Movies 19 Apr 2009 09:43 pm
I was a week too late to watch the quintessential Easter film, Ben-Hur, on Easter, but at least I got around to it on Greek Orthodox Easter weekend.
Ben-Hur is a film that holds a special meaning for me. It was one of the movies that my sixth- or seventh-grade class watched in school, back in the days when that meant a teacher threading spools of film, changing them periodically, and projecting the images on a white wall. I attended Marlington Middle School, and each section (we called ‘em “houses”) of the school had a large common room big enough to hold mass quantities of kids; it was in one of these common rooms that we watched Ben-Hur, probably as the culminating event in a study of ancient Rome or some such. It took a loooong time to watch it, because it is a loooong film, and in retrospect was likely chosen to give my teachers a well-deserved break from working with middle school kids. I don’t blame them a bit.
So I can’t watch the movie with anything resembling objectivity. Doesn’t matter. Enough critics agree it is a great movie; it always makes just about everybody’s Top 100 list, sometimes coming in close to the top. It’s likely in my top ten, even though I don’t watch it all that often.
Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a Jewish prince in Judea betrayed by his childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), a Roman commander. He is forced into slavery, rows for a Roman warship, saves the life of a Roman general who adopts and then sets him free, and ultimately ends up a charioteer, competing against Messala in the race that is the film’s ultimate set piece. Along the way, Ben-Hur comes into contact with Jesus Christ, first when Jesus offers him water during his long march, and later when he repays the favor, offering the Christ a drink while He is carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem.
It’s a powerful film, culminating in the crucifixion and Ben-Hur’s conversion to Christianity, or at least to a profound understanding of the message of Christ: to give peace a chance and give up his hardhearted thoughts of vengeance. It all works, and even an old heathen like me feels a stirring when Christ’s death precipitates a miracle for Ben-Hur’s ailing mother and sister.
I watched the film on the bargain-basement earlier DVD version, not on the sparkling four-DVD set that was released a few years back. My version shows plenty of grain in the picture, but is nonetheless more than satisfactory. A comprehensive documentary on side two — yes, it’s one of those infamous “flipper” disks — gives background material about the film’s making and its predecessor, a 1925 silent movie. It really whets my appetite to see the earlier movie, which is available on the four-DVD set. (I guess it’s off to the library for me.) The documentary also discounts a commonly believed myth about the movie, that a stuntman died during the filming of the chariot race sequence. The urban legend website, snopes.com, notes that the story may be misplaced from the 1925 version, where a stuntman apparently did die.
Ben-Hur is a classic example of Hollywood mixing pathos, bathos, and spectacle in equal parts and coming up with a picture that satisfies across a broad spectrum. If you can’t find something to like somewhere in Ben-Hur, I’m tempted to say you might not be a movie fan at all.