Film #35 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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I remember Ben-Hur (1959) being a family favorite when I was growing up. Maybe it was because of the strong Jewish/Christian imprint in the movie, or maybe because of the epic size of the rivalry between Judah and Messala. In any case, I am not surprised that Ben-Hur (1959) made it and still is in the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list to this day. Other versions have been made, but only this one has endured.
Through the decades, much has been said and done when it comes to commenting on the movie. Not being a man of extensive cinematic knowledge, my interpretation is based on my own sensitivity.
It is the story of two men, raised together as brothers and turned enemies because one was a Hebrew and the other a Roman who cast his family into jail and left them to die. It is the story of the fate of Israel crushed under the Roman calliga. It is a story of a blind and total ambition. It is a story of vengeance and redemption. It is the story of the coming of Christianity. It is all this together and yet so much more.
Interestingly enough and despite its age, Ben-Hur can be considered as a modern epic: There is vast use of different sceneries, travel to faraway lands, and innumerable paths crossing and destinies entwined, all happening in a very dynamic way. Despite its duration (which is more than 3 hours), there are no downtimes and the viewer is kept on his/her toes the whole time.
The action is set under the reign of Tiberius (14 til 37 AD). The movie is an adaptation of a novel by Lewis Wallace Ben–Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880. And indeed, it is very much so.
For the literary enthusiasts amongst you, the name Ben-Hur (literally ‘son of Hur’ in Hebrew) appears on several occasions in the Bible. For instance in Kings 4:8, where Ben-Hur is mentioned among the twelve deputies of King Solomon of Israel. So it was an apt name to give a character, both strong and bold for a Hebrew prince. Charlton Heston returns after the Ten Commandments and gives a wonderful performance as the fallen prince. He gives flesh to the character, literally embodying him in all aspects.
There is tragic greatness in the character of Ben-Hur, especially since we know that ultimately Israel was not able to rid itself of the Romans dominion and that its most sacred place, the temple of Jerusalem, was destroyed in 70. In spite of this, Judah persists with his personal fight throughout the movie with incredible courage and resilience. His fidelity to his faith, family and own people is admirable; it never waivers or sways, despite his endeavors.
It takes a lot to forgive those who do us harm, but eventually, Judah will learn to let go of his anger and vengeance to choose courage and love.
Judah to Messala: “I would do anything for you, except betray my own people!”
And: “Rome is an affront to God!”
Or: “May God grant me vengeance… I will pray that you live until then Messala.”
“God, forgive me for seeking vengeance. But my path is set.”
Judah: “Rome destroyed Messala, as sure as Messala destroyed my family.”
The romance between Judah and Esther is as strong as it is subtle. Their love is true, enduring through hardships and yet so touching with its simplicity.
Judah to Esther, before she has to leave to Antioch to be wed to a man she’s never met: “If you were not a bride, I would kiss you good bye.” Esther: “If I were not a bride there would no goodbyes to be said.”
Esther to Judah: “Hatred is turning you into stone. It’s as though you had become Messala. I’ve lost you Judah.”
Judah to Esther, about Jesus crucifixion: “He gave me water and a heart to live. What has He done to merit this?”
Judah to Esther at the end: “I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”
William Wyler, the director, chose to film the character of Jesus in a unique fashion: not once can you see his face, only the ones of the many who see him in wonder, Judah being one of them. This gives a unique, almost peering effect to some of the scenes, when the viewer gets the impression he/she is looking at the protagonists through Jesus’ own eyes. Ultimately, the technique used emphasizes the godly presence of Jesus while toning it down ever so slightly to show his kind humanity.
The might of Rome
Having taken Latin classes as a boy and teenager, I am pretty familiar with the history of the Roman Empire and the way of life of its inhabitants. At the height of its power Rome extended through most of Western and Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The city of Rome itself was a testimony of the enduring success of Roman conquests. There was no equivalent to Rome in terms of power and aura in that part of the world at the time.
Rome was the Light, other nations were Darkness. Money and goods flowed from all over the empire, while the slave trade was flourishing. The common Roman man was raised to value austerity, modesty, and respect to his ancestors; and above all to practice virtue.
While Rome’s heritage is still very present in today’s world, one must understand that the Roman way of life was very different from ours: the idea of a single god was foreign; the notion of self-freedom was hardly conceivable; equality between men was unknown. There was no hope of salvation, only a binding fate for all.
That is why it is not surprising to hear quotes in the movie such as:
Messala, about his dwelling : “Austere. Virtuous. Roman.”
Messala, to Judah: “Fate chose us to lead the world.”
Messala to a centurion about Ben-Hur: “This used to be his country before it became ours”
Quintus Arrius to the oar bearers: “We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live.”
Quintus to Judah: “It is a strange and stubborn faith you keep, to believe that existence has a purpose.”
Pilates to Judah: “We progress by fault.”
Other interesting quotes and facts
“Balthasar is a good man, but until all are like him, we must keep our swords bright.” Judah : “And our intents true. So I must leave.”
Messala to Judah, after the horse race: “It isn’t over Judah. They’re not dead… It goes on Judah, it goes on… The race is not over.”
Esther about the teaching of Christ: “Love your enemy. Do good to those who despitefully use you.”
“Death is nothing to fear if you have faith.”
Tirzah: “I’m afraid.” Esther: “No cause. The world is more than we know.”