When Faith Ruled: 1959’s Immortal ‘Ben Hur’

Between my recent column on Christian film making and the arrival of Holy Week, I decided that it was time for me to watch Ben Hur again.  As I did so, I found myself wondering what would have happened if Disney had approached Star Wars in the same way that MGM approached Ben Hur.  That is to say, what if The Mouse had recognized that they had a franchise with near-universal awareness, a vast fan base and an opportunity to print limitless amounts of money simply by respecting the source material?

 

Because that’s what MGM did, and in the process gave us one of the greatest films of all time.

 

 

The 1959 version of Ben Hur was actually a remake of a 1925 silent version, which was also a big success.  Both films were based on an immensely popular book, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, originally published in 1880.  The brainchild of former Union Army General Lew Wallace, the book was not the first time someone told the Gospel story through the use of fictional characters, but it was by far the most successful.  Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ was the best-selling American novel of the entire 19th Century and by 1946 it was estimated that 26 million copies were in print.  Given the population of the time, that means that roughly half of all American households had a copy.  Only the Bible was more popular.

 

 

Thus, when deciding to make a new movie version, MGM knew that the “fan base” was essentially all of America.  I’m sure the pampered idiot-children who run Hollywood today would have salivated at the opportunity to piss off almost everyone in the country at one blow, but in that far-off time, common sense was still common.

 

Everything Must Be Bigger

Then as now, Hollywood was worried about competition by other forms of entertainment.  Television was cutting deeply into movie ticket sales, and the solution was to emphasize the size, grandeur and color that only film could at that point provide.  This was the golden age of big-screen spectacles, larger-than-life films using cool tech like “Vista-vision” or “CinemaScope” to utterly amaze the audience.  Thos big images needed big sound, and Miklos Rozsa’s soaring soundtrack is suitably majestic.

 

With a price tag of $15 million in our old-fashioned, gold-backed currency, it was the most expensive movie yet filmed, and you can see it on the screen.  To be sure, special effects were a thing back then, mostly reliant on camera tricks, matte paintings and miniatures, but to film the scenes on a Roman galley, they built a galley and then a water tank big enough to hold it.  A separate set was built for the interior of the galley, and each “oar” was attached to an exercise band.  When you watch the guys sweat, it’s for real.

 

 

At the time, there was only one realistic choice to lead a film of this magnitude: Moses himself, Charleton Heston.  At this point Heston was at his physical and artistic peak and everyone knew it.  As the fictional Jewish nobleman Judah Ben Hur, Heston would be all over the place – calm aristocrat, feral galley slave, revenge-obsessed charioteer and – finally – a Christian.  It was the role of the lifetime, and Heston rightly considered it his best work.

 

Christianity Without Apologies

Imagine living in a country where the highest-grossing film of the year starts with a title card reading Anno Domini (“Year of Our Lord”) and ends with a chorus belting out “Hallelujiah!  Hallelujiah!”  They say the past is a foreign country, but 1959 was a galaxy far, far, away.

 

Wallace claimed that he wrote his book after a long discussion about faith with an agnostic on a train.  He subsequently spent years doing a deep dive into the history, geography and politics of Roman Judea at the time of Christ.  Through his research, he came to embrace Christianity (though he never embraced a particular church).  His work was praised because it made the Gospels accessible and “real” to millions of readers and produced life-changing results. 

 

The film is faithful to this mission, unabashedly treating the Gospels a recitation of actual events.  Through the imagined person of Judah Ben Hur, we encounter Jesus gradually.  The Christ starts as a peripheral figure, a carpenter and later a young rabbi with whom Judah is only vaguely familiar.  However, as the story progresses, the ministry of Jesus looms large and finally comes to dominate the narrative. 

 

Even more impressive is the way the film treats Jesus.  Mel Gibson famously beat Jim Caviezel to a bloody pulp in The Passion of the Christ, but Ben Hur director William Wyler took a radically different approach.  Throughout the entire course of his film, Christ’s face remains hidden from the audience, and we never hear him speak.  Instead, we learn of his powerful message through the reactions of others, and their struggles to put their feelings into words creates a sense of awe on the part of the audience.  Whereas Gibson focused on Christ’s agony during the Passion, Wyler shows us the scene in reverse, placing the camera behind Christ on the cross.  This directs our attention to the anguish of his followers, which is powerful and effective.

