Sunday, February 24, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—Ben-Hur (1959) ****

NR, 212 min.
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Karl Tunberg, General Lew Wallace (novel)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie, Frank Thring

I’m not well versed in the Bible. I didn’t realize that “Ben-Hur” had anything to do with Christianity before I saw it. It was a surprise to me to see the phrase “A Story of The Christ” below the title during the film’s opening credits. It is a story of The Christ indeed. I like that Jesus takes a supporting role, however. It seems fitting considering his sacrifice.

Judah Ben-Hur is a Jew, of course, much as Jesus was. He’s no Christ-like figure, however. He is one Jesus died for. Judah was a childhood friend with a Roman, who returns to Jerusalem as an adult to become its chief law enforcement officer. Judah is a non-violent man, but this puts the two men at odds anyway, because Judah won’t inform on his fellow Jews who conspire against the Romans. Eventually, Judah’s boyhood friend takes everything from him and leaves him for dead as a slave on a Roman warship. Imagine his surprise when Judah returns as a Roman himself.

The story of Ben-Hur is remarkable indeed and demanded to be told (four times) cinematically. William Wyler’s vision is slow and contemplative. I believe that’s quite on purpose as the famous chariot scene proves he was capable of putting together a gut wrenching action sequence. You hear how good the chariot race is, but that really can’t prepare you for it. I honestly don’t know how they filmed it. The cameras are right there in the fray and there ain’t no CGI here, boys. No, this is the real deal. Amazing.

But, that race is really such a small part of the entire story. Judah is like all men. He doesn’t learn from his mistakes, which is why Jesus must die for our sins. Only faith saves him in the end. His revenge is empty. His non-violent nature is good, but brings him no comfort. His riches are meaningless. Even his actions only go so far. He saves a Roman who makes him his adopted son. This good deed saves him from a death as a slave on the warships, but it does nothing for his soul. Perhaps, his deeds place him on a path toward the light, but he never reaches that light without faith. This is Ben-Hur’s story. It is a story of The Christ.

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