Original release: November 18th, 1959
Running time: 213 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Karl Tunberg
Cast: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Martha Scott, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet
Many great historical epics have graced the screen since the birth of film, but there’ve been only a handful based on Judeo-Christian stories. As a family, we watched them each year during the holidays when I was a small boy. They were our traditional family events at Easter and Christmas and we’d gather round the television for a good few hours at a time, either at our own home or at relatives whom we’d visit on these days.
The Ten Commandments (1956), King of Kings (1961) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) were among those we watched, as was Ben-Hur. Adapted from the novel by Lew Wallace which had already been made into an earlier film, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), MGM’s version was the epitome of ‘epic’, from the sets, the costumes and infamous chariot race sequence. Yet it’s none of those things which made me fall in love with it.
Using the traditional story of Jesus Christ as a backdrop, Ben-Hur tells of a young Jewish prince who falls out of favour with his Roman friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), when he refuses to promote Roman rule over his people. Messela’s insulted he doesn’t share his vision for a world-dominating empire and uses the opportunity when his sister accidentally injures the new governor of Judea to imprison the family and send Ben-Hur to the galleys.
Be it chance, fate, destiny or divine intervention, Ben-Hur survives his time there and gains the attention of Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) to become a charioteer, eventually facing Messela in one of cinema’s most celebrated racing sequences to have ever been committed to film. Yet it’s none of these things that make me remember this film with the passion I feel for it.
This is that type of film from an era of filmmaking when filmmakers knew how to light a scene and the actors so the contrast with darkness made it all the more breathtaking. This is perhaps most evident in the scene where we meet Esther (Haya Harareet) for the first time. As she enters, her face glows with a celestial light while everything else around her is bathed in dark. It’s the moment Ben Hur realises his love for her.
This style of lighting; the playing with shadows, dark and subtle illumination, is also present in another of my favourite scenes from the movie; the moment when the fate of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister is revealed to us. It’s tragic and all the more so because his quest to find them safe and alive is what drives him. They’re hidden in darkness with only shards of light coming through so we don’t fully see their faces as the scene plays out to Miklós Rózsa’s heart wrenching score. It gets to me every time.
What I also find interesting about Ben-Hur was the story’s homosexual subtext, which later on as a teenager I was able to pick up on, though I’m pretty sure the rest of my family didn’t! The relationship between Ben-Hur and Messela goes much deeper than it first appears and there are strong hints that one of them wants to rekindle something with the other when they first meet again near the start of the film. This rejection is of course what fuel’s Messela’s anger towards his unrequited love – Ben-Hur. When screenwriter Gore Vidal discusses this motivation:
Combining themes of homosexuality with a religious epic seems like something more suited to a modern-day blockbuster, but even back in the 1950s gay subplots wasn’t unheard of, you just have to know where to look.
We never see Christ’s face in the movie but his presence and his story is very much part of the film. Ben-Hur, for all its extravagance and grandeur, is also a film of subtle nuances where there’s so much bubbling beneath the surface. Whether it’s the suffering of its characters, the ambiguous undertones of Messala’s friendship and subsequent hatred or Ben-Hur’s pull towards the teachings of the man just crucified, it’s a remarkable film that’s unfortunately overshadowed by the scene that many believe to be its pinnacle. If we take a closer look though I’m sure you’d agree with them that it’s so much more than just a film about a chariot race.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .