Tuesday, September 18, 2012

100 in 1000: ben-hur

What fun!  Our project commences.  For those who missed my brainchild post, it's a simple idea.  We are working through the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films of the Last 100 Years (10th anniversary edition - 2007).  Because life is crazy, I can't guarantee one movie per week, but I thought 1000 days, or almost three years, might be a reasonable goal.  Plus, 100 in 1000 just sounds a little bit catchy, yes?

#100 on the list:  Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ.  The subtitle is just absolutely misleading.  This is a tale of the Christ like ketchup is a vegetable.  I'm not sure if, in 1959, mentioning Jesus was a good marketing technique? 

Still, as a Biblical scholar, an erstwhile student of Latin language and Roman culture, and a Christian myself, this movie presented a fascinating glimpse into life in ancient Judea and the Roman Empire.

The film centers around Judah Ben-Hur, the only son of a prominent Judean family.  His childhood friend, Messala, has just returned from Rome to be a tribune in the local government.  But while Messala has been gone, Rome has turned his blood icy and ambitious.  He demands that Judah betray the local Judean rebels to him.  Judah refuses, and thus ensues a blood feud between them that frames the rest of the plot. 

Judah and Messala

This is a saga in the grandest sense of the term.  There is action (chariot races, ship wrecks, battles).  There is love (but not any sex - refreshing, if you ask me).  There is an Odysseus-like journey away from home and then back to home and family.  There is Charlton Hesston (portraying Judah Ben-Hur) with his glass-cutting jaw and trembling blue eyes.  There is betrayal, revenge, and redemption.  There is even some leprosy for good measure!  All in a measly four hours. 


Yes, this film is 222 minutes, or nearly four hours.  Now, a goodly portion of that is consumed by the Overture and the Entr'acte.  I guess this is the way movies were done.  It reminds me of Gone with the Wind.  I had to split it up into two nights.  There was just no way, after the baby went to bed, that I could stay awake for four hours to watch a film, no matter how engaging. 

The strengths of this film are in the details.  Nothing was skimped in the production and set design.  The circus in which the famous chariot race is set is gorgeous.  The extras who flood the street behind Jesus of Nazareth trudging to his death are legion.  The technicolor saturation is intense and vivifying. 

The chariot race

The historical detail is admirable for the time period in which the film was produced.  If anything, it probably worked to combat some tide of anti-Semitism that was (and sadly, still is) rife in America.  Jews are portrayed as noble sufferers and rebels under a stifling Roman oppression.  The Romans are hard, stiff, bent on domination at all costs. 

And Jesus?  He's in there, too.  He is mainly tacked on after the effective climax of the movie (the chariot race), to offer a dimension of redemptive hope to Judah and his family.  The sad fact of this film is that the accomplishments, relationships, and triumphs of these Jews couldn't stand on their own.  They needed to be improved by an unnecessary encounter with Jesus.  I could have done without the Tale of the Christ in this one.

Jesus doing his preachy thang.
Next up:  Toy Story (1995).  This one might get to be a family movie night!  

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