By Melvin Arrington
When I was a boy of ten or twelve I could go see a movie at one of the theaters in downtown Jackson, carrying just a dollar in my pocket. In those days I could buy a ticket, get popcorn and a coke, and go home with change from my dollar. That time is long past, but many of the movies of that era remain firmly fixed in my memory.
One such film is the 1959 blockbuster Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, winner of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Cinematography. No other motion picture in cinematic history has garnered more Oscars. This year for its sixtieth anniversary, Ben-Hur returns to the big screen for a limited engagement in select cities around the country.
Why all this fuss over a sixty-year-old movie? Well, for one thing, Hollywood studios rarely rise to such heights of filmmaking these days, so when they have a revival of one of the great classics we should take advantage of the opportunity to see it. This is one the entire family can enjoy together, although with a running time of three hours and forty minutes some may feel like they’re doing penance by sitting still that long. However, there is an intermission, so it is possible to remain for the entire movie. Those who do so will be richly rewarded.
Based on General Lew Wallace’s 1880 bestselling historical novel, the film centers around Judah Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston), a wealthy and influential Jewish merchant living in Jerusalem in the first century. Judah’s story begins in 26 A.D. when he runs afoul of the occupying Roman forces and his childhood friend turned enemy, the ambitious tribune Messala. After being forcibly separated from his family and from Esther, the woman he loves, Judah is impressed into service as a galley slave, a punishment tantamount to a death sentence. Once a man of peace, he now harbors only feelings of hatred for Messala and becomes obsessed with exacting revenge on his former friend.
Although essentially a drama, Ben-Hur contains plenty of action and adventure, including a fierce naval battle in which the Roman ship on which Judah serves gets rammed. But by far the most thrilling episode is the iconic chariot race, pitting Judah and Messala against each other with honor and glory going to the victor.
Since the film opens with the Nativity and ends with the Crucifixion, Judah’s story is essentially situated within the framework of the life of Christ. When Jesus appears on screen He is tastefully and reverently depicted. Fittingly, in these scenes director William Wyler always shows the Savior’s face turned away from the camera.
Judah experiences several life-changing moments, but two stand out above the rest. In the first we see him chained to his fellow galley slaves as they march through Nazareth. There, a local carpenter, noticing that he is literally dying of thirst, takes pity on him and offers him a cup of water, thereby saving his life. Following a decisive battle at sea, Judah escapes and makes his way to Rome, where he is adopted by the Consul Quintus Arrius. But a life of privilege in the capital of the Empire fails to satisfy his deepest longings, so he returns to Judea, still driven by his hatred for Messala.
In the second moment, he has another face-to-face meeting with Christ and immediately recognizes Him. The look in Judah’s eyes when he stares into the Savior’s face in these two scenes is worth the price of admission. To describe the circumstances of the second meeting would reveal too much of the plot but, needless to say, the latter encounter is the transformative one, the one that saves his soul. At this point two healings occur simultaneously: one is a miracle of physical healing; it symbolizes the spiritual restoration that is taking place off camera in Judah’s life.
The reason why Catholics need to see Ben-Hur has nothing to do with the plot, the high drama or the famous action scenes. Catholics, and all movie-going Christians for that matter, will be inspired by this powerful depiction of how hatred can destroy life and how love, grace and forgiveness can restore it. These are Catholic themes, ones that we would all do well to meditate upon.
Ben-Hur does not soft-pedal Jesus’s teachings. Instead, it clearly and boldly proclaims them, most effectively through the words of Esther, who functions as an evangelist when she urges Judah to heed the words of the one she calls the Rabbi (Jesus), particularly his radical teachings dealing with forgiveness and how one should not only forgive one’s enemies but also love them. Judah Ben-Hur’s life demonstrates the transformation that will occur when an individual has a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. We need to see this dramatized more often in the movies of today.
Ben-Hur had a limited run in theaters this year during Lent, so many may have missed it. However, those who would like to experience it for the first time or see it again can still do so because this classic film is readily available for home viewing on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital copy. An afternoon or evening spent watching Ben-Hur during any season of the year would be time well spent.
(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)