Today, I welcome my good friend Kieran as the first guest blogger on Eternitainment! We’ve been friends a few years now and we often engage our minds in the fruitful discussion and appreciation of movies. If Kieran had his own blog I’d post the link here and direct you all there. Or maybe he’ll become a regular here? Eternitainment is delighted to host a post on one of the most famous movies of all time: Ben-Hur (1959).
At Easter, Christians remember the crux of their faith – the death and resurrection of Jesus. In modern Australia, Easter has also come to mean a four day weekend, lashings of chocolate and the annual airing of ‘sword and sandal’ films. If you failed to book accommodation on the coast or organise the annual camping trip you may have ended up flipping channels past such titles as Barabbas, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, and King of Kings. But the one that will most likely come to mind is Ben-Hur. You know, the one with the chariot race? According to the title screen, the full title of the film, like the novel on which the film is based, is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. How is it then that this movie is remembered as a chariot race?
Although the title may be truncated, the film certainly isn’t. At 212 minutes in length (suggesting that it achieved each of its 11 academy awards every 20 minutes), the film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a young Jewish prince living in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. Most of the action of the film involves the destruction of Judah’s family at the hands of an ambitious Roman, Messalah, and his subsequent rise and revenge, culminating in the famous chariot race scene. Judah triumphs over Rome (or at least one Roman) symbolising the hope of freedom from oppression for the Jewish race. After his vengeance, Judah is left unsatisfied and bitter, plotting the expulsion of Rome from Judea.
The life of Jesus forms more of a setting for the film than a major plot line and His story doesn’t receive much attention until the final minutes of the film, long after many TV viewers may have changed channel or fallen asleep. Surely, director William Wyler just added ‘A tale of the Christ’ to lure unsuspecting Christians?
In Frank Capra’s classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, the value of George Bailey’s life is made known by showing him a world where he never existed. More recently, in Terminator 2, Sarah Connor’s hardships are made lighter by her knowledge of the nuclear war she is trying to avert. Ben-Hur articulates who Jesus is by showing us who he wasn’t. To many first century Jews, the Christ was expected to be a political figure who would end Roman occupation and re-establish an unending kingdom in their promised land. Judah Ben-Hur appeared to fill this role as he himself was a prince of Judea, showed promise of victory over Rome and was preparing further war against their legions. Even today, Judah sounds like the kind of person we should admire: rich, powerful and promising a better political future.
Jesus, on the other hand, is presented as a simple Rabbi from an obscure town sent by popular vote to an ignominious death. Despite his seeming lack of credentials, Jesus was the only person capable of quenching Judah’s hate and restoring his family. When Judah met Jesus, he saw something greater than himself. By contrast with Judah, Ben-Hur ingeniously reminds us that Jesus is indeed the Christ who brings freedom and has established a kingdom, but not in ways that we might always expect.