Ben Hur

  • Category: Theater
  • Words: 2732
  • Grade: 100
Or, How an Objectivist Mayeth Enjoy a
Perennial Easter Favorite
(This Easter, row well and live.)
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
[On 14 April 2000, TDO published
Sciabarra's list of favorite movies taken from his "Favorite
Things" page. Sciabarra received a number of emails from Objectivists, who are
atheists, asking him to explain his choice of "Ben-Hur"--a film with a religious
theme--as his favorite movie of all time.  What follows is a slightly expanded
version of Sciabarra's TDO published response; given the reappearance of the
ancient Roman epic in film, in the new movie "Gladiator," this discussion of
"Ben-Hur" is timely.]
Within days after The Daily Objectivist reprinted my
lengthy list of favorite movies, I received mail from disgruntled readers upset by the
"random" quality of my choices, which seemed, they said, to bear "no relation" to one another or to Objectivism. Though I had prefaced my list with a
warning against the disease of PC ("Philosophical Correctness") within
Objectivism, I was not surprised by the charred epistles I received.
One reader, however, was especially disturbed
by the choice of "Ben-Hur" as my favorite film of all time. In a post to the discussion group, he argued that while the film had "some fantastic action sequences...the plot resolution is a literal deux ex machina:
Christ shows up, cures everyone of leprosy and saves the day. Certainly this deserves some
kind of demerit from a rational (not to say artistic) perspective."
Since the published list had no more than two
or three sentences of explanation attached to each entry, I think it is worthwhile to
offer some explanation at least for my choice of "Ben-Hur" as my all-time #1.
How it all began
When I was nine years old, I saw
"Ben-Hur" at New York City's majestic Palace Theater. It was the tenth anniversary re-release of the all-time Oscar champ, and the movie was being shown in all
its magnificent 70-millimeter glory. Walking into the Palace, seeing the famous portrait
of Judy Garland, who had just passed away, and then taking in some three and a half hours
of ancient Roman spectacle, was an overwhelming experience. I loved the story and was as
deeply moved by its characters and themes as any nine-year-old could be.
Today, after having seen the film umpteen
times, I have learned to appreciate it on many different levels. The film, among the 100
greatest selected by the American Film
Institute, won an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards
(tied in 1998 by "Titanic"), and has been celebrated by directors from Martin
Scorcese to James Cameron for its immense artistic impact.
In my view, there is not a single Oscar award
that it did not deserve. The cinematography, film editing, art direction, set decoration,
sound, and special effects are superb. Its score, written by the great Miklós Rózsa, is among
the finest achievements in symphonic soundtrack music ever recorded; in fact, the themes
stand on their own as orchestral compositions in their eloquent expression of passion,
struggle, and redemption. (For an introduction to the importance of orchestral scores from
an Objectivist perspective, see Jeff Britting's essay, "Romantic Music: Dead or
Alive?," in ART Ideas 5, no. 3 (1998): 7-8.) Charlton Heston's "Best Actor" performance (in the title role) is one of
the most nuanced of his career. Hugh Griffith's supporting actor performance (as Sheik
Ilderim, owner of the horses that Ben-Hur rides to victory in the chariot race) and
William Wyler's remarkable direction were also worthy recipients. (The only Oscar the
movie failed to grab was the one for "Best Screenplay," an omission that can probably be chalked up to Hollywood politics. The script involved everyone from Karl
Tunberg to Christopher Fry; even Gore Vidal got into the act. Wyler was livid that Tunberg
was the only nominee, and he publicly praised Fry's contributions in Variety. The
controversy apparently led most Academy members to vote for "Room at the Top"
instead of "Ben-Hur.")
Ultimately, however, it matters not how many
awards or accolades a film garners. What matters is the film. Is it a work of art worthy
of our attention? Such a question has much to do with the plot and the theme, which is why
some Objectivists might be disturbed by my selection of a film explicitly subtitled
"A Tale of the Christ."
