This movie is listed as #72 in the list of the 100 greatest movies. William Wyler directed this epic starring Charlton Heston as Juda Ben-Hur, his wife, played by Haya Harareet, his boyhood friend, who grows up to be his enemy the Roman leader of the occupation troops, played by Stephen Boyd, and Jack Hawkins, the Roman admiral who is saved by Ben-Hur and who then adopts Ben-Hur.
The title of the movie and the book on which it is based is “Ben-Hur: A tale of the Christ.” Before the movie gets to the title it starts out with Joseph and Mary and the birth of Christ all with soaring music, the wise men arriving with gifts---although this is one of the most significant events in history and opens the movie, when you think back on the movie you don’t remember it. What you remember most is the exciting chariot race that comes at the end of the movie.
After the titles we see Roman soldiers on the march and have a little bit by Joseph thrown in (Jesus is not getting his wood working done and a client complains and the father defends his son). But once again it is the soldiers and pageantry that wins our attention.
When Juda first meets his old boyhood friend they are both elated, overjoyed at meeting again. He once saved Juda Ben-Hur’s life. His friend is now the Governor’s right hand man and wants Juda to betray anyone that doesn’t support Rome. Juda’s friend clearly wants to rise in power in Rome and tells Juda that: “You are either for me or against me.” Juda responds that: “If that is the choice, then I am against you.” What starts as a warm reunion quickly disintegrates as his friend storms out of Juda’s palatial home.
The struggle between the two is thus established early on.
When the new Governor arrives, a tile on Juda’s roof accidentally falls and strikes the Governor as he rides by. Juda and his mother and sister are arrested. His friend inspects the roof and sees that it was an accident but the arrests serve his purposes. In a very Machiavellian scene, Juda asks him why he is doing this and his friend explains that by being hard on his friend he is sending a message to all those who would rise against Rome.
Juda is sent off as a slave to serve as an oarsman in a Roman war ship. On the long hot march to the ship he is denied water and is about to die when a man gives him water violating the soldier’s orders who is in command. Although nothing is said to tell us this, we know that this person is Jesus Christ who gives Juda the water. We never see Christ’s face; we do not hear him say anything. We just know this by the way other people, especially the soldier, respond to Him.
Next scene we are on the Roman warship. Jack Hawkins is the Admiral of the fleet. Juda has been rowing on the warship for three years---which is rare, most rowers die before three years pass. The fleet engages the enemy in battle. Juda saves the Admiral from drowning then he saves him again from suicide because the Admiral thinks he has been defeated---but it turns out the battle was a victory. The Admiral returns to Rome a hero with Juda by his side. Juda becomes a successful chariot racer in Rome (we are told this, we do not see it), is adopted by the Admiral, and decides to return to Judea to find out what has happened to his mother and sister. Once back to the area on his way home, he is befriended by one of the wise men who came to honor Christ at his birth. He is now back because he knows Christ has grown and is about to fulfill his destiny. Juda also meets an Arab who is on his way to the chariot racing and would like Juda to take charge of his team---an offer Juda declines.
When Juda gets home, his once glorious home is in decay. However, Esther, the daughter of the man who ran Juda’s business affairs is there. (She is his love interest in the film.) Her father is also there, but he is unable to walk because of the torture he went through at the orders of Juda’s old boyhood friend. They have no word of his mother and sister. It has been four years now and they have been locked up as prisoners all this time.
Esther warns Juda that hate will destroy him. She has heard a brother (Jesus) who preaches love. But Juda will have none of this type of teaching. He is out for revenge!
Juda goes to his former friend, the Tribune, and demands the return of his mother and sister. It turns out that they are alive but have become lepers. They are released but Juda is told that they are dead. His mother has Esther swear that she will not tell Juda that they are alive and lepers. This is a rather interesting conflict. Does Esther abide by her future mother-in-laws request? The mother says that she has nothing else that she can hope for. For her it is enough that her son lives and it would devastate the mother for her son to know she is a leper. Esther elects not to tell Juda and tells him instead that they are dead.
It is at this point that Juda enters the chariot race. It is a route to revenge. It is white horses versus black horses. It is good versus evil. Although others are in the race, it is the Tribune, his old childhood friend turned enemy, against Juda Ben-Hur. The Tribune representing Rome, representing oppression, cheats, whips his horses, has blades on his wheels to destroy the opponent. He fits all the stereotypes of the bad guy. Juda wins after the Tribune is trampled. The crowd of mostly Jews and Arabs goes wild with joy at the winning of Juda. Juda then visits his dying enemy. The Tribune tells him his mother and sister are not dead but lepers as a way of doing his best even while dying of hurting Juda. It is his last spiteful act before dying.
Juda then goes to see his mother and sister where the lepers live. Esther pleads with him not to let them know he knows and Juda is filled with ambivalence but finally decides not to show himself.
