4.19.2016

A Commentary on Ben Hur—Part 1

Ben Hur is one of the most iconic movies of all time. I recently got a library card (which I highly recommend) and started checking out classic films that I cannot currently lazily stream through Netrix or Amazon Slime. PSA: libraries are incredible resources. Support your local library! 

I began watching Ben Hur, only to realize this was too interesting not to write about. Here is my scene by seen (zing!) assessment of the film. Feel free to grab your own copy and read through the article as you watch it yourself. Every point is basically a stand alone thought. That is, I am making no attempt at a formal essay—I just logging my thoughts as I go.

Click here for Part 2 of my commentary.



  • Miklos Rozsa's score is seriously good. I know it is counter-cultural, but make a point to sit through the opening overture and intermission. Just take it in. It is beautiful
  • This may sound dense, but it took me a while to realize the opening shot was Adam and God's hands almost touching from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. I just stared and stared at it, subconsciously knowing exactly what it is. As a cultural symbol the image is everpresent, permeating all of art. It is fascinating how we fail to see what we are most familiar with. Side note: if you watch closely you will see the camera jostle and shake a little bit, which makes me think they filmed the image in real time. Extra side note: Minutes into the overture and the score is still great. Seriously, please listen/watch the whole overture. Don't be a Philistine.
  • As the opening scenes begin to play it is amazing to me how old films manage to feel both so real and so fake all at the same time. The scope of Ben Hur is astonishing and the world they created is so elaborate. At the same time some of the sets and some of the attempts at special affects feel quaint. And yet a lot of it still holds up so well. One aspect that feels fake is the period costumes look too pristine and colorful, as if the dust of the Fertile Crescent roads found its way onto anyone's clothes. The light of the star over where Christ was born is a bit cheesy and yet it basically works. As a special effect it looks decent.
  • UH-OH!: they have conflated Christ's birth with the visiting of the Magi! How dumb is that? They did NOT happen at the same time. Did they even read the Bible before they made the film? (the score is STILL great through this section! I've got to find copy of it on record.)
  • The casting is definitely a textbook example of Hollywood whitewashing. At least one of the wisemen was black. It would not pass today's standards...or would it? Let's see how well they do when the new Ben Hur is released the fall of 2016.
  • It's interesting because the intro would lead us to believe this is a story about Jesus, that it is a mere re-telling of the Biblical story, when it is nothing of the sort. The subtitle even says "A Tale of the Christ." Christ's work in Ben Hur's life is important but it is on the periphery or quietly in the background the whole film.
  • Ah, General Lew Wallace. I need to find out more about him, most especially why he kept his military title as part of his author name. I'm assuming he was a pretty patriotic fellow and was probably a pretty strong advocate for the American flag in his house of worship.
  • Ah, William Wyler. I also need to find out more about him.
  • We begin in the Year of Our Lord XXVI—26 A.D. How do they figure? What kind of historian was the good general?
  • I wonder where they filmed this? They are definitely making me believe this is "Israel". (Update: It was filmed in Italy.)
  • Ah! There's "butt-chin" as my wonderful high school teacher Kevin Hicks always called him. We watched through the whole film in our humanities class and every time he appeared on screen he would cry out "Butt-chin!" as if he were his arch-nemesis. I of course am talking about "Mesala", played by Stephen Boyd.
  • Is this a Jewish or Christian film, I wonder? That is, what were the motivations behind these grand Biblical epics? Were they Jewish-Christian partnerships or was everyone just trying to make some cash?
  • There goes by the Roman Garrison in Nazareth: we meet Masala, but the backdrop is Christ, who is not present but off praying. Christ, always shown from the back, gets his own musical theme.
  • Look at all those red capes! And still not a lick of dust on them, despite all that riding through the countryside.
  • I assume the castle fortress is simply a huge set. Is it cardboard, wood, or concrete?
  • I love how they take time to show everything and allow characters to say their lines. Space is allowed everywhere.
  • How white were ancient Romans? The mosaics at Pompeii give us a bit of a clue. I wonder how they got everyone to look so tan in this film? Was it sprayed on or did they have everyone take a vacation beforehand?
  • Ah! There's another mention of Jesus: There's a man preaching and doing miracles in the countryside, proclaiming "God is near in every man". Masala gives a good reminder that the emperor is Lord in the Roman world.
  • It's fascinating how Masala vacillates back and forth between respecting the Jews and by association Ben Hur, and then totally wanting them to obey Rome and fall in line as subservients. Which way do you want it buddy? 
  • From Masala: You fight one idea with another idea. This is very true. This is a pretty philosophical film.
  • Whoa! Those are some pretty obvious homo-erotic undertones between Ben-Hur and Masala! I was not expecting that. Like seriously. Check out the sexual tension. The way they walk across the room to each other, embrace, longingly stare into each others eyes: "I said I'd come back." They are shaking with glee. Then there is all this underlining jealousy and ownership of each other. Finally, they get out their "spears" and have a competition. It's like they are literally "spearing" each other. Hello symbolism my old friend. "After all these years...still close" "In every way..." "I hope so..." In every way? Hmmm....
  • When you watch movies like this as a kid you never pick up on all the politics and historical background. Nearly all those details fly by you. But now I see how the entire plot surrounds conflicts between different national and political ideologies. It affects every relationship.
