Ben-Hur: Still the Best Easter Movie

This holiday weekend, we look back on the best Easter movie ever made--William Wyler's Ben-Hur--and what it can teach modern movies.

It’s that time of year when Turner Classic Movies and every major network finds religion, if at least for a weekend. Beginning on Good Friday, you will have your pick of the congregation—a selection of Hollywood’s very best (and plenty of its not-so-good) Biblical Epics. Be they Old Testament or New, studios’ passion for Passion Plays has left a long legacy. Yet, one celluloid hallelujah towers above the rest.

Ben-Hur (1959) is not only the Biblical Epic that all others are measured against, but it stands as a lesson for the failings of the genre’s recent reemergence. Indeed, nearly 60 years later, Ben-Hur remains the best Easter movie ever made with cinematic lessons as important to the genre as Sunday School…even if it ends before actual Easter Sunday.

The story of Ben-Hur, which is often whittled down in the popular imagination to an adventure yarn about Charlton Heston and four white horses, is also a religious one that gingerly tracks the Christ story from the New Testament. And while it ends on the crucifixion, several days before the Resurrection narrative is complete, it still gets within a 72-hour timeframe of one of this weekend’s two Abrahamic holidays, which is a lot better than many popular alternatives.

Nonetheless, the reason that I have come to pay tribute to the William Wyler film that won 11 Oscars and brought MGM back from the brink is not because of its passion for the Christ; it is due to the film wisely taking one step back from the Sermon on the Mount.

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As many audiences have likely noticed, the Biblical Epic is having a bit of a resurrection these days. Whether it is Noah, Exodus, or an entirely new Ben-Hur remake coming down from the mountain next year, Hollywood has jumped into the pew with mixed results. Meanwhile, the fervently faithful—who have been less than enthused at how Darren Aronofsky treated the Book of Genesis with the same artistic license as Greek mythology in a Brad Pitt vehicle, or whatever Ridley Scott was trying to do with Moses—have found their own sacred altar to worship at in recent years: Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

This married duo was at one time most famous due to Burnett executive producing such hallowed reality television ground as The Apprentice, The Contender, and of course Survivor. But that all changed when the pair executive produced a History Channel miniseries with the inauspicious title of The Bible. By treating scripture with the fidelity of, well, scripture, they created less than riveting television, but they also bore out a Christian entertainment empire.

Despite The Bible speeding through both testaments like the most unchallenging Liberty University convocation, the miniseries was so widely popular with churches and the devout that it spawned Son of God, a reedited theatrical version of the Jesus Christ portions of the miniseries (with Downey playing the Virgin Mary, no less). As much a call for more money as a prayer to the Prince of Peace, Son of God was savaged by critics before its February release, yet it still rose high, and paved the way for increasingly earnest fare like this week’s very own leaden The Dovekeepers—a retelling of the Siege of Masada without an iota of the horror that should be implicit with mass martyrdom/suicide as your finale—and, most intriguingly, 2016’s Ben-Hur.

It seems that after Hollywood has twice released studio tentpoles intended to be in the vein of yesteryear’s Biblical Epics, and which were then met with controversy, MGM and Paramount Pictures have fallen to their knees, asking for the merciful hand of Burnett and Downey. And perhaps, they’ll find their coveted prize of uncontroversial box office in a film that will be far less challenging than Aronofsky’s fanciful take on Noah or Scott’s touch of agnosticism in Exodus. However, the strength of Ben-Hur lies not in a cloyingly earnest reading of the Bible, but in its incessant need to verify it from a distance. It is that genuinely intellectual component that indeed has made this “Tale of the Christ” a classic since the 19th century.

