Ben-Hur – 1959

To celebrate two years of reviewing as many films as I possibly can and sharing them with you, the internet, I will today be reviewing a film worthy of such an honour and many more: Ben-Hur.

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The most expensive film ever made at the time of release, (as the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur was at its time), William Wyler’s 1959 Ben-Hur is a timeless biblical epic. Yet I would postulate that the great success of Ben-Hur lies rather in its secularity, despite being one of the few films blessed by the Vatican. The story of Ben-Hur is not taken from the Bible and so cannot cross into misinterpretation or blasphemy. Jesus himself, despite having a palpable presence and importance in terms of plot is barely seen. He is, as he is for a modern audience, a silent symbol of peace and hope supported by word-of-mouth.

The comparison between the life of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston giving a virtuoso performance) and that of Jesus Christ is implicit in the narrative despite the sparse presence of Jesus. The audience is meant to draw the links themselves. Judah’s passionate desire for the liberation of the Jewish people certainly places him in the same league as Moses and Jesus in terms of motivation. His persecution at the hands of Romans who believe themselves to be superior to the Jewish inhabitants certainly strikes a few more ancient and modern notes. The difference between the story of Judah and that of Jesus is that Judah is not divine. He, naturally, is drawn to revenge and hatred after his ordeals, even losing his faith in God. He is human, like us and no one, not even Jesus and those following Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness blame him. Errare humanum est. Biblically speaking, Judah is a sinner who has turned away from love in his quest for revenge, even if the revenge was fuelled by love, and he is waiting to be saved by Jesus, who suffers without turning to hatred. As such the protagonist is not a Christian figure, nor is he a role model. He is an everyman, dealing with his own issues and seeking repose in faith as the audience might.

The production of this film is so legendary that it’s almost surprising while you watch the film how intimate it feels. The conflicts are not the conflicts of nations, rather they are the arguments between old friends, slaves and masters and even lovers played out by chance on a grand scale. What elevates this film is that every action set piece has higher, non-related motivations. A James Bond car chase has the motivation of escape or capture and maybe life and death, but these are the inherent motivations of a chase, the objectives could not be reached in any other way. Whereas the Ben-Hur chariot race would still be a beautiful set piece and an exciting spectacle, regardless of the character’s motivations, yet the script is woven in such a way that this race is the dramatic climax of Judah Ben-Hur’s life. Yet given that he is playing not for the title but for dignity and revenge it could be just as easily envisaged as a fencing match or a game of chess. His motivations are those of classical tragic conflict. He’s an Odysseus-figure returning to his family and lost love. Jesus is just the deus ex machina leading to his happy ending in the face of despair.

  •  Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5
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