It’s nearly Passover and Easter. When I was growing up, every year at this time the networks would show three movies, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and for some reason, The Wizard of Oz. Of course, other religious movies were also on the menu, but these three were the staples.
As a result, I saw Ben-Hur, the 1959 version directed by William Wyler, many times before channels like Turner Classic Movies were launched and showed it more than once a year. It’s one of my favorite movies for many reasons. The characters are well developed as is the plot. It deals with complicated and universal issues like, love and loyalty, hatred and revenge, racism and entitlement, and redemption, which is probably why it’s still relevant today.
The book written, by General Lew Wallace in 1880 who was Governor of the New Mexico Territory at the time, is a story of boyhood friends Judah Ben-Hur, and Roman Tribune Messala. It takes place in Judea during the lifetime of Jesus.
The two men are obviously from vastly different backgrounds. At the beginning of the movie, Messala returns to Jerusalem a newly promoted Tribune hoping to renew his friendship with Judah a wealthy prince of the city. Unfortunately that does not work out due to Messala’s selfish ambition to rise in the ranks by bringing to justice Jewish dissidents with the help of Judah’s connections.
When Judah refuses to give up the names the discontented, Messala takes advantage of an unfortunate accident to exact his revenge and advance his career. Judah’s mother and sister are condemned and imprisoned without trial. While Judah is sent to be a galley slave, essentially a death sentence. Arresting Judah and his family spreads fear among the people of Judea giving Messala more control over the populace.
For his part, Judah embarks on an amazing journey of self-discovery. At first, of course, all he can think of is to inflict his revenge on Messala. He lives three years, a feat almost unheard of, in various galleys chained to his oar. Then a new commander, Quintus Arrius is assigned to his ship, and a connection is formed that propels Judah to Rome first as a charioteer and later as the adopted son of Arrius. This gives Judah his chance to return to Jerusalem to confront Messala and hopefully save his family.
Some of the things I love about the movie are the little glimpses we get of the Judean way of life including Judah’s visit with a Sheik, how trusted slaves of the house of Hur are treated more like friends and colleagues, and small daily Jewish rituals. We also see how the Romans treat the local citizens with contempt because supposedly they are of inferior races. And although the full title of the book on which the movie is based is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, we don’t see much of Jesus. What is shown is the effect he and his teachings have on Judah and his family.
After years of loving and watching the movie at least once a year, last year I finally decided to read the book. Having read other classic books for the 1800s, I thought the language in this one might take some getting used to. I was wrong. The story was compelling and easy to connect with from the very beginning.
Of course, there is much more to Judah’s adventures in the novel than in the movie. For example, once Judah is an official citizen of Rome, many things happen to him on his trip back to Jerusalem. Messala hires people to kill Judah, he has two vastly different women interested in him, but, of course, both the book and the movie have the climactic chariot race, and in both Judah collides with the teachings of Jesus. He rejects them at first, but later has reason to change his mind. In the end, Judah finds peace in forgiving all that happened to him when he witnesses Jesus crucifixion, hears what he says from the cross, and then is reunited with his mother and sister.
My favorite quote from the movie is by Esther, a women who was once Judah’s slave: “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 has turned you to stone. It’s as if you had become Messala.” That is the moment Judah realizes that forgiveness and love are stronger than hate and his path takes a new turn. He can finally find peace.
Thanks for reading, liking and commenting. I appreciate it very much.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2018
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Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel, and is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. I you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.