I love Ben-Hur.
Yes, it’s become somewhat fashionable in recent years for critics to wave their hands disdainfully at the film which was previously held in such esteem. Fine, they can have their pretense of superior taste. And okay, sure, trends in acting have changed in the last half-century. But I still love the film.
No, seriously, I once calculated that I’ve spent maybe half a week or so of my life watching Ben-Hur. Step aside, amateurs.
The film is justly famous for its epic sequences, most notably the sea battle and the chariot race (often imitated /cough Phantom Menace cough/ but never duplicated), but it offers much more than just iconic cinematographic history. For sheer drama and conflict, it’s hard to beat two friends, close as brothers, one of whom owes his life to the other, who become mortal enemies.
There’s the horribly evil moment when Messala examines the roof and we see he knows there was no assassination attempt, yet he’s had the house of Hur arrested. There’s Judah’s soulless decision and his challenge to God that he knows murder is wrong but will act regardless. And I get shivers of sadistic glee when I hear, “You’re wrong, Messala,” and see his smug egocentric universe get inverted about his ears. Yeah, that guy you left to die in slavery? He’s now the favored son of a Roman consul. Good luck with that.
(I’ve always been partial to Drusus, Messala’s aide, on whom Messala turns after that heart-stopping moment. He barely has a speaking role, but he’s got a ringside seat to a hatred which nearly changes the course of history. I strongly suspect that if one interviewed my subconscious, they’d find Drusus and my character Luca, a slave in Greco-Roman style, from Shard & Shield, conversing intently.)
Ben-Hur is also one of the minority examples of a film adaptation having an improvement over the book — which is a dangerously presumptuous thing to say about a novel which has never been out of print, but I maintain that the resolution of Judah and Messala’s violent antipathy is more starkly satisfying in the film than in the book.
Some years ago, back when Turner Classic Movies regularly ran classic movies, some genius came up with this advertising spot.
I confess, I’m not sure how I would have handled the pitch. “A bunch of second graders? Doing Ben-Hur?” But I laugh every single time.
So much about this video is right, from the meat tenderizers pounding the beat in the “galley” scene to the image of an eight-year-old being horribly destroyed beneath a bouncy-horse. And the adults are perfect, dead-panning to the cheesy organ music and reminding the murderous Romans to smile onstage.
My favorite classic movie house, the fabulous Historic Artcraft Theatre in Franklin, IN, is showing Ben-Hur on March 29 and 30. Seeing an epic film on a 32-foot wide screen in a restored vaudeville house while munching popcorn grown just a few miles away is good enough, but doing it for a ticket price of $5 or less is even better. Plus, there will be experts and interpreters and the usual pre-show with Fabulous Prizes and even a Special Appearance by yours truly and friends.
You should join us. Tickets available at the Historic Artcraft Theatre.
She raced her chariot
at fifty per
They hauled away
what had Ben Hur
— from Burmashave’s public safety campaign