Ben-Hur Discovers the Epic Epicness of Grace

Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler

Ben-Hur (1959) is the epic to end all epics. The most expensive movie of its time, the production hired 100 people just to make the wardrobe and 200 to build its massive sets. Ten thousand extras filled in the background. It cost one-hundred and thirty million dollars to make (in today’s dollars). It received twelve Oscar nominations and was coronated as the best picture of 1959 by the Academy, the Golden Globes, and the BAFTAs, and is counted the 100th greatest movie of all time by AFI. Its monumentality extends to its massive length, clocking in at two-hundred and twenty-two minutes long: Ben-Hur strains every ounce of strength to let you know it is hugely, enormously, gigantically epic.

They don’t make ‘em like they used to, and if you think I’m wrong, just wait until the remake comes out in 2016. I promise you it will not be two-hundred and twenty-two minutes long.

Ben-Hur, based on an 1880 novel by a former Civil War general, is also one of the most explicitly Christian movies ever made, certainly the most Christian to be showered with such enduring adulation. Critics of Christian art often argue that it is artistically substandard, the artists (or the bankrollers) seemingly of the belief that if it’s got Jesus in it, people will buy it. Whatever the merits of that critique, Ben-Hur doesn’t fit the mold. This is stupendous filmmaking.

It is the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince in first century Judea who is wrongly sold into slavery but wins back his freedom through luck, integrity, and courage–and who is subsequently cursed by an unquenchable thirst for vengeance that consumes him until [spoiler] he meets Jesus and learns forgiveness.

Some of the scenes–the rowing of the galley slaves, the chariot race–are justly famous. In the former, the music builds wild tension; in the latter, its absence does likewise. I confess I found some stretches of this colossal, nearly-four-hour movie a little stiff and boring–many scenes go on too long–but every other scene punctuates the film and brings it to life. That, and realizing that in all the mass-crowd scenes at the Forum in Rome, at the chariot race, or at Christ’s trial and crucifixion, there is not one single pixel of CGI. The director gave his saga a feel of storied largeness the only way he could: he zoomed out and put thousands of actual human beings on camera. The result is a film that feels like a cross between life and legend.

The story surprised me at several points. Ben-Hur passes through a number of crises that, in a lesser movie, would complete his story-arc and end the movie–as when he wins his freedom, or returns to Judea after years’ absence, or sees his old nemesis, Masalla, die. But that would fundamentally miss the point. Ben-Hur isn’t about the man’s triumph over his enemies or over adversity. His difficulties are only the occasion for his crisis of faith, which is the thread tying together Judah’s many wanderings (and also the reason the movie just keeps going and going and going). The film ends when it should, as Ben-Hur at long last lays down his burden of hatred.

Another surprise: the story is set up like a classical tragedy, but does not end like one. Ben-Hur is a noble man with a tragic flaw–his need for vengeance. That should lead you to expect Ben-Hur’s downfall and destruction–perhaps his death in the chariot race instead of Masalla’s; or his arrest and crucifixion alongside Jesus. But the story pulls a reversal; Judah lets the sword go, releases his anger, and embraces forgiveness. This is no tragedy; it is a celebration of grace.

The director made an interesting and, I think, wise choice. He keeps Jesus off screen. The main character is Ben-Hur. Jesus is important to Ben-Hur’s growth, but only at certain points. When Ben-Hur and Jesus cross paths (just three times), we never see Jesus’ face and never hear his voice. We only see Ben-Hur’s reaction to him.

Their first meeting is poignant. Ben-Hur is being force-marched to a life of slavery, thirsty to the point of death. A stranger approaches and offers him a cup of water. Their eyes meet for a moment. The stranger touches the slave’s head affectionately, a small gesture but a human one to this man treated so inhumanely by everyone else.

We know the stranger is Jesus because he wears Hollywood’s Jesus costume and the music swells ethereally. The brief but moving scene communicates something about Jesus: his care reaches even the most wretched of the earth. It is a lesson Ben-Hur will reciprocate at the end of the film. The scene is wordless, touching, and profound.

Another thing the film gets right–the main thing–is the role Ben-Hur’s family plays in his conversion. He is driven to survive not for himself but to save his mother and sister (also wrongly imprisoned), helped along the way by his love, Esther. As Esther grows wiser, she also grows fearful of Judah’s mania for revenge. She learns of Jesus and drags Judah to hear him speak. Interestingly, this is not the occasion for Judah’s conversion–he walks away in disgust–but it does put him on a path that leads to his own face-to-face meeting with the Christ.

This is mature storytelling. While it adds several scenes and many minutes to this already-massive movie, it is true to life. It is often our loved ones whom we first follow into new life, though they can never complete the journey for us. Esther was right to pursue Judah with the gospel, but when he turned, it wasn’t at the time and place of her planning. For all she could tell, Esther failed.

Every life is epic to the one who lives it. We gather stories that stretch on for decades and decades. A life lived well becomes a celebrated, illustrious epic to be shared and retold to friends, family, and loved ones. Ben-Hur conveys better than any movie I know the feel of the life of faith as an epic quest–even including, like life itself, the patience it takes to endure the whopping running time.


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