One of the 15 films listed in the category "Religion" on the Vatican film list.
The grandest of Hollywood’s classic biblical epics, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur doesn’t transcend its genre, with its emphasis on spectacle and melodrama, but it does these things about as well as they could possibly be done.
Hollywood’s third adaptation of General Lew Wallace’s novel following two silent versions, Ben-Hur holds up better than such productions as The Ten Commandments in part because the biblical subject itself is reverently left in the background and another more appropriate tale is the subject of its melodrama. Though Christ’s life is traced from his birth, to his hidden life, to his public ministry, to his passion and death, we never see his face or hear his voice.
Instead, Ben-Hur is a classic revenge epic leavened with a pious message of forgiveness. Charlton Heston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince whose boyhood friendship with a Roman officer named Messala (Stephen Boyd) turns to enmity over politics and betrayal. (In his autobiography Heston reports that although screenwriter Gore Vidal was let go after trying to imbue a homoerotic subtext into Judah and Messala’s relationship, Boyd’s performance in early scenes seems to reflect Vidal’s influence. At least if that element is there, it’s embodied by the pagan Roman villain, not the righteous Jewish hero.)
The sheer scale of the picture, in the days before digitally created crowds and computerized process shots, is astounding. The central set piece, the classic chariot race, remains a brilliant action sequence, with Heston and Boyd doing their own riding and nearly all their own stunts.
But the melodrama is flawed. It’s hard to make sense of Judah’s spiritual journey: Why, after retaining his faith throughout three years of galley slavery — during which he declares unswerving confidence that God will deliver him — does he lose his faith after that deliverance comes and his situation has become much more favorable? Later, a plot development involving Judah’s mother and sister telegraphs the climax to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the Gospels.
Although not a spiritually profound film, Ben-Hur does include a strikingly evocative image of Christ’s redemptive death: Jesus’ blood pools at the foot of the cross and, mixed with the rainwater from a sudden deluge, runs down the mountain and over the land, touching the feet of Judah Ben-Hur as he walks unknowingly by.
Note: As the only Hollywood film to make the Vatican film list in the category of religion, Ben-Hur is listed beside such international films as Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew and Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons. By contrast, four American films made the Vatican film list in the category of values, and six in the category of art.
As regards religious films, in the library of world cinema there were undoubtedly candidates more deserving than Ben-Hur (e.g., Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest). However, the Vatican seems to have been reluctant to snub Hollywood entirely in the category of religion.
Even among American productions, Ben-Hur wasn’t necessarily the one best candidate (The Song of Bernadette might have made a respectable choice). Still, the consistent lack of solid candidates at any point in Hollywood history, especially compared to the offerings of world cinema, is a striking indictment of the American film industry.
At nearly 2½ hours long, the 1925 version is still an hour shorter than the 1959 version, yet the story is essentially the same, and the scale similarly impressive.
In 2003, Charlton Heston reprised his greatest role, if in voice only, in an animated made-for-TV version of Ben-Hur from the director and producers of the animated Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible series.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.