Unlike some of the other times of the year when we glued to the screen watching action films that coincide with the particular time of year, there aren’t too many what we’d call “Easter” themed films. But after we celebrate what Easter is all about and enjoy our time with our families, there are a couple of personal favorites that I always pop in the DVD at this time of the year.
The best is the epic 1959 (not the remake) of Ben-Hur. This actually has the events of Jesus in Jerusalem as a backdrop but it weaves the story brilliantly throughout. It also will appeal to the action film genre by having the climactic chariot race, where no expense was spared in the realism of the danger involved.
There was also a large naval battle scene where the Roman navy takes on Macedonian pirates using miniatures that for 1959 was pretty high speed. Of course, there was no CGI that filmmakers use today.
Charlton Heston was cast as the protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy merchant and Jew from Jerusalem. He lives with his mother and sister and has a love for but not acted upon, for his beautiful slave girl Esther, portrayed by then unknown Israeli actress Haya Harareet.
His friend growing up was a Roman citizen, Messala, excellently portrayed by Stephen Boyd. The two friends grow apart when Messala returns after several years away as the commander of the Roman garrison. Messala demands that Judah turn over all of the supposed Jewish rebels who plot against Rome.
Boyd is excellent at one second looking like a chiseled leading man and the next turning his face into a mask of hate and rage at his former friend.
An accident causes the Roman governor to fall from his horse, Messala uses this as an excuse to condemn Judah to the galleys and sends his mother and sister off to prison. As he’s led off to the galleys, the slaves pass thru Nazareth. Judah begs the Romans for water. They ignore him but an unseen man (Jesus Christ) gives Judah a drink. Their meeting, which lasts but a second, will be replayed later.
Judah catches the eye of the Roman general Arrius on his flagship. He sees the strength and courage of Judah (#41 of the galley rowers), and senses there is more to this galley-slave than meets the eye. “You have the spirit to fight back but the good sense to control it. Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-One. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”
Ably portrayed by esteemed British actor Jack Hawkins, he lends a sympathetic and much more humane view of Rome and Romans than the evil Messala. Arrius offers him a chance to fight as a gladiator or train as a charioteer but he refuses.
Before the climactic battle, Arrius orders all of the galley slaves chained to their oars except Judah. The pirates ram his flagship and it sinks. The exterior miniature scenes were well done for the 1950s but don’t hold up to the CGI of today. But the interior scenes of the ship to ship fighting are outstanding and they are visually top notch with hundreds of extras.
Judah frees the other slaves then saves Arrius, who believes he lost the battle and tries to commit suicide. Judah saves him from that as well. When later rescued, in one of the better scenes in the film, once safely onboard the Roman ships, Arrius stuns his senior officers by offering a cup with wine to the galley slave as they look on with stunned silence. It was, in an epic film, an understated brilliant short scene.
After a triumphant return to Rome, Arrius petitions Emperor Tiberius to free Judah and adopts him as his son. While in Rome, Judah races Arrius chariot in the circus, making a name for himself with Pontius Pilate, whose horses had always won. Pilate is unhappy, not only for his horses losing, but to learn he is to be the new governor of Judea.
Judah returns to Judea as the heir to Arrius and is approached by a wealthy Arab, Sheik Ilderim who asks him to drive his quadriga (four-horse chariot) in the races. He initially declines. He goes to Messala to demand the release of his mother and sister. Esther returns and convinces Judah that they are dead, rather than break the news that they are now lepers. So, as we knew all along, Judah seeks vengeance on Messala by taking part in the chariot races.
The chariot race was a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The building of the circus of Jerusalem took months to complete and the filming of the race took over 5 weeks and cost over a million dollars. There were 78 horses (mostly Lipizzans) used in the race while Heston raced Andalusians. The training for the horses as well as the charioteers took months.
Heston and Boyd had to train for hours a day to be able to handle the rigors of handling the quadriga. Boyd almost all of his own stunts, including the one where he was dragged by his horses. A dummy was used in the pivotal scene despite the urban myth that a stuntman actually died during the filming.
During the race, Messala attempts to wreck Judah’s and other racer’s chariots with weapons attached to his wheels. But he is the one who is wrecked and is trampled by not only horses but by a chariot as well. As he lays dying a gruesome death, he has one last cruel stab at the victorious Judah. He tells Judah that he will give him one last reason to hate, and tells him that his mother and sister are alive and that he can find them in the Valley of the Lepers. “If you can recognize them.” Messala adds as he dies, “the race is not over.”
A clip of the fantastic scene of the chariot race which was filmed in widescreen format can be found here from Movieclips:
Embittered, Judah sinks into depression contemplating death itself when Esther urges him to return to who he was. “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, he softens and with Esther’s help they go to the leper colony and attempt to bring them to the “Rabbi of Nazareth” who has been healing the sick. But before he can, Pilate has sentenced Jesus to crucifixion and they arrive as he’s being led thru the streets.
After he recognizes the man that helped him, he returns the favor and tries to give him water but it knocked from Jesus’ hand after their eyes lock for the briefest of seconds. As Christ’s blood is mixed with the rain after his death, Judah’s wife and sister are miraculously healed. Judah declares, “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”
It was a powerful ending to the film, giving hope as it were to all of mankind.
It was a true epic of filmmaking, the marathon 3-hour and 37 minutes is the length of two feature films today. It cost a then $15,000,000 which was at that time, the most expensive film ever produced. In today’s terms that would cost $130,206,000 dollars.
William Wyler, the director, spins a masterful tale but the entire cast and crew did a fantastic job. The film won a very deserved 11 Academy Awards. It is as good today as it was when it was released. In fact, with the release of the updated version in 2016, audiences didn’t buy it and the film flopped at the box office.
So, do yourself a favor and reserve an entire afternoon or evening for a classic spectacle. It fits perfectly with the weekend and enjoy.