“It took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ”
So said director William Wyler, when he looked back at the making of his epic masterpiece ‘Ben-Hur’(1959) in a moment of spot-on reflection. He was not the first man to make a movie on Lew Wallace’s classic book ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ,’ it had been made before way back in 1907 as a 15-minute silent movie, nor was he the last. But Wyler made, without a doubt, the best version of the classic tale of betrayal, revenge and redemption of a man wrongfully sentenced for a crime not committed by him.
For lead stars, it had Charlton Heston, a man who seems to fit the role of epic heroes as if they were tailor-made for him alone. Prior to him embracing right-wing politics and generally being seen as a cranky old man who loved guns more than life itself, it’s invigorating to see Heston here at the top of his game. Only Heston could have played Ben-Hur in the same way he played countless other larger-than-life characters, which included Moses, Michelangelo, El Cid, Andrew Jackson and Gordon of Khartoum. He not only embodies Ben-Hur as a dignified man, but shows the vengeful and driven side of the character perfectly.
The story, as mentioned above, is adapted from the 1880 novel ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ’, written by Lew Wallace an ex-general who fought on the side of the Union during the American Civil War, and participated in a number of battles during that bloody conflict, including the ‘Battle of Shiloh’ in 1862. His own life, as a man forged by conflict and bloodshed, may have directly inspired the themes of the novel, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest than Ben-Hur is really Lew Wallace but with a different name.
In the film, however, Charlton Heston plays the part of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who lives at the time when the Roman Empire rules over a quarter of the world’s population, including his own family’s former home in Palestine. Ben-Hur, being a man of the aristocracy, is not oblivious to the suffering of his people and shares their wishes to be free from the Roman yolk. Unlike the rebels in his land, he has a more cautious approach in dealing with the Romans. One advantage, which he tries to make use of, is his relations with a Roman citizen named Messala, his childhood friend.
Messala, now a tribune, returns to Jerusalem after a long absence, and much to Ben-Hur’s disappointment is a changed man. The boyhood friend of his no longer exists, instead he sees a man intoxicated by the power of Rome and an ardent advocate of its imperial glory. Inevitably the differences between the two friends reach a boiling point when Messala, whose job it is to crush any signs of rebellion, asks Ben-Hur’s help in doing so. When he refuses, their friendship comes to an end.
The turning point of the tale, however, comes when the local Roman governor is almost killed by a tile that falls from the roof of Ben-Hur’s home. Although it’s an accident and Messala himself knows this, he has Ben-Hur and his family arrested and imprisoned.
Messala calculates that by showing such ruthlessness towards his own friend, the local rebellious populace will know he is not a man to be messed around with. Ben-Hur is sold into slavery, but vows revenge on the man who destroyed his life. While being a slave on a Roman ship, he saves the life of a consul of Rome who has been given the task of clearing the Mediterranean of pirates. During a battle, Ben-Hur saves the life of the consul, who attempts to take his own life after wrongly assuming that he has been defeated. When the consul realises the truth, he is forever grateful to Ben-Hur for saving his life and subsequently takes him under his wing and makes him his adopted son, with all the titles and power that come with it.
Having achieved the means to take his revenge on Messala, Ben-Hur is now aided along the way by a colorful Arab sheikh, his skills as a charioteer, and an obscure carpenter from Nazareth who is being seen by the locals as their long-awaited messiah.
‘Ben-Hur’ is one of those classic movies that stands the test of time and remains enthralling to every subsequent generation that discovers the film. It’s got everything a film buff would want in a movie. A great story, terrific actors, set pieces on a colossal scale and a thrilling, as well as a chariot race that puts to shame any CGI-created action scene that a modern movie can conjure.
Heston, as we all now know, immortalised himself on celluloid in this film. However, praise must also be given to Stephen Boyd who portrays the ruthless Messala to perfection. The scenes between Ben-Hur and Messala are among the best in the movie. To see them go from close friends to bitter enemies is a wonder to behold.
Kudos must also be given to Hugh Griffith as the Arab Sheikh Ilderim, who aids Ben-Hur in seeking his revenge. Griffith won an Oscar for his performance. Although his role is small, he dominates every scene that he is in, with his loud and volcanic personality.
Jack Hawkins also deserves mention for his role as the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, who adopts Ben-Hur as his son and becomes the father figure he lacks in his life. Charlton Heston once commented before he died in 2008, that if the movie was ever remade, he wanted the play the Jack Hawkins part, feeling that it was such a great role.
Ben-Hur was the biggest box-office hit in the year it came out and swept the Academy Awards, taking away 11 Oscars. It was a feat not equaled until ‘Titanic’ (1997) and ‘The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’ (2003) came along. Although the other two movies were epic in their own way and very good films, ‘Ben-Hur’ still has the power to dazzle moviegoers all these years later and is a true classic in every way.
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com