by Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared on Out.com 18 August, 2016)

We don’t really do subtexts in the see-through, digital 21st Century. Sextexts, definitely. Subtweets, possibly. Subtexts, not so much. Who has the time? Who can even be bothered with having a subconscious? Subtexts are so analogue.

Perhaps this is why Toby Kebbell who plays Messala in the 2016 remake of Ben Hur with Jack Heston as Hur, announced recently that there is ‘no gay sub plot’ in the new version. Explaining that it’s ‘not necessary today’.

But back in 1959 when William Wyler’s Technicolor version of the chariot-racing, Jesus-praising epic was unleashed – scooping up a record 11 Oscars – repression and subtexts were all the rage. They made High Hollywood what it was. And Ben Hur, a story about two boyhood buddies who dramatically fall out as adults, has one of the most famous – and bitterly contested – subtexts in Hollywood history.

As Gore Vidal, an MGM screenwriter in the 1950s, put it in the 1991 documentary The Celluloid Closet getting around the mores of the time and the medium meant ‘you got very good at projecting subtexts without saying a word about what you were doing. The best example I lived through was writing Ben Hur.’

Vidal claimed that he had convinced an initially reluctant Wyler that the only way to justify several hours of widescreen, in living Technicolor hatred between Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and the Roman Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, was to have an unspoken homoerotic backstory. That this was, in effect, an epic lover’s tiff.

Vidal’s plan was to suggest in the scene at the beginning of the movie where these boyhood best buddies are reunited – without saying so in words – that they were once lovers, and that Messala very much wants to pick up where they had left off, but is jilted by Hur.

According to Vidal, Boyd was told of the subplot idea, and loved it, but Heston was spared the knowledge. Wyler advised: ‘Don’t say anything to Chuck because he will fall apart.’

A prescient warning. Heston, close friend of Ronald Reagan and now President of the National Rifle Association, reacted furiously to Vidal’s interview and denied everything, essentially calling him a liar and a braggart in a letter to the papers: ‘Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me.’

Naughty Gore! ‘Slipping’ homosexuality into Heston’s biggest, butchest picture!

Vidal of course responded. This time, no Vaseline. Even more ‘irritatingly’, he quoted from a letter the publicity director for the film had sent him, ‘…the big cornpone [the crew’s nickname for Heston] really threw himself into your “first meeting” scene yesterday. You should have seen these boys embrace!’

Certainly, when you watch that scene now, Vidal’s account makes perfect sense. Boyd has a look of total love on greeting Heston – his eyes roving hungrily all over his beloved’s face and, almost imperceptibly, his body. While Heston looks slightly nonplussed.

Quipping in reply to Hur’s suggestion that the Emperor’s interest in Judea is not appreciated by Judea, Messala even speaks the line: ‘Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?’

Wyler however claimed not to remember the conversation Vidal reported, and that the scene he wrote was anyway rewritten by another screenwriter (though there is evidence that a significant amount of Vidal’s input survived into the final version of the movie script).

But whether or not Vidal was having some mischievous fun slipping in a homoerotic subtext at the time, or decades later, trying to detect it is now easily the most interesting part of an often rather tedious, pompous movie.

Which does make me worry about the subtext free remake.

It should be mentioned though that nowadays 1959’s highly homosocial Ben Hur looks like the story of Hur’s love affair with not one, but four men. Messala, the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) whose slave and then adopted son he becomes, the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffiths) who befriends him in his tent and lets him ride his best stallions, and also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, Heston/Hur gives the young carpenter and fisher of men – whose face we never see – the kind of gooey looks that Messala/Boyd once gave him.

Subtexts were tricky. They had to be sub, not texts. A year after Ben Hur Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandal epic Spartacus was released minus a bath scene in which the Roman general Crassus, played by a middle-aged Lawrence Olivier, attempts to seduce his ‘bodyservant’ slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis in his doe-eyed prime, through a heavily suggestive dialogue about ‘eating snails’ and ‘eating oysters’ – arguing that taste is not a matter of morality.

Preview audiences nevertheless expressed their moral distaste and the scene was cut (but was restored in the 1991 re-release). Lord knows what they would have made of the recent TV series of the same name that featured some very explicit snail eating.

Sword and sandal movies had a snail-eating reputation anyway: all that muscle, leather, slavery and pagan license. The 1950s underground gay mag Physique Pictorial often used Greco-Roman imagery.

Although male homoerotic subtext had served Hollywood well from the 50s to the 70s in classic movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969), and Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) – giving them both universal appeal and psychological depth – by the 1980s the increasing visibility of gay people and the growing influence of gay culture on the mainstream meant that homoerotic subtext was having more and more difficulty staying sub.

Tony Scott’s flyboy blockbuster Top Gun, released in 1986 – about halfway between us and 1959’s Ben Hur – starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer at their prettiest as rival Navy pilots slathered in hair gel and smugness, saw the gay subtext – intended or not – swallow the script.

The official, patriotic, heterosexual storyline is completely eclipsed by the steamy sexual tension between rivals Kilmer and Cruise, frequently acted out in changing room scenes that look like a Roman bath-house. Or maybe a Matt Sterling one.

Top Gun is an airborne, way gayer Ben Hur – but with a happier ending.

Although most of the people who went to see Top Gun in 1986 probably weren’t conscious of the gayness, by the beginning of the 21st Century we had all become far too knowing for gay subtexts to stay sub. In its place Hollywood was offering us out gay storylines, and self-conscious, chaste ‘bromance’ – where almost by definition anything physical would be a kind of incest.

Perhaps to ward off any attempt to read a gay subtext, the remake of Ben Hur has made Hur and Messala ‘adoptive brothers’, instead of boyhood pals. A literal, legal, ‘bromance’ – albeit one that goes very wrong indeed.