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Monday, April 21, 2014

Ben-Hur IS a Tale of the Christ

I read the novel Ben-Hur, a Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace about 1970 and felt inspired by its strong testamentary power of Jesus and His mission. I can’t remember when I first saw the 1959 epic movie, but it was probably before I read the book. I watched it again yesterday, because I always think it has a strong Easter season “flavor” about it. Afterward I was reading the message boards on imdb.com and saw a suggestion that the movie was great until the final twenty minutes, when the Christian elements intruded on an otherwise fine film.

I both agree and disagree. First, I disagree because the movie retains the core fact that Judah Ben-Hur’s life parallels that of Jesus of Nazareth to some degree, and at the intersections of their lives, the encounters change Judah Ben-Hur in profound ways that align themselves with the original novel’s conversion story. I’ll explain these ways a little later on, together with the overarching Christian symbolism throughout the movie.
Now, how can I agree? Well, the world had changed enough by 1958 that when the script for that movie was developed, it downplayed the Christian events in the novel to a great degree. The movie uses Christian elements arguably so subtly that the average viewer misses the point, especially now, some 55–56 years after it was made.

There are three early scenes that involve Jesus Christ before the final twenty minutes when Ben-Hur’s life joins that of Jesus at His crucifixion.

The movie opens with a nativity scene in which the three wise men come to visit the baby in the stable in Bethlehem, under the light of a strange, large star. This scene is meant to frame the tale of Judah Ben-Hur’s life, whose tale then takes up most of the next three hours, with only two more overt scenes that show Christ, until the end.

The second Christian scene is very short, set in a carpenter’s shop as the Roman legion passes through Nazareth. An elderly man standing with the carpenter asks Joseph why a table he ordered isn’t done yet and where his son is—why isn’t he working on the table? At the answer that the son is out in the hills, the man tells Joseph that his son neglects his work, but Joseph replies cryptically that his son is about His Father’s business. As a Christian in-joke it works on a superficial level, but not really. The suggestion that Jesus would have neglected the carpentry work that He had apparently promised to complete is out of character for the One who was perfectly sinless. The scene leaves the viewer feeling that the Son is selfish for leaving his elderly father to do all the work while he is shown (from the back) out wandering in the hills.

The third Christian scene is again in Nazareth, as Ben-Hur and the string of slaves are dragged through the village, and the Romans stop to water themselves and their horses at a well outside the carpentry shop. This is the most effective Christian scene in the movie, with a brilliant performance of the Roman officer reacting to Jesus, who has given Ben-Hur water. The officer had ordered everyone not to give any water to Ben-Hur, and Ben-Hur had collapsed into the dirt, praying God to help him. Hands with water appear, bathing his face and parched lips, and tilting his head to give him a drink. The scene cuts to a long shot of the Roman officer, who, turning and seeing what is happening, yells out, “I said, no water for him!” and starts  menacingly toward the pair. Jesus stands, the back of His head filling the right of the wide screen, the Roman officer approaching on the left, and the ensuing exchange is wordless and brilliant. The officer is suddenly impelled by the gaze we cannot see to stop, to reconsider, to be fearful, wondering, doubtful, trying in vain to say anything, and at length he must turn away to recover himself, and then his bluster is not so brave as before. It is the one scene in the movie that completely suggests the character and truth of Jesus Christ. It is underscored by a close-up of the face of Ben-Hur, looking up into the face of his benefactor, registering astonishment, awe, and reverence all at once. Without ever showing the face of Jesus, showing these two reactions to Him suggests His divinity in a particularly effective way.
© MCMLIX by Loew's Incorporated. All rights in this motion picture reserved under international conventions (on print). © Renewed 1987 Turner Entertainment Co.

However, it is a very short piece in a very long movie. The next time we encounter Jesus in this film is almost two hours later, after many, many adventures for Judah Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur has seemingly completed a story arc—he had been unjustly sentenced to death in the galleys, but he survives, saves a Roman officer’s life in a sea battle, is adopted by the officer and takes up Roman life, dress, and chariot-racing, culminating in the great chariot race in Jerusalem against his enemy, Messala, who dies from his injuries after the race, but not before Ben-Hur has forgiven him, only to be given another agonizing pain as Messala reveals to Ben-Hur that the mother and sister he was told were dead are actually lepers, due to the punishment Messala had meted to them.

