When Ben-Hur was released in 1959, it was receieved with almost universal critical acclaim, won a record-setting 11 Academy Awards, and was a box-office smash, grossing more than any other film that year. Film historians and critics frequently regard Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) as the original "blockbuster," so imagine my surprise to read New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther refer to this film as a "blockbuster spectacle" sixteen years earlier, and on top of that, a "remarkably intelligent and engrossing human drama."
(NOTE: I have more thoughts and insights that I've written here, but in an effort to give these things some structure, I have limited the content. If I could write a full essay or research paper on each film I see, I would, but it would be exhausting, and these are meant to be recreational. Perhaps I'll get better as we go along, but for now if you'd like to hear more about the movie, quotes I thought were interesting, more ideas about the representations of Jesus or other characters, or anything else I do not elaborate on enough for you, let me know and I'll try to accomodate.)
Today it seems there are two schools of thought on this Ben-Hur: those who feel it is a stirring epic that puts strong human emotion on display, and those who feel it is bloated, poorly written, overlong, and terribly acted. It is almost universally recognized, though, that the chariot race near the end of the film is one of the most exciting and technically impressive action sequences ever filmed.
After watching Ben-Hur for the second time (about six years since the first viewing), I put myself squarely in the first camp. The subgenre of filmmaking generally known as "biblical epics" flourished in the 1950s and 60s, and they can be campy, sometimes hitting or sometimes missing the mark, but I truly believe this is a great movie, and you should go and watch it soon if you haven't already. It is long, yes, but it works hard for that length, it earns it. The film as a whole is a technical masterpiece, and director William Wyler works wonders in keeping the whole thing from falling apart. It was interesting to think of just how many movies owe a debt to this one - Gladiator, certainly, but also Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (the pod-racing scene), and I noticed one shot in particular of hands reaching out of a grate on a sinking boat that I am sure is the reference point for a few images in Pearl Harbor.
There are, of course, some problems with the film now which were not problems at the time of its production. For instance, a horse-loving Arab sheik is played by Hugh Griffith (white and British), in what might as well have been blackface makeup. His performance was widely praised and he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. This obviously would have not been the case today. And yet in the world of this film it is acceptable and we must manage to see past it. There is also the question of a gay subtext in the relationship of Ben-Hur and Messala, which I will generally ignore, as I find it distracting and unsubstantial in the larger themes of the story.
Furthermore, I'd like to address the criticism of the performances, particularly those that might claim that Charlton Heston's acting is weak, while Stephen Boyd's is over the top. Firstly, this time period and genre demanded a certain style of acting which is seldom utilized today. Heston is a limited actor (just as Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck, or Nicholas Cage are limited actors who turn out remarkable work with the right role), but this role suits him very well. Ben-Hur is a strong man with strong emotions, and Heston feels them exactly as much as he should. Russell Crowe won an Academy Award for his work in Gladiator for what is a similarly stylized performance. Crowe has shown greater depth and nuance elsewhere (particularly in The Insider) and yet the broader strokes of emotion suit the swords-and-sandals genre of Gladiator, just as a simpler, more intense performance from Heston suits the grandiose style of Ben-Hur. Boyd as Messala, on the other hand, brings a mild obsession with Rome, and a peculiar mischievousness that makes me seriously wonder about his motivations in his friendship with Ben-Hur - he also performs strong, bold emotions, but makes one wonder if Messala himself is the one performing, while Boyd maintains some ulterior motives beneath the surface of the character.
Based on the novel by Civil War General Lew Wallace, the movie centers on Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) a Jewish prince who is falsely imprisoned along with his mother and sister by his best friend, the Roman Messala (Stephen Boyd). After serving three years rowing in the galleys, he gains the attention of a Roman consul who adopts him and makes him a Roman citizen. With this new wealth and respect, Judah returns to Jerusalem to find his family, and seek vengeance on Messala. (Cue: chariot race.) He defeats Messala, finds his mother and sister and discovers they contracted leprosy while in prison, and is at a loss for what to do.
