About a month ago, I was pondering what movie to share with you at Easter time, and I eventually decided to write about Cecil B. DeMille’s “The King of Kings”. And then on Easter Sunday, after my family returned from church, we flipped through the channels on TV and caught the last fifteen minutes of William Wyler’s 1959 remake of “Ben-Hur”, and I realized that this film was probably better to share, since most of you readers have probably seen it and not “The King of Kings”. So about a month late, I hope you don’t mind if I write about “Ben-Hur”, which I never really considered an “Easter” film but certainly fits that time of the year.
The film, although the book and original film on which it is based is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ”, does not actually center on Jesus most of the time. It is a story about a prince in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus’ ministry named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston, of course), the childhood friend of a current Roman commander named Messala (Stephen Boyd). Though they both grew up together, Messala is now zealous for the Roman government, while Judah and his family are still practicing Jews. Because of this, there is a growing tension between the two men, and it leads to Judah refusing to give Messala names of Jews who are against the government.
Soon, Messala pays Judah back for his disobedience: through a series of events that I needn’t explain here, he has Judah’s mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) imprisoned for a crime against the governor that they did not commit. Judah, after swearing revenge on Messala, is sent to life in the galleys—but not before he is given a drink of water on his way, by a man who the audience identifies as Christ. Later, in one of the many iconic epic scenes in the film, Judah refuses to break under the brutality of the men in the galleys with him, even as the ship they row for faces destruction.
The ship sinks and Judah survives, also saving the life of the Roman Consul Arrius (Jack Hawkins). Because Arrius is now credited with victoriously winning the battle, he makes sure Judah is well taken care of, even adopted into the home of Emperor Tiberius (George Relph). As years go by, Judah becomes a great charioteer in Rome before returning to Judea, where a sheik (Hugh Griffith) encourages Judah to compete in a chariot race before the new governor Pontius Pilate (yes, that one, played by Frank Thring). Judah refuses at first, even when he learns Messala will also be racing.
However, he changes his mind when he learns about his mother and sister. In the years after their imprisonment, Miriam and Tirzah developed leprosy, and thus were sent out of the city to the Valley of the Lepers. However, they told Judah’s beloved Esther (Haya Harareet) to conceal this from him, so when Judah returns home, Esther tells them that they died in prison. This prompts Judah to compete in the race and have his vengeance on Messala. And in another epic sequence, the famous chariot race, Judah (long story short) wins the race, while Messala is fatally wounded.
However, before he dies, Messala tells Judah where Miriam and Tirzah really are and says “the race is not over…” Judah sneaks to the Valley of the Lepers when Esther visits the two women there one day, and he is incredibly distraught at their current condition. And his vengeance grows from not solely against Messala but against the entire Roman government. Rejecting his Roman citizenship, he tells Esther his new worldview:
JUDAH: I tell you every man in Judea is unclean, and will stay unclean, until we've scoured off our bodies the crust and filth of being at the mercy of tyranny. No other life is possible except to wash this land clean!
ESTHER: You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil! Hatred is turning you to stone. It is as though you had become Messala!
Esther, on the other hand, has just witnessed Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount and was incredibly moved, but Judah will not listen. He laments to her that day of the Sermon that he was given water before going to the galleys, but now he thinks he would have been better off dying of thirst: “I’m still thirsty”, he tells her. But later on, Judah’s redemption comes when he finally sees Miriam and Tirzah, and Esther says that they should all go to see Jesus, that He could heal them of their leprosy.
To put it bluntly, they picked the worst day possible to see Jesus, for He is now parading in the streets carrying His cross to be crucified on Golgotha. Judah realizes that He is the one who gave him water that day, but when Judah tries to return the favor, a Roman soldier pushes him away. Judah can only watch Christ die on the cross, wondering why He had to die even though He seemingly did nothing wrong. Miriam, Tirzah, and Esther feel the same way. Suddenly, a thunderstorm occurs that night, and the two leprous women find themselves miraculously healed. Better still, Judah approaches Esther about a revelation:
JUDAH: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
ESTHER: Even then.
JUDAH: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.
Now redeemed, Judah embraces Esther, and then rejoices as he finds Miriam and Tirzah healed.
A couple years ago, I wrote an article for “Reel Christianity” about the movie “Gladiator”, and I immediately connected the story of that film to “Ben-Hur”. Both tell the story of a man ravaged by the Roman government, rises to the position of a powerful competitor, and eventually finds revenge against the men who wronged him. However, to me, there is a big difference between “Ben-Hur” and “Gladiator”. In “Gladiator”, though there are still ideas of eternity and the afterlife in the film that relate to Christianity, the satisfaction in the film comes in Maximus defeating his enemy. In “Ben-Hur”, Judah does get some satisfaction in revenge, but that is not what the story is about in the end.
Judah and the people were very affected by the love that Jesus taught, and it led to this man, who had for years held a grudge against the men who wrongly imprisoned and punished him, forsaking his hatred and showing mercy instead. This, to me, is the power of Christ: His love can lead the vengeful to give up their burden of revenge and love them instead. Jesus talked about it himself on the Sermon on the Mount which Esther heard: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) My prayer for you is that today, you will put aside your own grudges and instead focus on Christ’s compassion for others—and that I would do the same.