben-Hur Chariot Race and note the complete lack of music, diegetic or otherwise until the race is over. In my opinion, the true test of a film composer’s talent comes when they have to decide when NOT to use the music. Enjoy!

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See also:

When the music says everything: The “Lepers!” scene from Ben-Hur (1959)

“Overture” from Ben-Hur by Miklos Rozsa

Miklos Rozsa conducts Ben-Hur suite (1979)

*Everything is copyright to MGM Studio