Full of surprising actions, difficult compromises, and bitter defeats, Ben-Hur tells the tale of a Jewish prince, Judea Ben-Hur, born around the time of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. Judea is childhood friends with a Roman boy named Messala. The deep bond between the two is a point clearly made in the beginning of the movie. The movie swiftly moves ahead over 20 years to a time when Rome has invaded Jerusalem. Ben-Hur is still a prince and regarded still with honor though he no longer rules the land.
After years of separation, Ben-Hur and Messala have a joyful reunion and once again begin to reinvigorate the bonds of friendship. Exposition as they walk around fountain with the women discussing their youth lets us know Messala was almost a part of the Ben-Hur family. Everything is sweet with talk of “old times” yet one still gets the feeling that Messala is a bad guy as he discusses turning Libya to ashes in front of the women and soon after as he tries to get Judea to turn in fellow Jews. Messala is looking to climb the ladder of power and he begs for Ben-Hur’s help in getting rid of Jewish rebels.
When Ben-Hur refuses, Messala uses an accident to place Ben-Hur under arrest. He is sent away as a galley slave for use on Roman ships. After saving the life of the Roman Counsel Quintus Arrius, Ben-Hur is freed from slavery and adopted by the high-ranking Roman. Judea Ben-Hur, driven by obtaining revenge on Messala, decides he must leave his new friends and family and return to Jerusalem. The longing to find his sister and mother are as strong as his need for revenge. After leaving Rome, Ben-Hur finds that Messala is now a famed chariot racer in Jerusalem.
Fate has Ben-Hur meeting an Arab sheik who owns a chariot but whose rider is inadequate. This Arab offers Ben-Hur the chance to ride in a chariot driven by four of the finest horses he has ever seen in competition against Messala, hoping winning against the evil ex-friend will be revenge enough for Ben-Hur. After politely rejecting the offer, Judea heads back to his Jerusalem home in hope of finding his revenge and his family. But instead, Ben-Hur returns to find his home in disarray and his family still gone.
His slaves, however, remain and they have hidden Ben-Hur’s wealth. Esther, the slave daughter he freed years before is still there, almost waiting for him to return. Fate once again steps in, and Judea winds up on the sheik’s chariot in the great chariot race of Jerusalem. Taking up almost twenty minutes of screen time, this ultra-dramatic and occasionally gory scene finds Ben-Hur the victor in the end. Thinking his family dead and his nemesis not only beaten but also mortally wounded, Ben-Hur finally believes the end of his torments may be close at hand.
But Messala, despite knowing he is near death, still refuses to concede defeat. He requests a visit from Ben-Hur. It is then that Messala tells Ben-Hur that his family is alive and living as lepers in the valley. The obvious fresh pain he brings to his one-time friend seems to please Messala as Ben-Hur is once again filled with agonizing reality. Esther and Ben-Hur soon bring his mother and sister out of the valley and into the city where they are pelted with rocks. Soon though, attention shifts to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Ben-Hur recognizes Christ. He cannot understand why he is being tortured so and Ben-Hur thrashes through the crowd in order to get closer. He is able to bring Jesus a wooden cup of water and when he sits in front of the wounded Christ to offer the drink, Ben-Hur looks into Christ’s eyes and it is obvious something deep has passes between them. The crucifixion complete, we see Christ’s blood being washed down the hillside where Esther and Ben-Hur’s family have taken shelter in cave. It is this night that finds Ben-Hur finally attaining peace.
Ben-Hur has probably been described as a film of “epic” proportions more times than the sun has risen since its birth. Nevertheless, epic it is. Made on a grand scale, Ben-Hur is a story of good and evil which is often as clear as in children’s fable. For example, for centuries most people associate the color white with good and black with bad. Messala, the enemy of Ben-Hur wears black clothing and has black horses in the great chariot race while Ben-Hur’s are clothes are light and his horses white.
Yet, it is also a tale that makes one wonder if good and evil are actually as clearly defined as we have been led to believe. Though it is in the background most often, religion plays a big part of this movie. Just like in the modern world where religious fanatics abound, there were many conflicting beliefs two centuries ago. While the movie, in my opinion, could have made the Romans the evildoers simply for their different beliefs, it never stoops that low. Instead, the movie shows that greed is evil and that acceptance of others unlike oneself is what makes all humans good.
Messala disparages Jews to Ben-Hur frequently, but it is not that which makes him evil. It is Messala’s corrupt ways, selfish actions, and unrepentant heart that make him evil. Not only does the movie compare and contrast Messala and Ben-Hur, it also strives to compare Ben-Hur with Jesus. They were born around the same time, they were good men with great things in their futures. But the pain of one found him seeking blood for blood where the other professed people should fight oppression and evil with love and peace. With cunning subtlety, the live of Jesus is intermingled with Ben-Hur’s.
