Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ben-Hur: My favorite Hollywood movie of all time

It's well-known to my friends that I post a lot about documentaries, particularly about history. Thus, someone reading my blog posts might conclude that I don't like Hollywood movies as much, because I don't write about them very often. (I've only written a blog review of two so far, which are Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.") Actually, I'm a great fan of many Hollywood movies, and the main reason I spend more time reviewing documentaries is because there's more history documentaries than history movies. (I may start reviewing some classic history movies, from Hollywood as well as the documentary world. More on that later.)

Fictional story with a historical setting ...

But my favorite Hollywood movie is actually not a history movie; because although it depicts real events, most of the characters are fictional; as this is based on a work of literature. Besides that, it depicts Bible events like Jesus's miracles, which lend themselves less to verifiable fact than other kinds of history - like certain areas of military history, where we can have verifiable data like numbers of troops, their positions during any given battle, and the tactical results of the engagement. I wish to make it clear that I believe in the reality of Jesus's miracles, but any media depicting them is not, in the strictest sense, a history. Rather, this is a work of cinematic literature, based on a literary work from the world of books. The movie is the 1959 classic "Ben-Hur," which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. For me, this is the movie that most brings the New Testament to life.

The Savior seen through the eyes of a mortal man ...

The book was titled "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," and it is definitely about the Savior's life; but the movie doesn't show the Savior's face even once, nor does he speak one word of dialogue. He is quoted by others, but the face and voice of the Savior are left to the viewer's imagination. You can see his long hair from the back in certain scenes, with inspiring music to indicate that it isn't just anyone being depicted; but the viewer is left free to picture the Savior how they want, and hear his voice the way it sounds to them. The story is, instead, told through the eyes of another - a regular person named Judah Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston), who is a fictional character meant (I think) to represent the many touched by the Savior's mortal ministry. We are able to view Biblical events through the eyes of someone more like ourselves - imperfect, mortal, and fully human; bringing the story to life more through this clever literary device.

Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur

The grand scope of this movie ...

The movie begins with a depiction of the Savior's birth, following the Christmas story as seen in the Gospels; and then fast-forwards over two decades to five years before the Crucifixion. The Savior makes only one personal appearance in the first part of the movie, which is when he gives water to the main character when he is dying of thirst, sent to slavery in the galleys as punishment for a crime he didn't commit. There are also appearances by a character who saw Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem; but for the first part of the movie, the religious aspects of the story are not mentioned much; as the movie's main plot helps to set up the Biblical scenes in the movie's climactic ending, allowing them to have more narrative and dramatic power when they finally come to the screen.

Ben-Hur with Messala

Judah Ben-Hur: The film's main character

The main character begins life as a prince of some influence in Roman-occupied Judea, who meets his old friend Messala (played by Stephen Boyd) earlier in the movie. Messala is a Roman, while Judah Ben-Hur is a Jew; but that did not stop them from being close friends in childhood. Early in the movie, though, Messala betrays Judah Ben-Hur; punishing him and his family for a crime he knows they didn't commit, as retaliation for refusing to help him in his harsh occupation of their homeland. Suffice it to say that his newfound power as a Roman tribune has gone to his head; and that he is willing to send an old friend into slavery to advance his career, and fanatical devotion to Rome.

Ben-Hur as galley slave

From vowing revenge to discovering Christianity ...

The main character spends much of the movie vowing revenge on Messala, hoping that he can escape from Roman slavery soon enough to save his family from the harsh environment of Roman prisons. Revenge becomes an obsession for him, and he is burned up with hate and anger for much of the movie. I won't give enough plot details to spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it, but suffice it to say that his encounter with the original form of Christianity - and the mortal Christ himself - eventually softens his heart, and removes the sword from his hand. A lot of crazy events happen between his enslavement and eventual conversion, and the movie has three hours to develop these events in great detail; but I have to give some idea of the movie's payoff for those deciding whether or not to watch it. If you're a devout Christian, this movie may appeal to you; as his climactic encounter with the mortal Jesus brings the Biblical events to life like they never had been before - and, I think, like they never will be again.

Lew Wallace, author of the book the movie is based on

Comments on the adaptation of this book here

With 11 Academy Awards to its name, the movie's reputation is a considerable one; and Christian audiences have loved it ever since. It's based on a literary book from the previous century, by a Civil War general named Lew Wallace (who fought on the Union side). The movie takes place in cultures speaking languages like Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; but being based on a book originally written in English, the movie's dialogue is most appealing to English-speaking audiences. The movie is an American production, and so likewise is in English; utilizing some of the best acting talent in the English-speaking world. From British actors like Jack Hawkins, to American actors like Charlton Heston, the cast is up there with the best in any motion picture.

Chariot race scene

Bringing Biblical events (and their drama) to life ...

From epic moments like the chariot race to a ferocious battle on the high seas, the movie does not lack for action; and the special effects stand up well today because they are not faking it with CGI - they are filming something very close to the real thing. It's a movie with action, romance, and adventure; but the movie's greatest strength is in its dramatic storyline, and its ability to bring Biblical events to life. If you consider yourself a Christian, you might want to try out Ben-Hur - you'll feel like an eyewitness to New Testament history. It's my favorite Hollywood movie of all time, and it will probably remain such for years to come.

Chariot race scene panorama shot

Request to refrain from spoilers in the comments below

Note to any commenters: Please do not spoil the movie for anyone by giving too many plot details away. If you haven't seen it, I take no responsibility for any plot spoilers published in comments below. If someone else's comments ruin the movie for you by giving away important plot details, don't blame me - I'll try to delete any such comments as quickly as possible, but some may stay posted for a while before I get around to doing so. I'll try to maintain a spoiler-free environment for the uninitiated. With that said, all other comments are welcome, and I encourage any discussion that people want to engage in. Feel free to leave your comments here.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Rome

My search for the Greek New Testament

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