Ben-Hur (1959)

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You’ve probably already forgotten, but there was a remake of this movie released just last month or so.  It came out with virtually no fanfare, and apparently disappeared with as much to-do.  I’m not even sure how faithfully it might have retold the story, and though I’m a little curious, I’m not so curious as to actually look it up.

Ben-Hur is about a Jewish prince (Judah Ben-Hur) in some Biblical land who is remarkably successful considering the Romans have long since conquered his territory.  He happens to be about the same age as this other famous Jew of the same era, a fact which only became clear to me when it was literally spoken aloud by someone, because I was certain that Ben-Hur was well over 40.  His old Roman buddy, Massala, has just returned to town to take a position as some kind of military leader.  He pays a visit to Judah, in part to relive old memories of throwing javelins together, but mostly to convince Ben-Hur to snitch on his fellow Jews who defy their oppressors.

There’s so much homoerotic tension in their scenes together that I created a completely different story in my head.  Honestly, there’s a moment where they toast each other by intertwining arms and sipping from their wine goblets, like a wedding couple.  Eventually, Massala turns against his former friend, perhaps because his advances have been rejected.  According to IMDB trivia, I’m certainly not the only one to draw that conclusion.

Ben-Hur goes off to labor as a galley slave, rowing in the bowels of some warship.  Then he gets adopted by a Roman general, despite being a fully grown-ass man who certainly doesn’t need a dad to tell him what to do (the location of his actual father remains unclear).  He spontaneously develops an interest and mastery over horses, which leads to the big chariot race that most people associate with the film.

You might think that an epic chariot race would be the climactic finale of a movie, especially one clocking in a 3 and a half hours, but you’d be wrong.  After the race, Judah has to figure out what happened to his family, and why they’re hiding in the leper colony (spoiler: because leprosy).  If only there was a guy who was renowned for his ability to cure such an incurable disease.

Though Ben-Hur is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” you never really see Jesus’ face.  The movie is essentially bookended by Jesus’ birth and death, but you only get glimpses and suggestions of him in between.  It’s kind of a clever technique, the dramatic irony of this mysterious carpenter’s son whose trajectory happens to align with Ben-Hur’s.  The viewer only sees Jesus from behind (which, granted, is probably because he has great hair).  I only wish it had remained much subtler than the way it ended up.  Maybe it’s just personal preference.  I find most stories about Jesus a bit boring from a narrative perspective, because you already know his character and how the story ends – there’s not much room for novelty.  Then again, the Harry Potter movies are kind of the same:  you already know it by heart but want to see whether they’ve screwed up your favorite part.


Theme:  Chariot

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  I hardly felt a slave (said no slave ever)


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