Confessions of a Film Junkie: A “Classics” Review of “Ben Hur”
By: Lauren Ennis
Following the advent of television in the early 1950’s, Hollywood was forced to face its first serious competitor in popular entertainment. In order to combat the easily accessible, and often light weight, fare that enthralled television audiences, Hollywood struck back in a big way with its new favorite trump card; the epic. In an era before premium channels and mini-series, television could offer comedies and melodramas on par with Tinseltown’s finest, but it simply could not compete with the sheer grandeur of cinema’s period pieces. As cinema saw a return of box-office record breakers, Hollywood responded by releasing a seemingly endless stream of historical epics. Unfortunately, many of these films relied more heavily upon special effects and exotic costumes than dialogue and plot development, and have aged poorly as a result. Despite the fact that many films of this era are now considered more camp than art, a few select films stand out from the trend, including one of the most powerful films of the genre, Ben-Hur.
Over time, Ben-Hur has become engrained in American pop-culture and inspired countless other films. The film has been parodied and imitated so often that at first glance its many twists and turns seem cliché. Upon closer observation, however, it becomes evident that this is in fact a masterfully crafted work that ‘they don’t make ‘em like’ anymore. Despite the limited special effects of the time in which it was released, the film is able to successfully transport viewers across a vast scope of first century locations ranging from the market-places of Judea, to the tents of Arab nomads, to the palaces of Rome. The famous chariot race in particular remains a cinematic landmark. Not only does the scene utilize expert stunts and breathtaking action, but it also excellently summarizes the central conflict between the film’s hero and villain.
|Actor Charlton Heston plays the title character Ben-Hur|
Ben-Hur was released at the tail-end of the historical epic craze which also included such classics as The Ten Commandments and Spartacus. Like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur featured leading man Charlton Heston and a cast of thousands. Unlike The Ten Commandments, however, this film focuses upon the personal struggle of an ordinary man forced to withstand extraordinary circumstances. The film chronicles the efforts of a Judean prince to reclaim his former life and attain vengeance after being convicted of a crime that he did not commit. After refusing to act as an informant for the occupying Roman forces, Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his former friend Messala and sent to the galleys as sentence for an attempted murder charge. Messala openly admits that the charge is false but still carries the charge even further by arresting Judah’s mother and sister as co-conspirators. Through a combination of persistence and circumstance Judah is eventually able to escape and make his way home with a new identity. Upon his return, he immediately pursues obtaining revenge against Messala and freedom for his mother and sister. Although he eventually does gain vengeance, his victory is at best bittersweet, as he continues to blame himself for the arrest of his mother and sister who have contracted leprosy and been banished in his absence. This bitterness eventually consumes him and alienates those closest to him. It is only after Judah learns to move on with his life and let go of his hate that he is able to finally achieve redemption.
|Messala in "Ben-Hur" (1959)|
One of the most difficult aspects of completing the screenplay reportedly was resolving the motivation of villain, Messala. In the film, Messala betrays his childhood friend after the latter refuses to act as an informant for the Roman Empire. The writers found it difficult to believe that a man would betray his friend over politics and attempted to include a gay subtext into the script in order to explain Messala’s seemingly over blown reaction. Personally, I was shocked to read that the writers would not see the significance and divisive effects of politics a mere fifteen years after the end of the Second World War. This is particularly striking when one considers the fact that Hollywood was in the midst of the McCarthy era, which saw the destruction of countless relationships and livelihoods, particularly in the motion picture industry, as the result of a political ‘witch-hunt’.
Ultimately, the most compelling aspect of the film is the protagonist’s psychological struggle after he regains his freedom. While attaining his freedom was his immediate goal, achieving it is an empty victory because he cannot share it with his family. Even after finally obtaining vengeance against Messala, Judah is still a tormented man. He isolates himself from his former slave turned love interest, Esther, and lashes out at her each time that she offers him consolation. At one point, Esther becomes so frustrated with Judah that she compares him to Messala and says she cannot love the man he has become. Although his argument with Esther does lead him to question his decisions, it is not until he witnesses the crucifixion of Christ, another wrongly convicted man, that he gains a sense of perspective, which ultimately leads to his redemption.
|Ben-Hur meets Jesus|
The presence of Jesus is a recurring theme that puts the story into a historical context without undermining its central conflicts. In many ways, Jesus is a foil to Judah; both are citizens of an occupied country who are persecuted for trying to do what they believe is right. The dignity that Jesus exhibits during his trial and crucifixion directly contrasts the obsessive rage that consumes Judah after his own conviction. Their acquaintance eventually comes full circle after Judah recognizes Jesus as the stranger who gave him water during his journey to the galleys. He asks a fellow spectator what Jesus could have done to deserve such a fate. The man explains the prophecy that Jesus was meant to fulfill by taking “the world of our sins onto himself” and says that it was for “this beginning” that he was born. It is at this moment that Judah is finally able to see the possibility for a new beginning at even the most tragic endings and determines to rise above the bitterness of his past.
I chose to review this film in honor of Easter, but recommend it to viewers of any faith to watch during any season. Although the film does feature a religious motif, its central themes of family, hope, patriotism, and justice are universal. The characters’ struggle to maintain their personal lives in an increasingly politicized world continues to be relevant in today’s world of economic and social uncertainty. Despite the advances of modern special effects, the action sequences, sets, and costumes remain truly epic and cannot be matched. At the very least, I recommend this film to any viewer interested in seeing how truly great movies are made and to those curious to see what exactly they ‘don’t make ‘em like’ anymore.