Some think this is enough—that the end of Ben-Hur’s story should be acceptance and a return to the prosperity of Rome, with the assurance that time will diminish his mourning, and that Esther, his love interest, will help him forget the past. However, that would be to leave out the essence of Ben-Hur’s original story, so the movie presses on to the scenes that bring Ben-Hur and Jesus Christ into conjunction.

Jesus is depicted at a great distance in the background on a hillside, with Ben-Hur, Esther, and Malluch in the foreground, on their way from the Valley of the Lepers back into the city. A huge crowd is gathering on the hill below Jesus, suggesting that the Sermon on the Mount is about to take place. (That it takes place outside of Jerusalem instead of in Galilee, and immediately before Jesus is arrested, is beside the point.) Ben-Hur and Esther encounter Balthazar, one of the wise men who has popped up before this in the film to tell Ben-Hur that he has been searching for the Man he had last seen as a baby, and now he has found Him, and he recommends His teachings to Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur rejects the opportunity, but Esther hurries to join the crowd on the hill, intrigued, as Balthazar and Ben-Hur finish their conversation. Ben-Hur recalls the incident when he was given water and tells Balthazar he should have rejected it then so he could have died and avoided all the heartache since then. He leaves, and for a few seconds we see Esther seating herself and preparing to listen. We do not hear the Sermon.

The effect though is that Esther takes courage to get Miriam and Tirzah, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, to go in search of Jesus. They find Him outside the Fortress of Antonia, as Pilate washes his hands and the soldiers lade Him with the cross to carry to Golgotha. Ben-Hur has joined them, and as Jesus passes them, Ben-Hur recognizes Jesus as the Man who gave him water and immediately seeks to relieve the suffering Christ. When Jesus falls and while the soldiers are busy forcing Simon the Cyrenian to carry the cross, Ben-Hur grabs a water cup from a street-side well and gives some to Jesus. Again Ben-Hur’s face tells the story of their wordless encounter, as he registers awe and love, concern and compassion all at once. His conversion is implied by subsequent events.

Ben-Hur follows the crowd toward the place of crucifixion while Esther takes Miriam and Tirzah back to the caves. We do not see what happens to Ben-Hur, but he returns to find his mother and sister miraculously healed of their leprosy, and he reports the peace and forgiveness at the close of the Savior’s life. There the movie ends.

I can see why some think it an unsatisfying ending. For those who don’t pick up on the symbolism and who have no experience with conversion or even with forgiveness, I can see arguing that the few scenes with Jesus in them could easily be cut from the movie, leaving alone the story of Ben-Hur’s life and final triumph over his enemy with the restoration to him of his loved ones.

This is the cover of the edition I have . . . 1887.
However, the original book was very much a conversion story that was much more closely integrated with New Testament scenes. In the book, Judah Ben-Hur is present at the Sermon on the Mount, and he becomes a converted Christian after winning the chariot race (in which Messala does not die but is broken in body and fortune by Ben-Hur). He participates in events of Christ’s life. His mother and sister are healed from their leprosy personally by Jesus and are found by Ben-Hur afterwards, as Ben-Hur is one of Jesus’s followers. Ben-Hur gathers together a band of disciples who are willing to fight for Jesus to become King of the Jews; they wait only for Him to declare Himself. When Jesus is arrested, Ben-Hur’s hopes are dashed as he realizes he has been mistaken in his interpretations of Jesus’s words about Himself. Judah Ben-Hur is the young man who leaves his linen cloth behind him and escapes naked from the Roman soldiers in Mark 14:51–52. He reevaluates all he knows about Jesus and comes to the correct conclusion about Him. He attends the crucifixion and rejoices in the Resurrection. He marries Esther and lives in a Roman villa until Nero begins his persecutions, and then the story closes with Esther and Ben-Hur deciding to give all their wealth to creating the catacombs in which the Christians can continue to spread the Word they have received.