Levels of appreciation
But as Ayn Rand tells us, there are many
levels on which we can appreciate art. Rand lists four dimensions of appreciation: the
literal (which pertains to the specific events of the story); the connotative (which
pertains to the values portrayed or suggested through the events); the symbolic (which
operates on a deeper level of meaning); and the emotional (which encapsulates our
spiritual response to art).
"Ben-Hur" is based on the post-Civil
War novel (1880) written by General Lew Wallace. Translated into a well-known play, and
into three cinematic versions (the one-reeler 1907 version, the sprawling 1925 MGM version
with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, and the 1959 MGM epic), the book, says C. L.
Bennet, is "one of the most successful works of fiction ever written in any
language." As a film, it is at once passionate and subtle, both action-packed
entertainment and a testament to aesthetic symbolism. No brief summary of the story can do
it justice, for there are many interconnected characters and subplots. Here, I present the
The film tells the story of a wealthy Jew,
Prince Judah Ben-Hur, who is reunited with his boyhood friend, Messala (played by Stephen
Boyd), who saved Ben-Hur's life when they were boys. The strong emotional ties between
these two characters have been described as "homoerotic" by Gore Vidal, who had
a small hand in the script. Upon their meeting, they hug and laugh, and, arms intertwined,
drink to their mutual happiness. They throw spears in friendly competition, hitting the
same target ("where the beams cross"--an omen of the crosses to come),
"still close in every way"--except one: Messala is a Roman in a Roman
world...Ben-Hur is a Jew.
Messala has returned to the province of Judea
a Tribune of Imperial Rome, in the hopes of making Ben-Hur a collaborator in Roman rule.
When Ben-Hur refuses to name the freedom fighters among his people, the friendship is
irreparably fractured.
Later, Ben-Hur and his sister Tirzah (played
by Cathy O'Donnell) watch from the roof of their home as the new Roman Governor, Valerius
Gratus, enters the unfriendly city with Messala. There is an accident: Tirzah leans on
some loose tiles that fall to the street and strike the governor. Ben-Hur takes the blame, swearing it is an accident, but Messala will hear none of it. He orders Ben-Hur, his
mother, and his sister into custody. And though he discovers the loose tiles himself, he
wishes to make an example of the family of Hur. This one action, knows Messala, will
strike fear into the hearts of potential Judean terrorists.
An oath of vengeance
As Messala sends him off to slavery in the
galleys of the Roman fleet, Ben-Hur swears revenge. He leaves behind his mother,
Miriam--played by Martha Scott, who also played the mother of Moses (Heston) in "The
Ten Commandments"--and sister, who are sentenced to prison as co-conspirators in the attempted assassination of Gratus. Ben-Hur also leaves behind a woman named Esther (played
by Haya Harareet), daughter of his steward, Simonides (played by Sam Jaffe).  (The
ties between Esther and Ben-Hur are not immediately consummated, but their romantic bond
is clear.)
Crossing the desert on the way to the galleys,
Ben-Hur nearly dies of thirst. He is given water by a young Nazarene, a carpenter's son.
His strength is renewed, his life saved. The symbolism of the water, its cleansing power
and life-giving qualities, is used in so many instances throughout the film that it merits
an essay in and of itself.
After three years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur,
who has been reduced to a number ("41"), meets the Consul of Rome, Commander
Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins). Arrius tells the galley slaves that they are all
condemned men who will die chained to their oars: "We keep you alive to serve this
ship. So row well and live." Despite the brief on-screen time they share, the scenes
between Heston and Hawkins are striking in depth. (See especially the camera cuts that
flash their expressions during a test of wills, as Arrius orders the Hortator to increase
his rhythm to "ramming speed"--the galley slaves rowing faster and faster,
collapsing all around, while Ben-Hur finds the strength to go on.)