But I'm leaving something out. The film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ." Indeed, the opening sequence is the Nativity story. The second scene features Joseph explaining that his adoptive son is doing "his Father's work." When Judah Ben-Hur is enslaved, in chains on the way to the galleys, he falls down thirsty. Although the guard demands that no one give him water, a man (who we in the audience understand to be Jesus) gives him water regardless, and when the guard challenges him, the guard is silenced simply by looking into Jesus' face. When Judah returns to his home he finds his former slave Esther (with whom he has always been in love), and discovers she is enamored by the words of a new teacher - she quotes the beatitudes to him. And at the end of the story, when Judah does not know what to do about his leprous family, he learns there is a trial taking place in the center of Jerusalem, and discovers an innocent man being punished, much like he once was. He recognizes the man as the same one who gave him water, and he kneels to return the favor. And yet Judah remains a skeptic. He does not understand this persecuted man or the power he possesses. Upon Jesus' crucifixion, though, Judah's mother and sister are miraculously healed and Judah has learned to get past his contempt and bitterness for his old enemy Messala.
Depiction of Jesus
So what, then, is Jesus' role in this movie? He's hardly even a supporting character, yet all of Judah Ben-Hur's story hinges on the story of Jesus. By opening the film with the Nativity, the stage is set for a narrative that depends on the story of Christ - they are linked, paralleled, dependent. Wyler uses great tact in never actually showing us Jesus' face - perhaps an attempt to avoid iconography, or maybe to remind us that this is not Jesus' story, I'm not sure. But as one reviewer put it, "The Ascent of Calvary and The Crucifixion are pictured, without breathless reverence, in a matter-of-fact manner, as contemporary political events." What this accomplishes, then, is a focus on the other characters, the normal everyday Romans or Hebrews who encounter Jesus. Instead of seeing Jesus' face, we see other peoples' faces, their reactions to him.
I realized that the power of Jesus' presence in this film is shown in the transformations of those who encounter him. More impressive is that this is accomplished without Jesus ever having to perform a miracle or a healing (until the final minutes, that is). When Ben-Hur is given water by a stranger, I suspect he is changed slightly - after having his family falsely accused by his best friend of murdering a Roman official, this encounter reminds him that people can be good instead of selfish. (I wonder if he would have saved the Roman consul from the sinking slave ship three years later if not for this inciting act of kindness.) And when the guard tries to tell Jesus to stop giving Ben-Hur water, the look on his face also tells us that there is power in this stranger, and that what is right will be accomplished in spite of the supposed power of the Roman authority. (Do not forget that in this culture, Emperor Augustus Caesar is the only acknowledged god.)
What Ben-Hur might tell us modern day viewers about Jesus is this: that his story is deeply intertwined with our own, that he has a power greater than those with earthly command, and that even the simplest meeting with him can transform people into something better than they had imagined they would ever be. I suspect a possible consequence of not knowing Jesus is shown on Messala's deathbed. (He was critically injured after being trampled by horses during the chariot race.) I can't recall seeing a character die with more contempt and malice still in him than I saw in Messala - he tells Ben-Hur that his family are not dead as he though, but that they have leprosy and are now exiled to a leper colony. Messala concludes with the challenge, "The race is not over," essentially revealing that he will die with a heart filled with hate for Ben-Hur. It seems to me that the movie wants us to know this is the consequence of injustice, hate, and vengeance. I felt sad for Messala during that moment; villainous though he is, I pitied him.
What is particularly impressive to me is that Wyler manages to get this message across without ever preaching at us. Wyler was Jewish, but I am unaware if he was a practicing Jew and I'm not under the impression that he ever converted to Christianity, so I feel fairly sure that he would not have been intentionally proselytizing here, though the original story by Gen. Wallace is almost certainly meant as a positive portrayal of the necessity of Christ. Regardless of intent, the representation of Jesus in Ben-Hur is a reflection not on Jesus' life, but on what our lives might be when Jesus' is a part of them - not necessarily front and center 100% of the time, but always, undeniably, there.