The 1959 movie reduced most of the overt religious scenes to the very short scenes mentioned, until the final section when Ben-Hur’s life joins that of Jesus. But the movie incorporated Christian symbols to show that all of Ben-Hur’s life was a quest for spiritual rebirth and healing. There is a scripture in the New Testament that expresses what the movie symbolism does:

“But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” [John 4:14]

Water is used throughout the movie as the symbol for the life Ben-Hur needs. Early in the movie after Ben-Hur has rejected Messala’s request that he betray certain Jewish people to the Romans, Ben-Hur is shown washing his hands, a ritual for beginning a meal in his household. It is also symbolic—he is washing away his old life that included Messala, who has become corrupt and would corrupt Ben-Hur.

The water that Jesus gives Ben-Hur in Nazareth restores his life, and more than that, as Ben-Hur later tells Balthazar, it gives him the will to live. Symbolically, it is “living water”—part of the Savior Himself. Gazing into the eyes of his benefactor, Ben-Hur is changed, and his expression reflects that change.

After three years as a Roman galley slave, Ben-Hur is given the chance to escape, and he uses the chance to save the life of the Roman officer who freed him—significantly, it is a water scene. The officer is knocked overboard in the battle, and Ben-Hur dives into the sea and saves him from drowning. Later, on a raft, he again saves the officer from committing suicide. They are rescued, and the Roman consul adopts Ben-Hur in gratitude. This is a symbolic baptism scene, with a rebirth to a new life.

Ben-Hur thinks he lives for revenge upon Messala, but when he faces the dying Messala, he forgives him, only to be given a new reason to hate Messala anew: that his mother and sister are not dead, but are instead lepers, worse than dead in a way. There is plenty of water in this scene—it is on the skins of the exhausted men in the form of heavy sweat. It washes the poison of revenge out of Ben-Hur’s system for a moment, but on Messala, it releases further evil.

Ben-Hur tells Balthazar as they stand by a brook of running water that he wishes he had poured out the water given him by the stranger long ago, and he says, “I am thirsty still.” He has found his mother and sister, but they are not restored to him. They are segregated from the living, waiting in the Valley of Lepers for death. His quest has brought him to a desert place in his mind. It is ironic that he stands next to a brook, for if he crossed that running stream, he would have joined the masses on the hillside listening to Him who had the message of hope that Ben-Hur did not even know he was thirsting for. Esther crosses the brook; Balthazar invites Ben-Hur to do so, but he declines and hurries away.

His complete conversion is coming though. As he stands on the side of the Via Dolorosa, watching the suffering Jesus fall under the weight of the cross, he rushes to His aid, only to be knocked aside by a soldier, and he falls against a roadside well. He snatches up the cup and fills it, bringing it to the suffering Christ. In this act of mercy, mirroring what had been done for him, he fulfills one of Jesus’s admonitions:  “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). He receives a blessing in the look from the Man to whom he has given water, as can plainly be seen by the reaction on Judah Ben-Hur’s face.

When Christ is nailed to the cross, Ben-Hur is in attendance and stays through the hours of the crucifixion. As He dies, Ben-Hur hears Him forgive his enemies and speak peace, and Ben-Hur feels deep within a conviction that these are the words he must henceforth follow. A storm breaks and drenches the landscape. In the drenching rain, the leprous women are healed of their malady. It is not directly from Jesus, but it is symbolically His cleansing water, washing everything.

You see it much more plainly as the camera scene shifts to the foot of the cross, focusing on the puddles of blood thinning out in the rain, joining other puddles and rivulets and streamlets, washing the earth with the Blood of Christ, healing everything, spreading and spreading as the ending music builds to its climax.

The novel, plainly titled Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ is indeed a Christian redemption story. And so is the 1959 movie, although the Christian elements are subdued to a level that made the film not only acceptable to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have garnered, but made it acclaimed in a way a more overt film would never have achieved. If the story were to be made into a movie today, I’m sure all religious elements would doubtless be removed, along with most of its greatness. I’m very happy to have the film as it stands (and I haven’t yet mentioned the incredible, spiritually enriching musical score). But I’m happiest with the book, containing all the delicious details of drama, romance, pathos, sentimentality, and above all, inspiration.

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