Long before Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace, a Union general in the Civil War and a debated figure at the Battle of Shiloh, set out to research the life and times of Jesus Christ, he had taken a fortuitous train ride in 1876. While accompanying Col. Robert G. Ingersoll in a railroad compartment, the infamously “agnostic” (likely atheist by modern standards) Ingersoll challenged Wallace’s intellectual curiosity (or lack thereof) on the subject of Christ and the Bible. Wallace had already done some research for a magazine article he wrote on the Magi in 1874, but the idea of exploring his own faith and where it might come from was greatly informed by facing a serious challenge to it.

In Wallace’s autobiography (published posthumously in 1906), he said that he resolved, “To study the whole matter, if only for the gratification there might be in having convictions of one kind or another.” The end result became not only studying the life of Jesus, whose birth opens both Wallace’s 1880 novel and the 1959 film adaptation, but also to publish a high adventure about that era in the style of The Count of Monte Cristo.

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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ ultimately became the most successful American novel of the 19th century, being more widely read than the musings of Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mark Twain. It also offered an exciting tale of betrayal, war, and redemption in which Judah Ben-Hur is a noble Jewish prince that is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala, a Roman citizen who returns to Jerusalem after a period of time as a tribune. Sentenced to die as in a Roman galley as a slave, the only kindness Judah knew for years was when a carpenter stopped him on a march to the sea to offer him a cup of water.

By a twist of fate, Ben-Hur eventually becomes the adopted son of a Roman consul, and he returns to Jerusalem with the power of the Emperor Tiberius to challenge Messsala to a chariot race. But vengeance on the tracks will not bring back his condemned leper mother and sister. No, that miracle comes from the aforementioned carpenter on His way to the cross.

The brilliance of Ben-Hur is that it rarely fawns over Christian iconography, but rather focuses on a vividly imagined fanciful account about why someone would be drawn to the disciples even at the darkest hours of a blood-soaked Friday. Judah’s story is not one of devotion to Christ, but of ignorance and apathy until the very end. It is a unique vantage that informs William Wyler’s sprawling landscapes.

Wyler’s Ben-Hur is actually the second film produced on the subject, as there is a silent 1925 classic adaptation of the novel that deserves its own credit for a stunning chariot race. Nevertheless, the reason the 1959 film is remembered so fondly is not just the 70mm spectacle of Wyler’s vision, but also his challenging skepticism for the material.

Wyler, who was born to Swiss and German Jewish parents living in Mulhouse, Alsace, knew something of the immigrant experience and the destitution experienced by the Ben-Hur family.

While Wyler arrived with a Hollywood connection to Universal founder Carl Laemmle in 1921, and was directing romantic epics like Jezebel and Wuthering Heights by the time the Second World War broke out in Europe, he still spent vast amounts of his income petitioning the State Department to allow two dozen distant relatives and family friends to immigrate from Mulhouse to the United States, and for whom Wyler would serve as the guarantor. Wyler, affected in some ways by World War II like Wallace was by the Civil War, came with a different sense of urgency to the matters of dying for one’s beliefs—a fate that one should not necessarily gallop towards. And of course, Wyler’s Jewish persuasion also gave him a different perspective. As his daughter Catherine Wyler (named after the Wuthering Heights heroine) remembers, William Wyler often joked, “It took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ.”

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The irony of this jest is actually one of the picture’s greatest assets. In comparison, the other great and legendary Biblical Epic that will undoubtedly be playing this weekend in celebration of another holiday is also one that came out only a few years prior to Ben-Hur and also starred Chuck Heston: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). What was actually DeMille’s second adaptation of the story of Moses to the big screen (the first was half of a 1923 silent picture with the same name) also marked DeMille’s final film and a testament to his own legacy. DeMille even eulogized it prior to its release with a 10-minute trailer where he explains how they shot the film at the actual Mount Sinai. It was a love letter to his faith, a spiritual story from his youth, and his sunsetting career.

