With the new version Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ set to hit theaters this weekend, I revisited William Wyler’s classic version (the second of three versions of the novel; I have yet to see the first from 1925) last weekend. While best known for its long, exhilarating chariot scene pictured above, undoubtedly one of the greatest scenes in film history, and its many historical problems (extremely white cast with modern American language and cultural values infused), Wyler’s version is a masterpiece from beginning to end. It may be far from a perfect reconstruction of the history of ancient Palestine, but it it does accomplish at least one of its goals with perfection.
This version of Ben-Hur takes its audience into an immersive journey not into the history or culture of another time but into a conflict. The fictional character Judah Ben-Hur is representative of the many Jews in poverty and oppression at the hands of Rome during the time of Christ. Judah hears about the ministry of a man who some think may be the Messiah their nation has hoped for; he briefly encounters Jesus in an early scene in the film but does not realize who it is. His life is one of slavery and marginalization. His attitude is a paradoxical mix of determination and hopelessness. He is determined to do whatever it takes to set set his family free from the grasp of Roman cruelty, but he is hopeless because all the evidence of his experience seems to point him toward concession that the divine promises to Israel his people held so dear would not be fulfilled.
Judah’s fight is centered on his relationship with the childhood friend Messala, a Roman who became tribune. Judah believed that as tribune, Messala would stand for the rights of the Jewish people because of the perceived strong bond shared by the two. Within the first few minutes of the movie, we find this to be completely false. Judah is faced with a new, more personal enemy who represents the enemy he was already familiar with (the Roman government). Centered on this relationship, Wyler creates a film epic that is both majestic in the visual experience it gives and intimate in its character development.
The intimacy is necessary since Judah represents a large section of the Jewish population of the Roman Empire at the time and Messala represents the entirety of the oppressive government for the sake of the story and because the novel’s subtitle is “A Tale of the Christ.” This is a huge story, a huge conflict that the film brings its audience into. By scaling this down to two characters as representatives of a much more complex and very real conflict, we can feel both Judah’s determination and hopelessness. Only in the last twenty minutes of the film does Judah have his second encounter with Jesus. He witnesses the crucifixion, and through this scene and what follows, we are able to see how the ministry of Jesus is concurrent with Judah’s conflict and has impacted and transformed his very existence and given victory within that conflict (both for Judah and for all of his people), even prior to Judah’s knowledge of it.
My hope is that the film released next week will have learned from some of the problems found in this version, as mentioned above. With a cast of actors who all look like they’re from the same parts of the world as their characters and with over fifty years of scholarly advancements in understanding the culture of the time, the filmmakers had everything necessary available to make this possible. Also, it seems that the writers followed the novel in its emphasis on forgiveness over the 1959 version’s emphasis on battle and vindication. However, no matter how well they have done any of this and no matter how great a film the forthcoming adaptation may be, it will never be a replacement for William Wyler’s great achievement. The balancing act of epic and intimacy keeps the film constantly entertaining for its entire 3 and 1/2 hour running time regardless of any of its flaws. And then, of course, there is the chariot race.
Stumble Alert: Ben-Hur maintains a G-rating from the MPAA which is ridiculous considering the amount of violence in it. It is 1959 American-movie violence, so there is nothing graphic or too disturbing, but it is certainly not appropriate for children as the G-rating implies.
Watch Ben-Hur: Both 1925 and 1959 versions are available from all major online rental and streaming sources, each for $2.99.