Sunday, January 6, 2008

Review – Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

January 6, 2008

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ – 1925, U.S.

It is the time of the Roman Empire, and those in power have long ago ceased to see those who are not Roman as their equals. Three soldiers steal apples from a struggling vender, while another grabs a woman by the hair and throws her to the ground, simply because he can. Into this environment step a man and a pregnant woman seeking shelter. The man appears worn down by the travel and older in years; the woman’s face is covered. Seeing an older woman holding a hungry crying baby, she reaches out and touches the baby on the head. The baby’s mother is first suspicious and pulls her baby out of this stranger’s reach. The woman then uncovers her face, revealing a face that is illuminated with a bright, heavenly glow. The mother of the child is suddenly warm and hopeful, perhaps recognizing the importance of the woman in front of her and perhaps also that of her child’s impending birth.

Meanwhile, a young man named Judah Ben-Hur, the only son of a wealthy Jewish family, is wandering the streets looking for an old friend. Along the way, he sees Esther, a beautiful woman who, unbeknownst to him, is the daughter of his family’s slave. He watches her purchase a bird from a vender and then helps her retrieve the bird after it slips out of her hands. In true Hollywood fashion, it is love at first sight. However, her journey is long, and their meeting brief. Judah eventually meets up with his friend, but not before having to endure the insults of Roman officers. In a short time, Judah’s childhood friend Messala will reveal the gulf that now exists between the two of them; Messala now subscribes to the racial and religious prejudices of the ruling party, while Judah believes in justice and equality for all. Messala warns Judah to watch his tongue or the next time, his treasonous words will have severe consequences.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is simultaneously two films. It is first and foremost the story of Judah, a man wronged by an old friend who seeks to avenge his and his family’s honor. His journey will take him across a desert and into a galley prison; it will see him adopted by a powerful Roman captain who admires his fighting spirit and become a champion chariot driver, a distinction that will enable him to face his former friend in a chariot race and possibly exact his revenge. In addition, Ben-Hur is also about the story of Jesus and his influence. From the wise men and the locals who came to witness his birth, to Judah who comes face to face with him on two occasions, to the people who come to hear him speak or the mob that is stoning Mary Magdalene, all who come in contact with Jesus are changed by his words or deeds. By the end of the film, a new religion, as well as a new way of looking at armies and fighting, has emerged, and Judah is the mirror through which this change is best seen.

Ben-Hur stands as a towering achievement in filmmaking and narrative. The chariot race still stands as one of the most impressive scenes ever put on film. From close-ups of Judah and Messala commanding their horses to camera shots showing the inside of the coliseum becoming larger as riders enter it, the scene is a marvel and excites even today. In addition, the film succeeds in telling each of its stories simultaneously, building to a powerful conclusion that is both tragic and spiritually beautiful. By the end of the film, Judah has found his purpose, and it is not in leading great armies in physical combat. It is rather in preserving the memory of a man who died so that others could live anew and be forgiven of their past transgressions. (on DVD)

4 and a half stars (would have been five if not for the corny way Judah and Esther meet and fall in love)

*Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was released as part of the Ben-Hur 4-Disc Collector’s Edition DVD on September 13, 2005. It does not appear to be available separately.

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