Wyler hailed from a more distant land on Ben-Hur, and elicited a more thoughtful tone about why Judah sought vengeance before being driven to the cross. While The Ten Commandments was nigh apocalyptic in appearance, the Italian production of Ben-Hur made more use of its exterior locations, and captured its vistas in stunning 70mm with an early anamorphic lens that gave the picture a near 3:1 ratio. It was colored by earthy browns and blue skies, and even a Heston performance that while disappointing to Wyler was considerably less bombastic than his Red Sea Divider interpretation.

Heston was not the studio’s first choice because of The Ten Commandments (their preference was for Paul Newman), but he still gave a relatively quiet performance as a man conflicted throughout the picture between his allegiance and weariness for Rome, as opposed to walking with the righteousness of self-satisfied fervor, such as his version of Moses. This is because unlike other interpretations of Ben-Hur, there was a desire to distance itself from clean unquestioning faith, much like Wallace had experienced on that fateful 1876 train ride.

For this very reason, Jesus Christ only appears in a handful of scenes in Ben-Hur, and never is the face of Christ clearly seen, even when Judah lays eyes on him. Wyler is not passively suggesting this is the Jesus that millions of Americans light their home exteriors for every December; within the context of the film, Jesus is an almost ominous or unknowable entity, a supernatural presence that is never fully seen, heard, or comprehended. Christ takes on a mystical supremacy by being an outside presence of quiet, stunning benevolence, as opposed to a golden-lit sufferer of beatings.

It is a shrewd approach that differs greatly from how the Carpenter of Galilee is now treated in the hands of less daring filmmakers. Similarly, the actual central characters of Ben-Hur are treated like human beings, as opposed to martyrs quiescent in their piety, be they of chariot races or Masada.

Famously, Gore Vidal, one of the three screenwriters on Ben-Hur, contends he had a breakthrough on writing the story of Judah and Messala. While discussing this central relationship, Vidal suggested to Wyler that they turn the two men’s relationship into a “lover’s quarrel.” Whether Vidal meant that Judah was seduced to do as the Romans do by a younger Messala (or at least Macedonian Greeks), or more of a metaphorical allusion to these two’s emotional break, is certainly left open to interpretation.

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But when Wyler suggested that Vidal couldn’t even entertain the notion by exclaiming, “Gore, this is Ben-Hur, you can’t do that to Ben-Hur!” Vidal countered, “If you don’t do something like that, you won’t even have Ben-Hur; you’re going to have an emotive-less mess on your hands.” He wrote something emotional between these two that is not stated, and which blows a fuse in Messala. It’s a love scene gone wrong, though for the record, Vidal was eventually replaced by Christopher Fry, and Wyler rejected this interpretation of the characters.

Still, there was a desire to find a human story between Judah and Messala, and even Judah’s much put-upon mother and sister that underscores the film’s emotional resonance long before any spiritual conversion happens—an experience that occurs over several scenes of unspoken awe while Judah witnesses the death of Christ and a miracle for his family, as opposed to a specific “come to Jesus” moment.

Faith is earned in Ben-Hur; not given. And in the meantime, Wyler offers a visual epic that entertains secularists and heathens alike in an old school style of filmmaking that is almost non-existent today. Whereas CGI is our order of the day, Ben-Hur’s reliance on matte paintings still does not prevent the film from utilizing stunning sets and tactile filmmaking. The famed chariot race, which stands as the centerpiece of Ben-Hur is also realized on an actual chariot racetrack constructed on an Italian set (though much of the audience is matte painting), and by real actors on real horses, including stars Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. One of the world’s first 70mm cameras was destroyed by horses making a sharp turn during that film, but they made an even sharper image with an iconic visual realized by filmmakers chasing more than the appeasement of less challenging viewers.

Almost 60 years later, Ben-Hur still gallops with a fury that makes a remake as circumspect as many other modern Biblical Epics. In one of Hollywood’s biggest, broadest, and most shamelessly overstuffed epics, there is still a story that approaches faith with an intellectual curiosity. It’s as much a miracle now as then.

***You can join me for a chariot race on Twitter.

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