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Empire List #491: Ben-Hur

“Ben-Hur” is a classic mega-production made in the days when Hollywood used practical effects and computers were nowhere on their radar. It stars Hollywood giant Charlton Heston, lasts 212 minutes, is set in Biblical times, and features one of the most spectacular chariot races in movie history. Yet as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but think of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to church since 1999.

I rented this movie on iTunes in the summer of 2009 when I was studying at the University of British Columbia for the summer. I didn’t socialize too much with my roommates since they already knew each other and I was only there for a few more weeks anyway. So whenever I had time on my hands I would rent movies the only way that didn’t require going to Blockbuster or owning a TV: online rental. People say it will soon replace video stores and I can see why. There are no late fees, you don’t have to leave your home, and you don’t have to wait in line while some yoyo with a pile of DVDs is asking the cashier “which of these movies is good?”

My biggest regret about watching this movie is the size of my computer screen. Despite finding the story to be rather cheesy towards the end, there is no denying that “Ben-Hur” is grand cinema at its best. Roman soldiers parade down the streets of Jerusalem, slaves are dragged across the burning desert, pirates and soldiers fight in hand-to-hand combat on a wrecked ship at sea, and of course there is that chariot race where legend has it, a stuntman actually died during the shoot. This is one of those films where the behind-the-scenes is almost as riveting as the actual movie.

Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jerusalem merchant who is an old friend of Messala (Stephen Boyd) the new commander of the Roman garrison. Many Jews in the city criticize the Romans, who control their city, and Ben-Hur is well placed to know some of them. He refuses to betray his countrymen, despite not wanting to be political and as a result, Messala now sees him as an enemy.

When a tile falls from Ben-Hur’s house and nearly kills the Roman governor Messala uses the incident to send Ben-Hur to the galleys and imprisons his mother and sister. From then on the story moves from the desert to the sea, from the sea to Rome, and from Rome back to Jerusalem as Ben-Hur goes through various adventures in his quest for revenge. It spans years: he saves the life of Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) who adopts him after Julius Caesar (George Relph) grants him his freedom, he becomes a champion charioteer, and eventually finds his way home.

Upon returning to Jerusalem he accepts to participate in a deadly chariot race because Messala, also a champion racer, will participate. This race reminded me of a similar race in an animated movie that I watch every year over the holidays. It also takes place during the heyday of the Roman Empire, except in this one Asterix the Gaul is driving the chariot. Racers use whips against other drivers, chariots crash into each other, wheels fly all over the track, and racers are thrown off their chariots. But that is an animated movie, whereas in “Ben-Hur” actual human beings performed all those stunts. This must have been a dream event for stuntmen and a nightmare for the insurance agents.

What bothered me about this story is the subplot involving Jesus Christ. When Ben-Hur is walking through the desert with the other slaves, Jesus gives him water. Years later when he is about to be crucified, this time it is Ben-Hur who tries to give him water. After the crucifixion Ben-Hur’s mother and sister are miraculously cured of their leprosy. So what is the moral here exactly? Jesus has the power to heal lepers and he chose to heal Ben-Hur’s family right before dying because he was nice to him? I always found the whole miracle business with Jesus to be too close to science fiction. If he can heal lepers, why not heal all lepers? What is his process for triage?

This is where I see the parallels with “Monty-Python’s Life of Brian.” You have Michael Palin playing an ex-leper complaining that Jesus has ruined his livelihood, Jewish rebels arguing about the name of their groups, and men hanging on crosses singing “Always look on the bright side of life.” The Pythons question the logic of biblical stories, whereas “Ben-Hur” depicts it as though they were historical facts. For all I know the Python’s version is more accurate.

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