Thursday, December 9, 2010

BEN-HUR (1959): Romans, Jews and Christians

The character of Judah Ben-Hur, as played by Charleston Heston, had all of the attributes of greatness including courage, intelligence and great compassion.  Judah also had the one vice common to almost all great men, and that was pride.  Likewise, Messala, as played by Stephen Boyd, exhibited the characteristics of greatness that he shared with his boyhood (and Jewish) friend, Judah.  However, Messala’s one weakness was not so much great pride as it was loyalty to Rome.  Imperial Rome, once responsible for the death of more than 450,000 Carthaginians and for enslaving the remainder of Carthage’s inhabitants, that crucified 6,000 slaves and left them to rot on the roads leading into the city of Rome, and whose empire expanded into three continents, was during biblical times the total representation of tyranny.  In the movie, Ben-Hur, the conflict between the two characters is the center of one of the showiest (modern critics would say melodramatic and even homoerotic) spectacles ever filmed.
After years of being away from Jerusalem in the service of the Roman legions, Messala is appointed Roman Tribune of the Holy City.  An accident involving Judah’s sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donell) injures the provincial governor.  Messala, who investigates and who understands that this was only an accident, nevertheless sees this as an opportunity to make an example of prominent Jews who would rebel against Roman authority.  Messala has Judah, Tirzah and their mother, Mirium (Martha Scott), arrested for insurrection.  The logic is Machiavellian.  If Messala would not hesitate to punish an old friend and his family, this would send a message to all other Jews who dared to lift a hand against the Roman occupation.  Messala has Mirium and Tirzah imprisoned in a garrison, and Judah sentenced to hard labor as a rower on a slave ship.  Judah, having been deprived of all water, may not even have survived the forced march across the desert to the sea to arrive at the boat, if not for the compassion of a carpenter during a layover in Nazareth.  This carpenter defied Roman authority by providing water to Judah.  Even the most hardened of Roman soldiers did not stop this act, and it was an action that would leave Judah in wonder for the remainder of his days.
After three years of service on the galley, Judah has out survived all other slaves on the ship.  During an attack by Macedonian pirates (one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed), Judah even manages to rescue the Roman Admiral, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins).  In gratitude, Quintus Arrius grants freedom and even adopts Judah as his own, thus ironically making Judah a Roman citizen.  This makes possible Judah’s return to Jerusalem and his plan to take revenge upon Messala.
Now Judah is not the only one to miraculously survive.  Mirium and Tirzah also survived their imprisonment, though at a great cost.  The two of them contracted leprosy and were exiled to the leper colony outside of the city.  Instead of telling Judah of his family members’ fate, Messala leads Judah to believe that the two are dead.  In the meantime, Judah befriends a wealthy Arab by the name of Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith).  Sheik Ilderim owns four beautiful white stallions that have been trained for chariot racing.  But not until Sheik Ilderim has met Judah does he believe he has found a chariot driver capable of beating the great Roman champion (who coincidentally also happens to be Messala).  Being able to convince Judah to participate in the chariot race as a means of revenge, of course, was easy.  All Sheik had to do was mention Messala’s name.  Thus, we have the justifiably famous chariot race.  (The rumor that the stuntman who played Messala in the chariot race was actually killed is merely legend, though you can almost believe it when you see this character dragged and then run over by horses.)  Messala, to show just how ruthless he is, has his chariot spiked, and this results in the deaths of many other participants.  The new Roman governor, by the way, who presides over the chariot race, is none other than Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring).  Judah, who is great in all things manly, rides so expertly that he manages to avoid disaster and in fact inflicts mortal injury upon his great rival.  After Messala’s chariot gives way, the rider is taken away on a stretcher to a doctor who is to presumably amputate both of Messala’s legs.