 

 

A Giant Among Giants

Ben Hur was until recently the record-holder for Academy Awards, pulling in 11 in 1960.  This total was subsequently tied by Titantic and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, but both films were boosted by the addition of new categories for technical achievement.  More to the point, Ben Hur was going up against the heaviest of heavy hitters.  In terms of acting, Heston and company were going up against Jack Lemmon, Laurence Harvey, James Stewart, George C. Scott, Robert Vaughn, Katherine Hepburn, and Liz Tayor.  Notable films of that year were Some Like It Hot, Suddenly Last Summer, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Anatomy of a Murder.

 

By contrast, Titantic’s rivals for best picture were The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets and L.A. Confidential.  I guess 1998 was a pretty lean year.

 

As for Peter Jackson’s vastly overrated Tolkien flick, none its many actors were so much as nominated for an award.  Its trophy haul was the result of sweeping the categories for sound, music, costumes, art design and so on.  Now I’m sure some folks will reply that Ben Hur also got an Oscar for special effects.  This is true.  We’ve already touched on the use of a Roman galley, but now let’s take a look at one of the most famous actions sequences ever filmed: the chariot race.

 

The Chariot Race

In an age of CGI, it is easy to overlook the immense work that went into Ben Hur’s chariot race sequence.  This wasn’t simply a matter of high-powered computers allowing Legolas to take down a 70-foot-tall war elephant like a pointy-eared Luke Skywalker.  Ben Hur used actual chariots with actual horses.

 

The race sequence begins with a procession of the charioteers, and to our jaded, ignorant eyes, it’s somewhat slow and even tedious.  I’m sure some viewers are thinking “Why do we have to watch them complete the whole circuit?  We get it, start the race already!”

 

 

What those people are missing is that this is a demonstration of precision horsemanship.  The audiences of 1960 had a much deeper understanding of horses than we do today.  Horsecarts were still being used during the Great Depression, and older viewers might have learned to drive a carriage before upgrading to a car.  They would have grasped the incredible skill needed to hold a line of four-horse chariots in perfect alignment.  Note also the use of long, continuous takes.

 

 

The race itself is like a constant-flow adrenaline pump.  Yes, there are camera tricks, quick cuts and stunt doubles, but the action is real.  In many ways it is like watching a high-end old-school martial arts film – sure it’s choreographed, but the display of skill cannot be faked.  While the urban legend of a stunt man dying during the sequence is false, it became prevalent precisely because it’s so plausible.  Once you unleash a half-dozen four-hourse chariots, anything can happen.

 

In one of his more embarrassing moments, George Lucas tried to channel this energy in the ludicrous Episode I pod race.  Why he thought there would be any sense of tension over whether a kid can turn a sensor light from red to blue while racing against CGI puppets is beyond me.  To a certain extent, most movies today are really just doing variations on Jake Lloyd’s giddy green screen pantomime. 

 

 

Take It Slowly

One of the knocks against the old films is that their run time is enormous.  This is because the pacing back then was more deliberate.  This is especially true of big-screen epics, which want to give viewers a chance to settle in and get to know both the setting and the characters.  For all that, Ben Hur covers a lot of ground, following its title character through each change of fortune to the final showdown.

 

A good way for modern audiences to approach Ben Hur is to treat it like a miniseries.  It actually has an intermission, and if you want to “binge-watch” it, use that as your halftime break.

 

 

I actually think this is one of the faster-paced movies of the era, moving quickly and efficiently through the various episodes of Judah’s life.  Indeed, I bet this film drives George R.R.R.R. Martin mad with envy.  While it contains wild reversals of fortune that are often driven by perfectly-timed coincidences, it never feels contrived or that the author is trying to “subvert expectations.”  Instead, the narrative makes it clear that a higher power is behind these unlikely events.  As the story unfolds, the characters themselves comment on the the mysterious way in which his fate has been shaped.

 

Evangelization Theater

As I noted before, Ben Hur ends on the highest of high notes.  I’m sure it launched a thousand sermons back in the day (certainly the book did) on how Judah Ben Hur was a comfortable, affluent man who followed Jewish law and prayed regularly, but his faith was not fully formed.  It took hardship and tribulation for him to truly hear God’s saving message.  In an age where the slightest discomfort is grounds for hysterical complaints, this message has never been more timely or more relevant.

 

This Easter season, make a point of snagging a copy on physical media (I found my Blu-Ray copy in a compilation box with The Ten Commandments – a great value!) and sharing it with friends and family.

 

 

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A.H. Lloyd

Best-selling author and curmudgeon. Retired senior NCO. Read my other insights at www.ahlloyd.com and buy my brilliant books.

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