Movies 19 Apr 2009 09:43 pm

Been Hur, done that


 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,, 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.

2 Responses to “Been Hur, done that”

  1. on 20 Apr 2009 at 1.Neva Vizzuso said …

    just wondering what your other top 9 are

  2. on 21 Apr 2009 at 2.Chris said …

    Off the top of my head, the list would include “Casablanca,” “King Kong,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Star Wars,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’ll leave the others open for now so I don’t inadvertently leave off a favorite. Yours?

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