The Epic, Historical Drama: Ben-Hur

The Epic, Historical Drama: Ben-Hur

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Ben-Hur is an epic historical drama made in America in 1959. It won 11 Academy Awards, a record untouched until Titanic in 1997. It is set in Judea beginning in 26 A.D. and spans the years leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The plot of the film follows Judah Ben-Hur, primarily concerning his interactions with the Roman Empire and its military.
The movie begins with a robust overture. The after a depiction of the Nativity story, the main story begins in Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Jewish merchant. Ben-Hur’s childhood friend, Messala, comes back home after becoming a Roman citizen and an officer in the Roman army. When Ben-Hur refuses to give the names of the other Rome-critical Jews in town, Messala leaves in a fury. Afterward, Ben-Hur frees his slave Esther as a wedding present for her arranged marriage although they’re clearly in love with each other.
When a loose tile on Ben-Hur’s roof accidently almost falls on the new Judean governor, Messala condemns and imprisons Ben-Hur and his family. Ben-Hur vows revenge. During his slave-gang march, Ben-Hur collapses and Jesus gives him a drink of water.
After 3 years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur is assigned to a Roman flagship bound for battle with the Macedonians. The ship is sunk, but Ben-Hur saves both the slaves and Arrius, the ship’s Consul. Arrius convinces Emperor Tiberius to free Ben-Hur, and Arrius adopts and assimilates him. After gaining some wealth, Ben-Hur returns to Judea to discover that Messala is competing in a chariot race witnessed by the new Judean governor, Pontius Pilate. Ben-Hur turns down an offer to compete, choosing to seek out his family. He finds Esther in Jerusalem. Esther knows Ben-Hur’s sister and mother have been cast out as lepers but, to spare his feelings, tells Ben-Hur they are dead. Seeking vengeance, he decides to enter the chariot race, where Messala is eventually mortally wounded. While dying, Messala tells Ben-Hur that his family is the valley of the lepers.
After finding his family dying, Ben-Hur takes them to see Jesus, but his march to Calvary had already begun. Ben-Hur tries to give Jesus water, and later witnesses his crucifixion. The rain that follows miraculously heals Ben-Hur’s family, and the words of Jesus lift the vengeance from his heart.
The movie’s length left me antsy, but I greatly enjoyed the proficient acting, detailed sets, and thorough presentation. I appreciated the subtle homoeroticism between Ben-Hur and Messala in light of ancient Rome’s somewhat flexible sexual culture.

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I liked how the presence of Jesus brought out Christian themes: Ben-Hur struggled to find peace through vengeance only to find salvation through the crucifixion. The fantastical aspects of the story kept me entertained so I didn’t mind the historical inaccuracies.
The first inaccuracy I found concerned the governors of Judea. The movie begins in 26 A.D. with Gratus as the new governor, but in truth he was governor from 15-26 A.D., followed by Pontius Pilate. Pilate later brings up competitors from Corinth in the chariot race, but that city was destroyed hundreds of years prior. The Muslim sheik pins a Star of David on Ben-Hur before the race, but that was not a Jewish symbol until the Middle Ages. The Muslim sheik is actually fictional as Islam did not yet exist. Lastly, Judah Ben-Hur is also fictional. There are no historical records of his existence. In conclusion, the movie is largely a pro-Christian tale using a non-chronological, imperfect version of historical events to leave the resounding impression that Jesus produces salvation -- not one’s own will or actions.


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