Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Musing Pictures: Ben-Hur (1959)

Though I enjoyed the famous chariot race, as well as the somewhat less lauded (but rhythmically fascinating) naval sequence, I couldn't help but wonder what filmmaker William Wyler was thinking. Ben-Hur is a surprisingly Jewish story, about a Jewish guy (Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston) fighting for Jewish autonomy, independence from Rome, freedom to worship, and all that.  He is presented as a religious man, kissing the mezzuzah at his doorpost, saying the blessing over bread before eating it, and generally flaunting his monotheism in the face of polytheistic Romans.  He is a peaceful man, drawn in to violence by the relentless abuses of his Roman counterparts.

The story is meant to be a Christian story.  Ben-Hur encounters Jesus a few times over the course of his journey, eventually coming to witness the crucifixion itself. To Christians, I suppose there must be some sort of transcendence here, the Jew sees a truth beyond Judaism as Jesus' message spreads. But that's not what happens here.  Ben-Hur never really changes.  He triumphs over his adversary, feels remorse, but never really comes to terms with any of it.  Sure, there's a bit of a miracle at the end, but it's more of a coda to the story, rather than a part of Ben-Hur's journey.

In a broader historical context, it's fairly astounding that this story is told in this way. So much of Christian narrative history is tied to the idea that Christianity supersedes Judaism, almost becoming a "Judaism 2.0".  Jews who do not buy in to that idea are frustrating to Christian ideology -- why not upgrade, after all?  And yet, the film was thoroughly embraced by its audiences, earning gobs of cash at the box office and winning eleven Academy Awards.  Was it okay, somehow, in the late '50s, to be Jewish despite Christianity?  I don't think that's the case any more (see Gibson's Jesus film, also incredibly profitable).


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