We never see Jesus’ face, nor do we ever hear him speak. But, we do get the ideas Jesus professed through other characters such as Balthazar and Esther. We hear of the types of choices Jesus would make and we witness the one Ben-Hur makes. Judea is absolutely powerful as he talks of how freedom will ring so loudly when Rome falls. We know his choice is to fight, violently if need be for what he wants. Yet Jesus is powerful too, as we hear his words of peaceful action through others. Compared to Messala, Ben-Hur is the opposite of evil.
But, when compared to Jesus, Ben–Hur is also an opposite. This is where the lines of good vs. evil are less clear than say white and black. It is almost as if the movie wanted us to see Messala as the ultimate evil, Jesus as the ultimate good, and Ben-Hur as the fallible human who must live every day between the two. This pull of both is obvious quite often in Ben-Hur’s life. First he must choose between being a loyal friend and a loyal leader, then he must choose between killing those who would have him dead and remaining alive for the future.
He makes life-altering choices based on emotion only many times. The ship scene where Ben-Hur is unlocked prior to being rammed turns into him saving as many other slaves as he can, despite risking his own life by remaining in the ships’ hold is not only graphic but very emotional. And soon after, he not only kills another to save the life of Quintus Arrius, he saves him again by refusing to allow Quintus Arrius to kill himself by suicide. No expert on this time period, I found this movie to be extremely accurate historically.
From the clothing to the architecture of ships and buildings to the desolate desert settings, they all rang fairly true. If occasionally, one could image a particular shot taken on a movie lot, there were hundreds of others that felt perfectly real that could make you forget a second or two of falseness. It seemed that very detailed attention was given to even minor aspects of the film. For instance, Ben-Hur’s hairstyle was decidedly Roman after his months spent in the empire’s capital. The make up of the women was very detailed too, as were the many wounds shown in the war between ships.
Also, the instant where the slave must move the Baton of Victory closer to the emperor reach so that the emperor would save mere inches of movement rang quite true and a tad funny. Every great epic must have a great ending. Ben-Hur certainly does. This is when Judea is finally reunited with his family and he brings them into to Jerusalem where they see Christ being tortured as he carries the cross. “In his pain a look of peace” Ester mutters softly as Judea struggles to get close to Jesus.
Soon after, the blood of Jesus that runs down the hillsides as the rain pours down heals Judea’s family miraculously. Esther was going to leave Ben-Hur as his thirst for vengeance was turning him to “stone” until a look from Jesus and a few of the crucified preacher’s words rid Judea of the pull toward evil completely. The happily ever after ending can read like a children’s fable and feel a little unrealistic as well. But, one has to consider that with all the torment the main characters in this film had to endure in their lives, a little artistic license is understandable.
This version of Ben-Hur was a great success. It remains on many lists as one of the top 100 films of all time and is still discussed frequently among moviegoers and critics alike. The famous chariot race scenes in the later half of the movie are recognizable even to many that have never seen the entire film. No doubt this film can be considered a success when fifty years later it is still being watched, still is recognizable, and it’s actions scenes are still being emulated (Think of the pod-race in Star Wars – The Phantom Menace).
Another aspect of measuring its success is that while some of the scenes are obviously shot on a filming lot (Ben-Hur’s home after his return from Rome, close-up shots during the dramatic race are the first scenes to come to mind) the production itself was an amazing undertaking. Made in the days before computers could enhance, fix, and modify any image, the drama accomplished is admirable. Thousands of people at a time in some shots and the final product came together in a way that ends up looking so smooth, but must have been quite an undertaking to realize.
The most recent production of Titanic, a massive success in its own right, had fifty years of technology at is disposal and yet it’s computer generated people aboard the luxurious cruise liner with their stiff movements and bodies and clothing without details cannot hold a candle to the thousands of extras used to fill a Jerusalem arena as they cheer for Ben-Hur, line roman streets for a tribute to the returning Quintus Arrius, fill a hillside from all directions to listen to the words of Jesus Christ, or follow Christ as he takes his last tortured steps through Jerusalem with the heavy wooden cross on his back.
Technology has been wonderful to the movie industry, but Ben-Hur stands out even today because it is able to touch the audience intensely without the use of modern tools. The realistic touches, such as the thousands of extras involved, the intelligent decision to parallel the live of Jesus while still keeping his character in the background, and the still exciting chariot scenes are only a part of the reason this film is a monumental success still.