After Alexander and Macedonia, our next Anglofilmia stop was Isreal, to visit Judah Ben-Hur, in our first entry for our Roman Britain section (43 AD to 410 AD: they came, they saw, they conquered). (Note: we’ve selected it to provide historical context to the events of the time, as it doesn’t actually take place in Britain.)
Unlike Alexander, this epic actually delivered in story, character and scale. Check out our five observations about the film, a re-edited, contemporary trailer and a recap, below.
1. Ben-Hur is intimidating. It took us a long time to get around to sitting down and watching it, and it’s taken even longer for me to figure out how to write about it. Where do you even begin? People who are familiar with film culture already know all of the neat trivia and people who are familiar with history know about the context, but we started with no knowledge of either. Our selection of this film was, in fact, to lend historical context to the project, since at the time the Romans in Britain were busy invading and killing, but hadn’t yet pissed off Boudica.
Check out this trailer for the 50th anniversary Blu-Ray version; it’s interesting to see trailers for older films presented in the movie language of today’s viewers.
A recap (with spoilers – although, can you spoil a film this old and famous?):
Ben-Hur is a 1959 film starring Charlton Heston as a wealthy merchant in Jerusalem in AD 26.
Ben-Hur’s childhood friend Messala supports the Roman empire, while Ben-Hur wants to maintain the freedom of the Jewish people. After an accident that injures the new governor of Judea, Messala spitefully has Ben-Hur and his family arrested. Ben-Hur is sent to be a slave in a ship galley, and briefly meets Jesus of Nazareth as he makes his way to the sea.
After three years, Ben-Hur gains the respect of Roman Consul Arrius, who, after some adventures, eventually frees him from slavery and adopts him as a son. Ben-Hur adapts to Roman life and learns to be a charioteer, but he is homesick and eventually returns to Judea.
Meanwhile, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister have contracted leprosy in prison, and ask his girlfriend Esther to conceal their fate; she tells Ben-Hur they have died, and he is so enraged that he enters a chariot race against Messala.
Thus, the famous chariot scene. Incidentally, Messala drives a “Pict chariot”. It’s a nice touch, though it’s not enough to prevent him from being trampled and mortally wounded. He tells Ben-Hur that his sister and mother are still alive.
Ben-Hur goes to retrieve them, and is generally filled with rage about Messala, Rome and his family’s situation. Then he, his girlfriend, his mother and sister witness the trial and execution of Jesus, and are healed physically and spiritually.
2. It is totally worth the investment of time. By the time we made it to the Intermission (at 2 hours, 20 minutes in) we were ready for a brief break, but couldn’t stop. It’s fun to watch for the same reasons I love stop-motion films; you know everything in it is real, not just being rendered by a computer. Plus, the brain can tell the difference. It’s much more of an impact to see see the flooding of the massive galley ship, the city streets and the unbelievably intense chariot race scenes when you know it’s happening to real people, even if parts are on a studio set.
3. I was surprised it wasn’t included on Slate’s list of languishing Netflix rentals. (Although the AFI’s Best Epic and future Anglofilmia watchee, Lawrence of Arabia, is. Ben-Hur is #2 on the AFI list.)
4. Thanks to internet meme culture, “epic” is one of the most incorrectly overused words ever.
Things that are epic:
15,000 line poems
265000 word novels
Movies with massive budgets, enormous casts, gigantic sets and sweeping plotlines, preferably including heroes and/or voyages
Things that are not epic:
Things that are awesome
Things that are merely badass
Doing pretty well at something – even doing it really, really well (also known as “winning”)
A duck standing on another duck’s back
5. “The theater-goer in conventional dramatic theater says: Yes, I’ve felt that way, too. That’s the way I am. That’s life. That’s the way it will always be. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is no escape for him. That’s great art—Everything is self- evident. I am made to cry with those who cry, and laugh with those who laugh. But the theater-goer in the epic theater says: I would never have thought that. You can’t do that. That’s very strange, practically unbelievable. That has to stop. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him. That’s great art—nothing is self-evident. I am made to laugh about those who cry, and cry about those who laugh.” – Bertolt Brecht