Despite all appearances, it is important to understand that the chariot race is not quite the end of the story as far as Messala is concerned.  On his deathbed, refusing all of the doctor’s ministrations, he waits for Judah to visit, and Judah does not disappoint him by failing to show up.  When Judah arrives trying to look compassionate, Messala is extremely direct.  Messala says to Judah: “What do you think you see?  The smashed body of a wretched animal?  I’m still enough of a man left here for you to hate!”  Messala then informs Judah that his mother and sister are still alive.  “Look for them in the valley of the lepers – if you can recognize them.  It goes on.  It goes on, Judah.  The race, the race is not over.”  And the race is not over because Messala deprives Judah of any pleasure in revenge.
Now Judah through his love interest, Esther (Haya Harareet) and his saintly friend, Balthasar (Finlay Currie), hears of a great healer who has been wandering through the wilderness.  Judah, the most rational of men who would otherwise have dismissed such rumors as superstition, is now desperate enough to cling onto any hope to heal his family members.  He goes to the leper colony, finds Mirium and Tirzah, and brings them into Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, when he finds the great healer, Jesus of Nazareth (whose face we never see in the film), Jesus is carrying the cross towards Golgotha.  Judah realizes that this is the same man who years before had given him water and saved Judah’s life.  Judah tries to return the favor by providing water to Jesus, but the water is kicked away by a Roman Centurion.  Judah stays by Jesus as he is crucified while Mirium and Tirzah retreat to the shelter of a cave.  When Jesus dies, a great storm erupts and the rainfall cleanses Mirium and Tirzah of their disease.  And Judah, having heard the final words of Jesus on the Cross, for the first time understands that there is more to life than merely hatred of Rome.
Ben-Hur is too much of an “epic” movie in attempting to appeal to all audiences not to have some considerable flaws.  Frankly, the director, William Wyler, does not even attempt to leave anything out of this soap opera.  We have action, violence, adventure, love and platitudes all wrapped up in an inspiring message.  However, this is a different type of movie than The Sound of Music.  The battle scene at sea and the chariot race alone are enough to make this 212-minute film worth watching for most males.  And though there are some awkward moments when Judah is courting Esther, the animosity between the Romans and the rest of the world tone down much of the mawkishness.  Just by viewing the movie, one can see why the novel of the same name written by Lew Wallace (a former Civil War Union General) was and remains so popular.  It appeals to those who at least tell themselves that they want a movie that’s more than just an escape.  And so the remake of the movie, Ben-Hur (released in 1959), was a vastly beloved phenomenon when it first came out, but has been loved and hated by the more hardhearted of critics ever since that time.
In many ways, Ben-Hur is a typical Hollywood filming.  It is a movie that proclaims the glory of Christ’s message by presenting a hero who for the most part has nothing in common with Jesus.  Judah Ben-Hur survives because of some very unchristian like personality traits.  He could not have endured three years on a galley ship or been triumphant in the chariot race if he only allowed to come forth the more gentle side of his nature.  He won by becoming ruthless, just like the Romans.  Yet in being able to believe that Judah was capable of such ruthlessness while at the same time capable of great compassion gives the character much more depth than we get in your average movie.  If anything, we are shown in the film that all of us fall far short of the glory of Christ because he created an ideal for us that only the Son of God could ever meet.  Some would even say he delivered a message that was incompatible with our human nature.  If we can believe in the conversion of Judah Ben-Hur, it is likely we can accept the message of the Gospels.  If we cannot (and many people believe that the final minutes of the film are its weakest moments), we may ultimately believe that Messala was right and that Judah was a gigantic fool for at anytime thinking that he could defeat Rome.
And so Ben-Hur is not such a simple movie as it may first appear.  Its appeal to popular taste may just be something that a critic like me will have to live with.  Critics are often guilty of their own sin called snobbishness.  It’s impossible to try to say everything and yet at the same time hope to convey the message perfectly.   Charleston Heston as Judah Ben-Hur only slightly overacts, and Stephen Boyd is perfect for the part.  All of the other actors and actresses in the movies are props for the two leads to convey their roles.
September 18, 2007 
 © Robert S. Miller 2007 


  1. I want to to thank you for this very good read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it. I've got you bookmarked to look at new stuff you post…

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