As a harrowing naval battle against a fleet of
Macedonian ships looms, Arrius gives Ben-Hur a chance to survive. In the violent
hand-to-hand combat that follows, Arrius is thrown overboard; Ben-Hur dives into the
water, dragging him to safety on a floating piece of wood. Thinking the war lost, Arrius
wishes only to die. But as they sit safely on the raft, Ben-Hur tells him to "row
well and live."
Meanwhile, back in Judea
When Arrius returns safely to Rome to meet the
Emperor Tiberius in a Victory Parade, traveling with Ben-Hur by his side, the emperor
allows the Consul to take Ben-Hur as his slave, as reward for his valor. Ben-Hur learns to
drive Arrius's chariots to victory in the Roman games. And although Arrius adopts Ben-Hur
as his son, in place of the son he lost, he knows that Ben-Hur yearns to return to Judea
in search of his mother and sister.
Return he does, as the Young Arrius, ordering
Messala to find his mother and sister or pay the consequences. Some four years after their
imprisonment, they are now thought dead. But they are discovered in the lower levels of a
Judean prison--lepers. On their way to the Valley of the Lepers, they stop at the house of
Hur, now in darkness and disarray. Miriam and Tirzah beg Esther not to tell Ben-Hur of
their plight; she swears on her love for him to respect their wishes and to tell him that
they are dead.
Devastated by this news, driven by desires for
revenge, Ben-Hur confronts Messala in the Judean circus. The ensuing chariot race (copied
to some extent by Lucas in "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace") is among the
greatest single cinematic achievements in the history of film. Ben-Hur emerges victorious.
But with his dying breath, Messala exacts one last cruelty on his old friend. He tells
Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are alive, and that he can find them in the Valley of
the Lepers: "if you can recognize them." Indeed, says Messala, "the race is
not over."
Broken, sobbing, and helpless, Ben-Hur begins
a slow descent into spiritual corruption. Though a new citizen of Rome, he knows that he
has become "part of a [larger] tragedy." He becomes self-pitying, consumed by
hate, disgusted with the world at large. He wants to cleanse the land in blood. He laments ever having taken a sip of the stranger's water in the desert. "I should have done
better if I'd poured it into the sand. I'm thirsty still."
Pontius Pilate (played by Frank Thring), the
newly-appointed Roman governor, fears Ben-Hur's growing influence and instructs him to
Rome before "crucifying" himself "on a shadow such as old resentment or impossible loyalties. Perfect freedom," claims Pilate, "has no existence."
But Ben-Hur renounces his ties to Rome. He begins to understand how the authoritarian
power of the Empire corrupts the best among men (shades of Rand's We the Living).
  Not only was his friend corrupted, Ben-Hur declares, but he himself is
"unclean...and at the mercy of tyranny." He understands Pilate's point that the
world is Rome (indeed, Rome would be the world, the given, for another 400
years). But if full political freedom for his people is not immediately possible, it is
still possible--and necessary--to seek a rational life in an irrational society. Or as the
Christ figure says in another MGM epic, "King of Kings"--while it may not be
possible to be freed from one's prison cell, it is still possible to be free withinone's prison cell. What Ben-Hur seeks is peace within himself, even as he contemplates
Checks premises
But Esther tells Ben-Hur that "death
generates death." She pleads with him to listen to the words of peace being spoken by
the Rabbi from Nazareth. When Ben-Hur, committed to the destructive path before him, refuses, she declares: "It was Judah Ben-Hur I loved. What has become of him? You
seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil. Hatred is
turning you to stone. It's as if you had become Messala."
Stunned by the comparison, Ben-Hur checks his
premises. He eventually travels to the Valley of the Lepers, and, with Esther, finds his
sick mother and dying sister. They begin a search for the Nazarene. The search is
stillborn. Condemned by Pilate, Christ walks to his death on Golgotha. Ben-Hur recognizes the man--he is the man who had given him water in the desert, and the will to live. He
attempts to return that gift, struggling with Roman guards to give Christ a sip of water.
But the water barely touches Christ's lips before it is kicked to the ground.
A witness to Christ's execution, and of
Christ's courageous ability to rise above a state of metaphysical torment, Ben-Hur begins
to reassert his own will to live.
