• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, December 21, 2015

    Ben Hur (1959)

    Ben Hur is that rarest of Bible films - one that was both commercially and critically successful. The winner of an unprecedented 11 Oscars and still 13th in the list highest grossing films at the US box office (when adjusted for inflation) it's achievements are on a par with its eye-popping sets and its humongous 4 hour running time. And yet whilst many think of it as the best of all the Bible films, there are many who argue it's not even the greatest adaptation of General Lew Wallace's 1880 novel.

    That honour arguably goes to Fred Niblo's 1925 silent version of the film which had in it's crew a certain William Wyler. Wyler quickly progressed from his role as assistant director to directing a few short films so that by the time the first talking pictures came about Wyer was a full director in his own right. His experience on Niblo's epic stayed with him though and following his big 50s successes with (two of my favourite films) Roman Holiday and Big Country he returned to Wallace's most famous novel.

    Many of the elements in Big Country find their way into Ben Hur - the two feuding men locked into a destructive cycle of revenge; the epic scale of the film, replete with their deserts and dusty landscapes; and, of course, the casting of Charlton Heston. By this point Heston already had turned in his career defining role in another epic remake The Ten Commandments (1956).Both characters have the same moral compass even if Judah Ben Hur is thrown a little off course by his desire for revenge. It makes Ben Hur a more interesting character than Heston's rather one dimension Moses. The darkest moment is just as a beaten Messala is awaiting Ben Hur's visit before he dies (pictured above). Heston's frame stands menacingly in the iron door blocking out the light like the angel of death come for a prisoner. The music underscores the darkness of the moment, for both men. Yet, even so one of the film's weaknesses is that seems so much harder for the audience to see in Heston's face the sort of seething thirst for revenge that so many of the characters in the film seem compelled to comment upon.

    It's a thirst of a different nature however that provides so many of the film's pivotal moments. Having (accidentally) almost assassinated the new governor of his home city of Jerusalem Judah finds himself slave trailing through the desert. He arrives at Nazareth almost dead with dehydration and is only saved when a mysterious member of the village defies Judah's captors and gives him a cup of water. Then after escaping from a sinking Roman ship on which he had been a galley slave he finds himself trapped on the open sea his thirst only made worse by the dangerously undrinkable water that surrounds him. Later trekking back to Jerusalem from Rome, where he has made a free man, he takes a moment to bask in the shade and refresh himself and meets shortly before meeting chariot racing enthusiast Sheik Ilderim. And finally, having found that seeing his sworn enemy die in a chariot race did not ease his thirst for revenge he finds himself on a road in Jerusalem moved by compassion to offer that same, mysterious stranger a cup of water when it is his turn to need water.

    Wallace's book was subtitled "A Tale of the Christ" and whilst all three of its cinematic adaptations have trimmed down the pseudo-biblical material, it is still very much an integral part of the film. Here the film starts with a nativity sequence even before the opening credits. Whilst Jesus makes various appearances throughout the film, this sequence is as much about Balthasar as it is about the newborn in the manger. The magus meets Judah at several points in the latter part of the film as he seeks to answer the question about who that special baby grew up to be. Not dissimilarly Jesus also makes fleeting appearances as the aforementioned compassionate stranger and then as a preacher at a suspiciously high-altitude gathering, though as Judah turns away we never hear his actual words.

    But it's at the end of the film where Jesus begins to dominate proceedings, even despite already being in captivity. During Judah's absence his sister and mother have contracted leprosy and are hiding away, near death, in a colony. The stories of Jesus, combined with Judah's own desperation, lead him to carry his sister into the centre of Jerusalem where the people recoil in horror. Despite Jesus' impending crucifixion

    For all their good intentions these final few scenes are rather problematic. Firstly the film's dramatic tension rapidly begins to dissipate. Despite it's nearly four hour running time it's only in these moments that the film begins to drag. Secondly whilst the authors of various gospels, especially Matthew's, try to highlight the importance of Jesus' death by furnishing it with various supernatural events, none of it really seems consistent with the type of healing event which happens to Judah's sister and mother here and so typified Jesus' early ministry. Thirdly whilst the film itself clearly links the healing of Judah's family to Jesus, it's not at all clear why any of the characters within the story would do the same. The Christ of this story has only been helpful, kind and rather charismatic. There's no real mention of his miraculous healings.

    I concede that these are fairly minor nitpicks and thankfully they don't detract from the magnificent fare elsewhere in the film. The chariot scene rightly stands out as one of the greatest ever scenes in the movies (and my seven year old loved seeing how it had been appropriated by the makers of The Phantom Menace). It bides its time before setting the two leads head to head, by which time the villainous Messala has already shown ample evidence of what he is capable of and Judah has already shown his mettle. The stunts push right up to the boundary of believability without ever leaping over them and Messala's comeuppance is so all encompassing that is generates the right degree of compassion despite of his previous villainy. Almost as good is the boat battle which forms the high point of the first part of the film.

    Yet for all the impressive sets, costumes and stunts, it's the intimate humanity which gives Ben Hur its beating heart - the pain of betrayal, the determination to survive, the hope of justice, the fickleness of victory and the anger of loss. For the most part Wyler knew precisely how to use the action to bring these emotions to the fore in a way that stressed the similarities between his protagonists and his audiences so that he could use the extraordinary to shine light on the ordinary.

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