Happy Easter and Passover everyone!
When deciding on an Easter movie, I had a wealth of films to choose from. But since I’m not Catholic enough to appreciate “The Passion of the Christ,” not stoic enough to labor through “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and not on enough medication to watch “The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ To Town,” I settled on “Ben-Hur,” both the 1925 silent epic, and the 1959 widescreen epic.
In a nutshell, both films tell the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince whose journey from prince to slave to charioteer to Roman citizen happens roughly parallel to the most famous time in Jesus’s life. Both films swing from glorious epic to pious parable and back again, resting firmly on the strong legs of their male stars. In a sword and sandals epic, you need a star with good calves.
The 1925 film has been overshadowed by its more famous remake but is nonetheless a beautiful example of the peak of silent Hollywood. (It’s also a Pre-Hayes Code film, which means there’s a fair amount of violence and nudity.) There are naval battles with thousands of pirates and Romans fighting on burning galleys, a fast-paced chariot sequence that killed possibly 1 person and definitely 4 horses, and gorgeous 2 color Technicolor tableaux:
However, in an effort to satisfy two audiences (the religious audience and the thrill-seeking audience), the filmmaker’s ended up with a movie that feels disjointed. Early in the film, Ben-Hur meets Jesus. (Ben-Hur sees His face though we don’t; Jesus is only represented by His hands. They glow.) After that their stories branch off, so at random intervals the exciting story of Ben-Hur is interrupted by pious interludes with Biblical title cards. It’s a Biblical version of “Meanwhile, in Jerusalem…” At the end the film rushes to push the two stories together, with Ben Hur raising an army for the King of the Jews before witnessing Jesus’s death. However, Jesus cures Ben Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy and teaches Ben Hur the importance of pacifism, so even though the film ends before the Resurrection everybody can go home feeling warm and fuzzy.
Speaking of warm and fuzzy…
While the first movie had bits of homoerotic tension between Judah Ben-Hur and his friend-turned-enemy Messala, in the 1959 remake it gets… intense. There’s a lot to be said for Stephen Boyd’s performance as Messala; he never tips into camp (unlike Olivier in “Spartacus”) and if you read the film a little differently, it’s really heartbreaking that Judah never loved him back. However, that’s not really what I wanted to talk about. I just couldn’t pass up the joke.
What I really wanted to say was: Wow. Look, normally I am not a sword-and-sandals epic fan. I’ve seen too many bad ones – “Samson and Delilah,” “Troy,” “The Robe,” just to name a few. It’s been years since I saw the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” and let me tell you: it is an incredible film. The action sequences are deftly handled, which is important in an epic, but it’s held together by a riveting, heartbreaking script and some great acting. The center of a good epic has to have a strong human story, otherwise you’re left with empty, unsatisfying action. At the heart of this film is the spiritual journey of Judah Ben-Hur. He begins as a proud Jew, is betrayed and falsely accused and lives his life for revenge. When he finally achieves it he’s left hollow, still burning with rage but now begetting hate with more hate. The final question of the movie is whether he can learn to forgive, and this is when he witnesses the crucifixion of a Man who showed him kindness a long time ago. It’s powerful.
There’s a reason it won 11 Oscars. I get it. Also, because I’m either a good Christian or a gigantic film geek, in the final moments of the film when Jesus is crucified, the storm gathers, the blood from the cross washes across the land, and Ben-Hur’s mother and sister are cured… I cried. It was late at night and I was homesick, but it was still a powerful scene. It’s not the scene everyone remembers, however.
The chariot scene has to be one of the greatest action sequences committed to film. It takes your breath away with its sheer scope and intensity. Even with today’s fast-paced every-action-sequence-has-to-have-lots-of-yelling-and-things-blowing-up films, the chariot race in “Ben-Hur” still holds up. I have a theory that it’s partially because it doesn’t rely on dramatic music – only sound effects. Whatever the reason, with gigantic sets, extremely well-edited action, and brilliant pacing it’s really a thrill.
One more thing before I go: I watched these movies the wrong way. Epics are by design the kinds of films you should see in a theater. These are meant to overpower the audience, and you can’t be overpowered on a 10″ laptop screen or on a 32″ TV screen. Go see these in a theater. If you follow this blog and you live in Los Angeles, the Egyptian Theatre does screenings of “Ben-Hur” every Easter. I highly suggest you check out the rest of their offerings as well. For those of you who don’t live here, you still have local theaters that show a wider selection than you guessed. Do some digging. Explore some new theaters. Movies are best experienced with an audience in the dark.