Ben-Hur: An Epic Movie Worth Its Epic Reputation
Special Guest Blog By Caroline Lappetito, Raleigh/Cary TCM Backlot Chapter Member
Ben-Hur! From the opening credits you are smacked right between the eyes and you know you are going to see something very, very special. The booming, soaring musical score, the iconic Sistine Chapel painting of Michelangelo’s God creating Man upon which the credits roll, the glowing, color-saturated scenery and ancient architecture, all come at you in one big rush—this is Ben-Hur and this is an epic movie, anyone can watch on their TV, even better with a tv wall mounting to enjoy the movie even more.
This is an MGM movie that truly grabs you, envelops you and keeps your attention throughout its nearly four-hour run time. Ben-Hur is a dramatic, biblical epic and a complex movie with many themes, sub- plots and symbols. It is a story of love overcoming hate, of good triumphing over evil, of peoples and cultures in crisis. It is a story of loyalty, romance, betrayal, religious upheaval and conversion. It takes place at a critical pivot point in history when unspeakable events are unfolding and nothing will ever be the same again.
The story of Ben-Hur overlays the story of Jesus Christ, his birth, ministry, passion, crucifixion and resurrection. Christ and the beginning of his “Kingdom that is not of this world” is the revolutionary idea that drives the religious and political unrest at this time and is always the driving theme in the background, underpinning the entire movie.
The movie depicts the trials and tribulations of Judah Ben-Hur, a young, Jewish prince of the people of Judea, played by the incomparable dramatic actor, Charlton Heston. Heston delivers a serious, award-winning performance, displaying anger, love, compassion and devotion in gripping scenes throughout the movie.
Ben-Hur’s people, the Jews of Judea, suffered many hardships under repressive Roman rule during the turbulent time of Christ’s ministry. Perceptions of shifting political power gives rationale to the heavy-handed control of the Roman rulers and illuminates the jealousy of certain corrupt Jewish leaders who want Christ eliminated.
These historical events give context and substance to the decisions Judah Ben-Hur makes on behalf of his people to defend them against the suffocating taxation, military injustice and the infuriating over-reach of their Roman conquerors, and ultimately drives the horrific consequences suffered by him and his family. He loses his mother, sister and his fortune to the evil machinations of his former childhood best friend, Messala (intensely played by the handsome Stephen Boyd), who is now the new Roman leader assigned to bring Judea “under control.” Messala and Ben-Hur become dire enemies.
Eventually Ben-Hur triumphs over all obstacles, with the partial intervention of Jesus Christ, whose presence is understated, but critically important. Christ, whose holy face is, in fact, never shown in the movie, first encounters Ben-Hur on his tortured march to the sea with other convicts condemned to be galley slaves in the Roman navy, courtesy of his new enemy, Messala. Christ leans over to give a drink of water to an exhausted, prostrate Judah Ben-Hur, thus enabling him to continue on his journey. Water is used as a symbol for life and no words are spoken. Even so, you know something incredible is being set up with this scene.
Visually, the film Ben-Hur is a masterpiece. You get swept up in the realistic costumes that feature flowing robes, sinuous veils, hard leather Roman breastplates with gold filigree and helmets with bright red feathers. You get lost in the ancient architecture depicting Roman gods and majestic statuary and appreciate the massive sets—including a fully laid out Roman circus where the famous chariot scene takes place.
Suffice it to say that the action sequences are best-in-class. The scene of the Roman battle at sea is riveting. Filmed with miniature ships at an MGM backlot in Culver City, CA, it realistically depicts the awesome battle that resulted in a Roman victory, albeit with massive loss of life. Judah Ben-Hur, then a bearded, heavily muscled galley slave chained to the oars, frantically frees the other shackled galley slaves before their wounded ship sinks, and dramatically saves the life of his Roman ship captain and oppressor, Quintus Arrius, proving his innate goodness. Arrius, grateful to Ben-Hur, eventually becomes his adoptive father, providing the sub plot that gives him new wealth and the status of Roman citizenship, and allows him to go back to Judea to fulfill his destiny as a Jewish prince and seek his revenge on Messala.
But, it is the incomparable chariot race that really steals the show. Much has been written about this nine-minute scene that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It does not disappoint! It is a magnificent piece of film and how no one got killed during the making of it still amazes me. Thundering horses, pageantry, speed, crowds, excitement, cruelty, pathos—this scene has it all! Especially upsetting is when Messala, trying desperately to win the race by any nasty trick, goes from whipping his team of black horses to whipping Judah Ben-Hur, whose chariot and team of white horses is racing side-by-side around the track in the ancient Roman stadium before screaming crowds. The death of Messala from injuries sustained in the chariot race usher in the theme of the passing of the old order and the coming of the new order, signified by the birth of Christianity.
Judah Ben-Hur encounters Jesus carrying his cross on his way to the crucifixion and moved to pity, repeating the earlier scene, endeavors to give the exhausted Christ some water to drink. However, it is the miracle experienced by Judah Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, sensitively played by Martha Scott and Cathy O’Donnell, who are healed of leprosy as the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ play out that causes Judah Ben-Hur’s ultimate religious conversion. With the encouragement of Ben-Hur’s love interest Esther, beautifully played by Haya Harareet, whose own growing faith in Jesus helped to initiate Ben-Hur’s religious conversion, this miraculous healing provides an emotional and hopeful ending to this moving tale. One cannot help but shed a tear at the restoration of Judah Ben Hur’s family, at the validation of his love for Esther, and at the hope for a better future with the rise of Christianity that is visually intimated by the rushing flow of cleansing water in the last scenes.
Ben-Hur’s big-screen showing was perfectly timed with the Passover and Easter season. It is, in my opinion, a must-see for anyone who loves great stories told on an epic scale. No wonder it won eleven Academy Awards, three Golden Globes and is considered noted director Billy Wyler’s masterpiece and one of the best movies ever made!
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