As a storm commences, the blood of Christ
drips into puddles of water, which carry this most precious blood throughout the
countryside. It is ironic that Ben-Hur would have cleansed the world in blood, for here
blood and water merge. In a powerful series of mythic images, the cleansing rain falls on
the lepers, and at the moment of Christ's death, they too are cleansed.
Ben-Hur tells Esther that he felt Christ's
voice, Christ's call for forgiveness, telling him to take the "sword" out of his
hand. The physical miracle, which he celebrates upon seeing his mother and sister alive
and well, is a symbol of the greater spiritual miracle: for in the end, Ben-Hur reclaims
his values, and his life with those he loves.
In the earliest scenes of the movie, the
centurion Sextus had told Messala that he wondered how the Romans would ever control Judea
given the powerful "ideas" that fuel its struggle for freedom. Messala answered:
"You ask how to fight an idea. Well, I'll tell you how: with another idea." And
so the conflicts in the film are conflicts of ideas: of individual liberty versus state
power, of love versus hate, of values versus their extinction, of salvation versus
The film is indeed bracketed by two divine
events: the first scenes concern the Adoration of the Magi and the final scenes take place
in the shadow of Christ's Cross, as we witness shepherds tending to their flock. Christ
makes a few cameo appearances, but we never actually see his face or hear him speak. More
than anything, we feel in him the symbolic presence of the call for personal redemption in
the face of oppressive tyranny and self-exile. About the same age as Christ, Ben-Hur is
also on trial, and like the soon-to-be resurrected Christ, Ben-Hur must triumph over the
darkness. [The parallels with Christ are quite explicit actually; when Ben-Hur wins the
chariot race, Pilate, the Roman Governor, places the crown of victory upon his head and
declares Ben-Hur the cheering crowd's "one true god, for the moment"--foreboding
another who will stand before Pilate, wearing upon his head a crown of thorns.]
  With this "tale of the Christ" taken as backdrop, the film deploys
the motif of birth, death, and rebirth with great effectiveness. (Indeed, the opening
credits of the film and its very last frames display God's bestowal upon Adam of the spark
of life as depicted in the Sistine Chapel.)
All things possible
And so it is possible for a perennial Easter
favorite to have meaning even for atheistic Objectivists: for "Ben-Hur" can be
read in much more secular terms. The film focuses on how the central character moves from
his own unjust imprisonment, to his self-imprisonment via the very vices he seeks to
destroy, to his personal redemption.
Interestingly, Ayn Rand herself counted a
Biblical work of historical fiction as among her favorites. She regarded Quo Vadis?
by Henryk Sienkiewicz as one of the greatest novels ever written. In fact, Rand tells Ross
Baker (Letters of Ayn Rand, 11 December 1945, 251):  "A book expert in
New York told me that the biggest fiction sellers of all times (and the surest recipe for
a bestseller) have always been religious novels with a good story (Ben-Hur, Quo
Vadis?, The Robe [all made into spectacular epic films--CMS] )--and that The
Fountainhead is a religious novel [insofar as] it gives to . . . readers . .
. a sense of faith, courage and moral uplift."   Clearly, Rand was
impressed by other works of Western mythology as well, given her own use of the Prometheus
myth, and her own creative construction of novels that might be viewed as epic myths. Many
Objectivists would not think twice about recommending Greek and Roman myths and legends,
such as "Jason and the Argonauts," "Hercules," "The Iliad and the Odyssey," "The Aeneid," or even modern myths like "Star Wars."
Yet they recoil in Philistine horror over reverence for such a masterpiece as
"Ben-Hur," which revolves around the Christ story.
The Biblical "mythology" of the New
Testament is one of the "greatest stories ever told." It has influenced some of
the most passionate literature, art, and music in the Western canon. "Ben-Hur"
makes great use of this imagery and conveys through it a powerful message of individual
struggle and salvation. Thumbs up; way up.
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