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Ben Hur

I thought, with it being that time of year, it was time to review one of my all time favourite classic movies; Ben Hur, which I make an attempt to watch around Eastertide each year to enter into the spirit of things so to speak.

Ben Hur (The 1959 version) is one of those rarities which I would deem a near perfect movie. Indeed there are very few movies that one does not sometimes reflect on and think that there are at least some scenes or aspects of the story could be changed to better effect. This is one of those movies that there is little, if anything, you could change to improve it.

Actually so tangible and believably authentic is this movie that, a little over three years ago in Jerusalem, on the Via del Rosa, I actually found myself referring to Ben Hur rather than the bible stories for reference as made my way along the true way of the cross up to The Church of The Holy Schulpture, site of Golgotha and The crucifixion.

The full title of the novel by General Lew Wallace on which the movie Ben Hur is based is "Ben Hur: A story of the Christ". However, the carpenter's son from Nazareth does not make any real impact in the movie until pretty well into the main plot which essentially involves Judah Ben Hur (played by Charlton Heston before he became a front man for The NRA) and his childhood friend and later Roman Tribune, Mesalla (Stephen Boyd, who was incidentally born in Belfast).

Judah Ben Hur is a Jewish prince and head of one of Judea's premier families. He lives in a well appointed mansion in Jerusalem with his mother Miriam and sister Terzah. When we meet the family, early on, all is well in the Hur household. Judah's faithful servant Simodes is just back from his most recent trading mission to Antioch on behalf of the family and has added more wealth to the House of Hur coffers and in addition has brought his beautiful, now grown, daughter Esther to ask her "master" Ben Hur's permission to marry.

However, a little earlier, in a foreboding indication of things to come, we also see a legion of Roman soldiers, headed up by Messala, passing through a little village called Nazareth, en route to Jerusalem. We also encounter a carpenter called Joseph working in his shop, who on being quizzed by a neighbour on the apparent lackadaisical attitude of his son to carpentry and dereliction of duty, explains with very firm conviction that "he's about his father's work".

In any case Judah and Messala, upon their first meeting, instantly renew their boyhood friendship and it is "just like old times" until Messala asks Judah to turn against his own people and identify the leaders of the Jewish resistance to the Romans. When Judah refuses, the die is cast as Messala explains "you are either for me or against me"

His opportunity to demonstrate exactly what he means by this arrives very soon when, as the family of Hur watch from their rooftop, the arrival of the new governor into Jerusalem, a loose piece of masonry falls onto the street and upsets the Governor's horse causing him to throw his mount. Massala uses this as justification for arresting Judah and Miriam and Tirzah. Judah is dispatched to the Roman galleys in Tyre whilst Miriam and Tirzah are cast into prison without trial. Messala's logic is that if he can do this, by way of example, to those known as his friends, moreover those he knows to be innocent, then the Jews truly have reason to fear his ruthlessness.

En route North to Tyre, again passing through Nazareth, the shackled and broken Judah has collapsed and all but given up the will to live when he is given water by a man with long hair and a rough spun cloak who emerges from the carpenter shop. And even the officer in charge of the prisoners, who has specifically insisted on no water for Ben Hur, is chastened and disarmed in the face of a mere stare from this enigmatic man before him.

Obviously the will to live that this encounter instils in Ben Hur is incredible (coupled with his bent on vengeance) because when we next encounter him, he is oarsman number 41 who has survived an unprecedented three years in various Roman galleys. His resolve impresses the new naval commander, Quintis Arius (Jack Hawkins,) who notes in him "the spirit to fight back but the good sense to control it". The following sea battle between The Roman fleet and Macedonian galleys is one of the two show pieces of the movie and even now, forty years later, stands up admirably beside that other marine movie; Titanic, the only movie to have ever matched it on Oscars won.

The barbarity of Rome is especially well conveyed with a minimum of gore in these galley scenes, where (historically inaccurately I have since read) the rowers were chained to their oars with the simple command to "row well and live" as long as the ship survived, whereas if the ship were rammed and sunk, they were doomed to go down with it. Therefore in this context Quintus Arius, whilst having his offer of a place in the Gladiator ring rejected by Ben Hur (who reasons that his God didn't keep him alive this long to have him die in the Gladiator ring), still nonetheless orders him unshackled for the ensuing sea battle.

This twist of fate enables Ben Hur to escape from the galley and rescue his benefactor, Quintis Arius, from the sea and accordingly brings him to Rome, firstly as charioteer and eventual adopted son of Quintus. In the course of his new life in Rome, Judah also encounters the intended new Governor of Judea, one Pontius Pilate who comes across as a sneaky little man who despises the prospect of his new posting and does little to hide his disdain for the Judeans, though nonetheless endows on Ben Hur the respect due to a Roman charioteer who has consistently defeated his previously undefeated chariots in the circus .

Even now, however, with an entirely new life in Rome and a new wealth and status inherited from his adopted father, the draw of his homeland and for a return to Judea to find his mother and sister and wrest vengeance is stronger to Ben Hur than the attraction of Rome and so takes his leave of Quintus Arius to return home.

