The Decalist #6: Ben Hur (1925): A Tale of Biblical Epics

If The Sound of Music is a film with all the (T)trap(p)-ings of religion added to religious ideology, the 1925 Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ is an overt and explicit example of religious allegory. The semantics as well as the syntactics of the story are akin to a Bible story, with a relatable protagonist leading way.  Ben Hur is biblical fan fic.

Poster art that lends a touch of movie lust and romance: Ben Hur is an adventure romance, but not a carnal one.

It was, at its time, the most expensive film ever made; the precursor to epic and dramatic sagas (and epically dramatic means of production) like Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia and the heir apparent to Griffith’s Intolerance and de Mille’s King of Kings.  The latter would continue to make biblical epics, although it’s William Wyler who remade Ben Hur in 1959.  The latter Ben Hur is by far more well know, and bears many similar characteristics beyond the story.  Both are wonderful films, but the silent classic owns as much narrative and visual power in subtler, more artful ways.  The lavish sets and the art deco costumes are the difference between the charm of a church with original woodwork and stained glass, and the more prosaic churches with straight back pews and undecorated alters.  All the production values of the Fred Niblo directed classic: from the hand painted color sequences to the sets and extras and sea battles, only serve to make the story more realistic.  Or perhaps, fantastic enough to be worthy of religious retellings.  After all, what’s more realistic: your church’s children dressed up as wise men, or a live nativity with real sheep and real wooden shepherd staffs?

The point in both cases is the same: to recreate the Bible story.  But Ben Hur is not a story from the Bible. It is a story that uses biblical settings.  It is the story of one man’s encounter with Christ. Lew Wallace, the author of the novel on which both films are based, wrote the story as a result of his wanting to become more familiar with Christianity (apparently Wallace was also very inspired by Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo).  According to historian Victor Davis Hanson, the novel was also inspired by Wallace’s experiences in the Civil War.  In any case, the male protagonist who is changed when he repeatedly encounters Christ seems to have some traces to Wallace’s personal journey.

Fan fic, by definition, is written in the style of extant stories of a different time and place, in order to insert the reader back into a world of pre-established characters and settings.  Most fan fic is fantasy/scifi; but historical fiction is closely related.  Biblical

Ben Hur's nativity: hand painted color and Victorian iconography.

stories like The Robe, The Silver Chalice, and Ben Hur are just that: a chance to revisit a time and place and tell a new, fictional story.  These biblical fictions are different, however, than historical fiction in that Bible stories have taken on their own identity outside of being historical events.  Whether one agrees that “everything that happened in the Bible is historical fact” is beside the point.  Bible stories have been heightened, picked apart, reemphasized, reset, and dramatised far beyond the usual mythology time lends all history.  Bible stories are more related to myth and fantasy than to historical documentation.  It is just that most Christians adhere to the belief that this heightening is our approach to understanding what we cannot have actually witnessed in person.  Take, for instance, Mel Gibson’s gory Passion of the Christ.  For all it’s accuracy, down to speaking Aramaic, the film is still stylized by depicting Christ at all 14 stations of the cross. It is an understanding of a historical occurrence, the real thing could never be completely duplicated.

As fan fic, Ben Hur serves the same purpose as the Star Wars novels I read in high school: to insert the reader into the tale, to revisit the setting, to rekindle the magic of the time and place of a story that moves us.

Ben Hur’s repeated encounters with Christ are what change him.  We see the drama in his life: the plight of Jew vs. Roman,  his broken friendship with Messala, his search for his mother and sister, his time as a galley slave and a charioteer.  These trials make him bitter, vengeful.  His encounters with Christ give him hope, show him compassion, and admonish him in his anger.  The first is soon after his capture, before being put in the galleys.  He and other prisoners are forced by the Romans to march across the desert, beaten the whole way.  They are given no water.

Navarro as Ben Hur, here in the ship's galley. In a silent film, faces always tell the story.

Using cutaways and shots that reveal only a hand or a leg, the audience sees Ben Hur touched by Christ as he offers the fallen hero a gourd full of water.  Ramon Navarro’s face tells us what has happened.  We do not need to see Christ, we need only to see the effect it has had on Ben Hur.  This, in itself, was the intention of the novel (and incidentally, often rendered unsucessfully, of the stage play).  Christ is impossible to depict perfectly on film. (What the iconoclasts would have made of Gibson’s work boggles the mind.)  Ben Hur never tries.  It ascribes to the idea that the best witness is in seeing lives changed, the reaction shot.

The conversion message is wrapped up in a tale of high adventure.  If Ben Hur is didactic, it is in a roundabout way.  One does not go to see Ben Hur because of that great scene with the water, one goes to see the chariot race.  That action sequence is one of the most famous in film history, with it’s own legends and ideas.  It’s thrilling still, nearly 90 years later.

The chariot race: action sequence and personal metaphor.

Or is that the only reason someone watches Ben Hur? The stories of myth and adventure serve a purpose.  We watch The Lord of the Rings not only because it is diverting (if you have 10 hours to kill…) but because it means something more than just the story.  The symbolism and allegory are what make the story applicable to our lives.  I personally never hope to be a galley slave.  But I have known hopelessness and drudgery in my own small way.

When I was in college, I struggled with identity, depression, and faith.  I took a summer film class that screened the silent Ben Hur.  According to the prof, while we were watching the film, he was watching me.  I was rapt.  The reason was because I saw myself in the story, and my present struggles were given hope, levity, and I pray, grace.

This is the essence of Ben Hur, to insert yourself into the Biblical narrative.  To, in some roundabout way, encounter grace.  Ben Hur stands apart, watching the crucifixion as we watch the screen:  changed by the encounter with the divine.

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About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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One Response to The Decalist #6: Ben Hur (1925): A Tale of Biblical Epics

  1. Ted says:

    I haven’t seen this film yet but reading this makes me want to watch it.

    I find it most interesting that the film makers choose to show Jesus’s effect on Ben Hur instead of focusing on Jesus. But really this is the most obvious choice. How do you communicate the essence of a person whose wisdom, compassion, revolutionary teachings of love and brotherhood, and charisma would be the basis of a future major religion? You show how he effects the individual person. In this way each member of the audience who has ever been profoundly influenced by another (presumably everyone) understands. Sounds like amazing and poignant story telling.

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