  • Self-preservation vs. calling. Either you sell yourself out for the principles of another or hold to your own principles. Ben Hur is continually battling these tensions.
  • Masala is toying with Ben Hur’s sister. It’s kind of pathetic. There’s no way he would ever marry her and for various reasons—most especially that he is in love with Ben Hur!
  • It is strange how people behave in old movies. Ben Hur’s sister acts almost like a simpleton or like a child. And so does his mother. Why did people act so unnatural in film’s “back then”. I am thankful Marlon Brando and the 1970’s came along.
  • Is Caesar God? I love the tension between Ben Hur’s commitment to Yhwh and his people and Masala’s commitment to the Roman conception of divinity and the perceived supremacy of Rome. Masala could have let them remain friends but he went too far and played his hand far too strongly. There is no way things could “be like they always were” if that is how is he is going to treat his friend.
  • What do we make of the entrance of Simonedes’ daughter Esther? She is presented as a pure angelic being but also sexy. She is put high up on a pedestal of femininity. Ben Hur sits back in his chair and openly objectifies her like a perv. I’m surprised he doesn’t ask her to strip. His desire for her is palpable.
  • What is it with the way Charlton Heston always kisses? His neck extends out and then he kisses downward at this jagged angle and his own face bunches up into his neck. Then his kiss itself is a descent upon the woman, like an ambush. His stiff neck jams into the woman’s face. Their faces smash into each other. The woman’s neck cranes backward at a sharp angle. Is this a move of dominance or is he just awkward? Was this a kiss or a jab? Heston kissed the same way in The Ten Commandments. I feel sorry for the women he gave whiplash to.
  • It is interesting how older movies build sexual tension chastely but with lots of innuendo over the course of a long scene. Hardly any actual physical affection takes place and yet as a viewer you’re getting all hot and bothered.
  • Ah…Ben Hur and his family’s fate changes forever due to the chaos of the universe. One little move causes a disaster that sets a whole horrible series of events in motion.
  • Masala is a merciless man. He becomes a true villain when he does not allow the truth to set the Hur family free. 
  • So…Ben Hur apparently killed a lot of soldiers when he attempted to break free in prison. Did they give him a harsher sentence, I wonder? And I thought he was not a violent man?
  • Vengeance: this sets Ben Hur’s motivation for the rest of the film. Like the Count of Monte Cristo, his whole life now is about getting vengeance on Masala.
  • The desert scenes as the prison gang makes its journey are wonderfully shot. The prisoners walking against the harsh background creates quite an image.
  • And here we are in Nazareth again. I love the look on the Roman soldier’s face when Jesus confronts him. I wonder what it would have been like to stare into Jesus’ eyes. Ben Hur finds compassion in a most cruel place. The soldier is overpowered by the compassion as well. His cruelty is made powerless by Jesus. Christ’s love is unrelenting.
  • Ben Hur doesn’t understand what’s happened to him, but he knows he has come in contact with something great.
  • The end of act 1! We now find ourselves at sea. This epic just got more epic. The drum beats that mark the rhythm of the rowers is about as iconic a Hollywood image as it gets.
  • Notice all the military protocol—gestures, salutes, marches: In movies like this I wonder how much of this stuff is just made up and how much they are actually able to glean from historical accounts?
  • A quote: “Your eyes are full of hate 41 [Ben Hur]. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.” Another competing ideology to “love”. “Hate” is the common sense way of the world, right after “fear.”
  • And so the Roman Consul helps Ben Hur. Inexplicably so. Mercy and love trumps hate. And it is near impossible to explain why exactly it happened. We can only accept it.
  • War is a mess…
  • I love the clash of Roman and Hebrew ideals while Ben Hur and Consul Arrius are stranded on the raft. “I’m totally going to kill myself. It is the “right” thing to do.” “No…you are totally NOT going to kill yourself, God has bigger purposes for your life than you realize. I’m going to chain you up until you understand that.”
  • The coronation scene in front of Tiberius Caesar is epic old Hollywood. I love the lazy privileged arrogance of Caesar.
  • And now we get a strange cut in time…a flash forward. It is not immediately clear how much time has passed. And who is that woman? Is that Ben Hur’s little side fling? 
  • We get some more homoeroticism, this time between Ben Hur and Arrius. Look at the longing on their faces, this of the more pederastic variety. There is much more sexual tension between the men in this movie than between the men and women. The men’s heart’s seem to be truly intertwined, whereas the men only want to conquer the women and the women seem to only want to please the man.
  • Ah! When Ben Hur meets the Sheik we get some more great symbolism: horses are like wives, wives like horse! They are beautiful, we get to parade them around, and they do whatever we tell them to! It's so wonderful!
  • Now back in Jerusalem his is where the story gets mega-tragic. There have been some major real-life consequences for Masala’s vindictive tare upon the Hur family. Their servant was tortured and lost the use of his legs and his mother and sister…we can’t even bear to look at them.
  • Ben Hur’s second entrance into Masala’s court is a stroke of movie brilliance. Notice the spears on the wall where Masala is flicking his whip around idly, idly torturing his male “companion”. It mirrors Hur's first entrance, but this time Ben Hur has been transformed. The scales of power are shifting. This is where the plot goes full “The Count of Monte Cristo”.
  • That descent into the prison is horrifying. It takes one's breath away. And why, exactly, are we surprised that people get leprosy down there?
  • Ah…the intermission. End of Part 1 of my Ben Hur Commentary.







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