All of the three films recommended below stand on their own merits regardless of one’s religious beliefs. They can all be enjoyed at any time you happen to want to see a really good movie. Two points of warning: Good prints of The Red Balloon are hard to find; Ben-Hur may get just a tad “heavy” for some viewers at the end. Whistle Down the Wind is truly special.
1. Ben-Hur (1959) with Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Sam Jaffe, Haya Harareet, Martha Scott, and Cathy O’Donnell: Eleven Academy Awards went to this mega-epic directed by the great William Wyler.
Rock Hudson was supposed to play Ben-Hur, but Universal would only allow him to do it if he extended his contract with the studio. In one of the worst career moves in Hollywood history, Rock decided against it. Heston, having recently given a fine supporting performance in William Wyler and Gregory Peck’s The Big Country, had been slated to play Messala, the friend who turned enemy of Ben-Hur. He moved up to the title role. Stephen Boyd, who had recently given a menacing supporting performance in Gregory Peck’s The Bravados, came aboard as Messala.
Boyd and Wyler discussed how to play the friendship between Messala and Ben-Hur and decided it should be played as a homosexual relationship. They both agreed that it was important not to let Chuck (Heston) know!
This is a complex film of love, betrayal, survival, revenge, and redemption during the early Roman Empire. Messala returns to Palestine as a Roman tribune and hopes to reunite with his friend since childhood, Judah Ben-Hur. When Judah refuses to work against his fellow Jews to help the new tribune, Messala allows Judah to be falsely convicted of a crime and sentenced to be a slave in the Roman galleys (naval vessels). On the prisoners’ march to the sea, they stop in Nazareth where a carpenter disobeys a guard’s command and gives Ben-Hur a drink of water. In a battle at sea, the slave Ben-Hur saves the life of the Roman consul (Jack Hawkins) who commands the fleet. Consequently, Judah becomes a charioteer for the consul, wins many races, and is eventually adopted as the consul’s son and heir. Ben-Hur is then able to return to Palestine to even the score with Messala. One day, Judah is in the countryside when one of the local messiahs is giving a sermon on a mount, but he is too preoccupied to pay attention to what is being said.
Not wanting to give away any more of the story, let me stop with Messala contesting Ben-Hur in the chariot race where there “are no laws in the circus” if one of them is killed. William Wyler’s re-creation of the chariot race is meticulously captured and is one of the silver screen’s most memorable achievements. Contrary to publicity hype at the time of release, no one was actually killed during the filming of the race. In the conclusion, the passion of the Christ is beautifully filmed. However, this time it is Judah Ben-Hur, realizing “I know this man,” who provides the drink of water.
2. The Red Balloon (1956) with Pascal Lamorisse: This 34-minute live action short subject is a French masterpiece directed by Albert Lamorisse. Pascal is a lonely boy who unexpectedly finds a friend – a red balloon. The balloon follows him wherever he goes in the Montmartre district of Paris. The sights and sounds of the narrow streets replace words in this wondrous story of love and friendship. Eventually, other children, who know not what they do, have fun by throwing rocks at the boy’s balloon. As the boy watches his punctured comrade flatten into lifelessness, all the other balloons of Paris escape from the hands that hold their strings and fly to befriend young Pascal. He takes hold of all their strings. And he rises.
3. Whistle Down the Wind (1962) with Hayley Mills, Alan Bates, and Bernard Lee: This little movie is one of my all-time favorites: Directed by Bryan Forbes, who later wrote and directed King Rat, and produced by Richard Attenborough, who later directed and produced Gandhi. Its primary star is Miss Hayley Mills, who had just completed two big Disney films – Pollyanna and The Parent Trap.
The setting is the English countryside where Hayley and her younger brother and sister live on a farm with their father (Bernard Lee) and their aunt. One night, Hayley discovers a stranger (Alan Bates) asleep in the manger, actually the barn. When the man opens his eyes, he is surprised by the girl, who asks him, “Who is it?” Before passing back into sleep, the man murmurs, “Jesus Christ.” She and her church-going siblings have always been taught that Jesus will come back, and now they have to decide what they were going to do about it. Basically, the expression “to whistle down the wind” means to talk about something that really doesn’t matter. But these children really believe the man is who he says he is. Hayley’s brother eventually concludes, “He’s not Jesus; he’s just a fella.” How he realizes the truth is quite interesting, but I won’t divulge it.
Only other children can be trusted with the knowledge that Jesus has returned, so nine neighboring kids are accepted and become willing disciples. A local bully hears that the other kids have seen Jesus, and he tortures one of the disciples and forces him three times to deny that the man is Jesus. A cock doesn’t crow, but the bully and the disciples hear the whistle of a passing train.
Alan Bates is perfect as the perplexed man-on-the-run who cannot imagine why the children care so much for him . When the police finally apprehend the man, who is wanted for murder, the children from all over the countryside look up the hill as the man is being frisked. It is not Calvary. It just looks like it.
Malcolm Arnold’s unforgettable music score adds to the movie’s enchantment. Listen for his variation of We Three Kings.
by David Offutt, March 2006