On his way back to Judea from Rome, Judah Ben Hur befriends two men; Balthazar, a man on a mission to seek the Messiah who finds Judah resting beneath a date palm and approaches him curiously to see if he is "the One" because as he explains after the initial misunderstanding "he'd be about your age". Through Balthazar he is also introduced to the loveable rascal Sheik Ilderim (Played brilliantly by Hugh Griffith and undoubtedly a major inspiration for Oliver Reed's Proximo in Gladiator 41 years later of which more anon) who finds in Ben Hur, champion of the circus in Rome, the man to lead his beloved "wives" (horses) to victory in the chariot race against Messala and craftily and enticingly offers Ben Hur in parallel the tools for his revenge by reminding him that "there are no laws in the arena and many are killed"

Taking his leave of Balthazar and the Sheik, Ben Hur proceeds on to Jerusalem where he finds his house a virtual ruin occupied only by Esther and her blind and broken father who, themselves were arrested and imprisoned by the Romans after Judah's dispatch to the Galleys. Simodes has been tortured till near broken and only released when the Roman were sure he had nothing to say, but is still "twice the man" he was with the benefit of a tongueless devoted friend Malluch, who he met during his time in the Roman dungeons and accordingly acts as his legs while he acts as Malluch's tongue. Esther and Simodes have never made it back to Antioch and accordingly Esther's marriage has never happened, therefore in acknowledgement of what they had both known four years previously Esther and Judah finally admit their love for one another.

However, Judah's main preoccupation is still the discovery and restoration of his mother and sister even though both Esther and Simodes try to convince him that no one could survive over four years in the dungeons.

In any case Judah set off for his encounter with Messala, gaining admittance by use of his new Roman title as Arius the Younger. He gives Messala an ultimatum to find his mother and sister and restore them to him. A shaken Messala dispatches his aides, who locate the living, but leper stricken, mother and daughter in the depths of the dungeon. They are cast out of the prison to the valley of the lepers, although they do stop en route to call upon Esther, who upon Miriam's beseeching, keeps her meeting from Judah instead opting to tell him that they are dead.

This revelation leads Judah back to The Sheik in an off screen encounter, where he obviously agrees to accept the Sheik's invitation to ride his chariot against Messala as the tool for his revenge.

Like all great movies it is often the tiny details that crown the perfection of this story. The betting encounter between Sheik Ilderim and the Roman generals in the Roman Baths where he's trying to arrange a wager; the arrogant Roman's are subdued into timidity by this sly little Arab and even when they try to insult him by their smart alex retorts to his odds; four to one as the Romans remark "The difference between a Roman and Jew (or an Arab)". Sheik Ilderim diplomatically shrugs off their insults and has the last laugh with his revelation that his driver will be one Judah Ben Hur, dispatched to the galleys to die by Messala and vowing his revenge. In the end, for all their bravado, it is only Messala among all the Romans that is brave enough to accept the wager of the little Arab.

It is said that imitation is the best form of flattery, in that case it is unquestionable that Ridley Scott, the producer of Gladiator, has watched this movie many many times and the many of the touches and elements in Gladiator have distinct roots in Ben Hur, apart entirely from the concept of repeating a winning formula. Indeed it is some compliment to make that even with the advantage of 42 years of advances in special effects and digitisation, the Gladiator or Battle of Carthage scenes in Gladiator still cannot surpass the wonderfully choreographed and executed legendary recreation of the chariot race in Ben Hur and what is even more noteworthy, is that whilst there are the spiked chariot wheels in evidence here too and the sheer savagery of the arena is well and truly conveyed in Ben Hur, it is still not deemed necessary to resort to the shock factor and blood and Gore of Gladiator to convey this message. One must wonder then about the desensitisation of the cinema going public over four decades where some directors feel compelled to resort to this in an attempt to woo cinema audiences.

The climax of Ben Hur is so filled with emotion that it is best left to the viewer and undiscussed in any review but needless to say the last twenty minutes of the movie are among the most moving ever committed to celluloid and, whilst they make great viewing around Easter time, the message they convey is one that can be viewed any time.

Within the movie as a whole there is one omnipresent undercurrent in Ben Hur which is a message commonly identifiable to any who have ever known oppression, either as individuals or as a people or nation. In that context whilst Judah Ben Hur is as once, one of the upper class and favoured amongst his people and is relegated to the lowest of the low as an expendable slave on the galleys, only to be restored to his former greatness, ironically this time as the adopted son of a Roman consul and hero of Rome and eventually a Roman citizen, he is above all this, for most of the movie right up to the near end, motivated by two base elements; an unwavering patriotism and love of his country and an intent for revenge, which control everything else in his life. In that context, coming as it was less than fifteen years after the liberation of Auswich and its portrayal of Jews from almost two thousand years previously, and based upon a book actually written before the holocaust, this is truly a message for all times for all peoples. And the amazing thing is that the secondary character adorned within the title, the carpenter's son from Nazareth, never actually speaks a word in the entire movie but rather his message is conveyed by a couple of brief but incredibly impacting appearances in the movie along with the hearsay of others and yet so powerful are these elements that have all the while chipped away at the resolve of Ben Hur that finally at the end of the movie the message for any age finally gets across even to him, that love of one's fellow human being is a more powerful force that any emotion on earth above politics, above patriotism, above even hate.

Yet apart from the all encompassing, yet not in one's face religious message, that Ben Hur carries, it refrains from going down the road of hammy or cringeworthy religious overtones that many other movies of that era and that ilk were guilty of.

If you've never seen this one, it's still not too late with the remnants of the Easter leg of lamb still in the fridge to rent it and see why I give it a glowing five stars out of five as one of my favourite movies of all time.

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