The next scene is the Sermon on the Mount. Esther goes, Juda will not go. Again, we never see Christ’s face, never hear his voice, only see him from behind.
Juda then meets with the Governor of Rome, Pontius Pilot, who has all the mature philosophic admonitions. Juda blames Rome, not his former friend the Tribune who he feels was poisoned by Rome. Juda turns down the offer to be a Roman citizen and he returns his adopted father’s ring. Pilot warns him to leave Judea. Juda returns to his home, still angry. Esther feels he would change if he met Jesus and heard his message. Juda is ready to go to war with Rome. Ready to set aside his love of Esther to fulfill his blood lust, anger, and hate. Esther visits Juda’s mother and tries to persuade her to see Christ, Juda arrives, Esther forcefully gets them to go with Juda’s help to see Christ only to find that Christ is on trial.
In case it is not obvious, it is Esther that is the most mature, the most loving, the real hero in this story, not Juda. It would have been very interesting to have called the book “Esther” and written it from her perspective. When the book was written and the movie made we were a sexist society and not ready to recognize the tremendously important contributions of women to society. We are still struggling with this as of today.
After Christ’s trial, as he passes Juda, Esther, and his mother and sister carrying his cross, Juda leaves and tells Esther to watch over the women and Juda follows Christ and gives Christ a drink just as Christ once did for Juda.
Juda returns home and the anger has left him and then he sees that his mother and sister are no longer lepers, they have all been cured through the Grace of God.
The movie takes 3.5 hours! It was the most expensive movie ever made to that point in time. It won 11 Academy Awards and saved the studio from bankruptcy. It was first a successful book, then a successful stage play, then a movie made in 1925, then they made this epic in 1959.
General Lew Wallace, a lawyer, wrote the novel about Christ but invented the Ben-Hur character. It really isn’t a tale of the Christ despite the title. Wallace spent five years writing the book and it was published in 1880. The stage play was fabulously successful and they used real horses on stage on a treadmill to simulate the chariot race. The stage play ran for 20 years! In 1907 they filmed a 15 minute version of the play. In 1925 they had a great hit version as a silent movie but it cost $4 million and it took until 1931 with a reissue before it turned a profit. They built real ships for the sea galleys. When they were making the earlier version, William Wyler was there helping out.
In the 1950s movies were losing audiences to television and the spectacle Ben-Hur was designed to save the movie studio once again. Wyler took the job as director for $1 million (a record breaking amount for a director). Wyler would later joke that it took a Jew to make a good picture of Christ. Wyler was curious to see if he could make a “DeMille” type of spectacle movie.
At the last minute Gore Vidal was called in as script doctor. It was Vidal that brought in the gay nuances in the relationship between Ben-Hur and his boyhood friend the Tribune. Heston didn’t even know of the nuances. Other rewriters were also included. Karl Tunberg got the credit as screenwriter unfairly.
The starring role of Ben-Hur was turned down by Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Rock Hudson. Then they did an open call---still no luck and the sets were already being constructed! The producer, Sam Zimbalist, dies of a
Heston finally was chosen for the role and he learned to really drive a chariot and do it very well. No one was seriously injured in the chariot races. In the scene where Ben-Hur flips over in the chariot, that was a stunt man. The film cost $50,000,000 to make and earned $80,000,000---both being tremendous sums in those days. Multiply those amounts by 10 and you get a better idea of how much the movie cost and how much it earned.
The sea battles were on a man made pond, large models were used, or parts of a full sized battle galley. Today, they would most likely use a lot of digital tricks if they were going to make a movie like this. Will Hollywood remake it one day? Given its lasting successes for over a century, it is likely that someone will sell the idea of a remake one day. Why is this story so popular? If you watch the movie closely, it is not a very great story. If you want a really great story about Christ then you should go and see The Last Temptation of Christ. If you want to see Christ’s story told as a spectacle, then go and see Jesus Christ, Superstar.
However, if you want to see a great chariot race, then go see Ben-Hur.
This movie should have stopped at 90 minutes like most films. We should have had some nice chariot racing and gone home. The parts about Christ have a tacked on quality to them, they are more propaganda than spectacle.
Why does the story work? Because of the tension between two old boyhood friends that turn upon one another. Because of the age old conflict between good and evil. Because you are rooting for good and cheering Juda on in the chariot race. You love a good race, a contest, especially a dangerous one. That is why boxing matches, car races, football games get huge audiences. Yes, it is nice in the end that you have the story of Christ loosely attached to the story line, it is nice because it is uplifting, it is a way that you can justify watching the blood lust of Juda and your own vicarious desire for blood.
The movie is all about wolves. Wolves, you say? Yes, it is all about the feeding of wolves. Juda keep feeding the wrong wolves throughout the movie until the very end.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil---he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good---he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. This same fight is going on inside you---and inside very other person too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Which of the wolves are you feeding?