This is the day

What, you ask, is the climax of our lenten viewing?
Of course, it is Ben Hur (1959).

Every year on Good Friday we reverently dust off our 2-DVD set and watch, sometimes waiting until Holy Saturday to view the second part which commences with the famous chariot race. When my children were little we stayed home from church on Easter Sunday and watched the movie. One daughter famously proclaimed this to the altar guild ladies with whom she was making palm crosses in response to a question about seeing her at church on Easter. “Oh, we don’t go to church on Easter. We stay home and watch Ben Hur. My mother says it’s too crowded with all the people who only go twice a year!”

Undeniably one of the greatest movies of all time, it won 11 Academy Awards, a record untouched until Titanic came along in 1997 and tied it. (Go here for the list of Oscars Ben Hur won.)

Ben Hur deservedly won everything that year except writing for Karl Tunberg, who was given credit for what was allegedly a group effort (with Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry), and I think that is why he didn’t win. It is a great screenplay and one of the few instances where the movie is actually better than the book upon which it is based. Also no actresses were nominated, leaving the field open for Simone Signoret who won best actress for Room at the Top over Doris Day for Pillow Talk and Shelly Winters who won supporting for Diary of Anne Frank over Thelma Ritter for Pillow Talk. (All I’ll say is Doris and Thelma were robbed.)

This is such a big movie and its greatness so monumental, that it is hard to know where to start. I will do my best.

1. First and foremost, as its sub-title proclaims, this is “A Story of the Christ”. However, the face of its central character is never seen. He never speaks. I guess it took a Jewish director to figure out how powerful this is. It works.

2. It has a good plot. The author of Ben Hur, General Lew Wallace, had a good idea. The book’s main character, Judah Ben-Hur, accidentally causes injury to a high-ranking commander, for which he and his family suffer tribulations and calumny. He first seeks revenge, and then redemption. As I said earlier, the 1959 film adaption improves on this novel which became the best-selling American novel of the 19th century, surpassing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and is considered by some the most influential Christian book of the 19th century. One way the film is better is its depiction of the character Esther, Judah’s love interest.

In the film she is multi-dimensional and smart. She takes charge of a very bad situation and goes forward, like an Old Testament prophetess. A former slave, she is in every way worthy of the Prince of Hur. I also think Haya Harareet, who plays Esther, is wonderful, and certainly deserved to be nominated (at least) for her performance. I love her accent and the way she imbues a simple statement with meaning: “The world is more than we know.”

3. This movie takes the view that the Romans were to blame for Christ’s crucifixion. It is a story about Christ where the Jews (and a few Arabs) are the heroes. I’m sure this was very appealing to the Hollywood powers that be, as well as mainstream Americans. Rome is evil. As Judah says to Messala, “Rome is an affront to God! Rome is strangling my people and my country, the whole Earth! But not forever. I tell you the day Rome falls there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before!” Ben Hur is all about personal freedom. And the film’s art director has a field day with Nazi iconography.

4. It has great (pre-CGI) action sequences using models (the sea battle) and the best stunt men ever. I always told my kids that one of the stunt men was killed filming the chariot race, because that is what my mother told me. But according to, that is an urban legend and claims that 4 stuntmen were killed during the filming of the chariot race are untrue. Charlton Heston had learned how to handle a two-horse chariot when he was making The Ten Commandments. When he arrived in Rome to shoot Ben Hur, he began lessons in four-horse chariot racing with the film’s stunt co-ordinator, Yakima Canutt. Props to Chuck–it made a big difference in the realistic final cut of the chariot race scene.

5. Like all great films, Ben Hur has great dialogue and great scenes that you cannot forget. There are, of course, the monumental scenes, but there are also the small ones that stay with you. Who can forget the face of Drusus as the jailer opens the prison door revealing Miriam and Tirzah, and the jailer saying, “Lepers!”? Or Simonides, carried by his other “half”, saying, “We will laugh…We will celebrate! Among the dust and cobwebs.” Or Quintus Arrius: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.” And later: “In his eagerness to save you, your God has also saved the Roman fleet.” And the end of the movie when Christ is crucified and there is the fearful thunderstorm with the scariest rumbling in movie history. The three ladies huddle in the cave and Esther says, “The shadow of a storm.”

I remember once sitting in a two-man paddle boat with the boy (when he was a little boy) on a lake in Michigan and he started amping up the speed, crying, “Battle speed!… Attack speed!… Ramming speed!” Another time when we were waiting to pick up daughter #1 and had the back of the 240 wagon open, the boy hopped in and holding tight to the seat-belt straps, re-enacted Messala’s death scene verbatim: “It goes on. It goes on, Judah. The race… the race… is not… over.”

6. One of my favorite things about Ben Hur is that Judah is the best son in literature. He spends years in the galley and all he can think about is finding out what has happened to his mother and sister. Then when he’s in Rome and Quintus has adopted him, all he wants to do is go home and save his mother and sister. And he does. Eventually.

7. All the actors are great–especially Charlton Heston, who really gave it all he had. It was the part of a lifetime and he made the most of it. Plus, let’s give him credit for having the greatest naturally-occurring physique (no steroids for Chuck) of any actor ever.

Remember the galley slave in the loin cloth floating on the scrap of wood with Quintus? Awesome. And then, of course, there’s Stephen Boyd in Roman tribune attire, looking terrific and owning it.

On that note, I’ll finish with this picture:

What is your favorite scene in Ben Hur?