Ben-Hur (dir. William Wyler, 1959)

There's a brand new adaptation of Ben-Hur opening live at the O2 arena (known to most of us as the Millennium Dome) tomorrow. The BBC showed some footage of rehearsals on their website and it looks amazing - they have real live horses in an actual chariot race! (Hopefully one that is light on violence). I have no idea what it will turn out to be like, but it looks very cool. In honour of this intriguing show, I thought I'd post a few thoughts on the best-known adaptation of Ben-Hur, the 1959 film directed by William Wyler. This won't be a full re-cap/review of all four hours or so of Ben-Hur, because of the whole thesis-near-completion thing; just a reflection on some of the bits from the film that stood out the most to me (I'm sure I'll return to it and give it a proper review at a later date).

The most memorable bit, of course, is the chariot race. I first saw Ben-Hur when I was about 12 or 13 I think (the period when I knew nothing about Classics). By the time we got to the chariot race, I think I had completely lost track of the plot, but when the drivers rode out into the circus, I was excited! There were only two problems with actually watching it. One was my persistent sqeuamishness. I kept hiding my eyes, and as soon as Messala was injured, I couldn't look at him any more and treated the film like a radio show. The other problem was a childhood spent watching Popeye cartoons. As soon as the blades came out of Messala's chariot wheels, all I could see in my head was Popeye and Bluto - I expected Olive Oil to start screaming at Ben-Hur from among the spectators.

It's been a while since I've seen the film, but I can still see in my mind's eye several moments from the chariot race. It's a great, old-fashioned spectacle and an amazing set-piece - plus it wakes up the audience at a point in the film where they're probably starting to nod off...

The other bit of the film that my brother (who is three years younger than me) and I really enjoyed and remembered from our first viewing of the film was the section aboard the galley. We were fascinated by the design and running of the galley. I think that up till this point we had imagined that all pre-steam ships got around using only the wind in their sails. We also loved the way the overseer kept time with his rhythmic pounding. It was oppressive, creepy but very effective and strangely hypnotic (and my brother, who is now a professional musician, was already interested in rhythm and uses of rhythm). Being sick-minded children at heart (as most children are) we also rather liked the part where the overseer nearly kills the slaves (possibly does kill one?) by making them row ridiculously fast, just to test them. Finally, we loved the climax of the sequence, first the reprise of the cry 'ramming speed!' and then the destruction of the galley through being rammed by another ship. I think we recreated that one in lego a few times.

The classic Lego Pirate Ship - perfect for recreating a galley being rammed

Of course, the subtitle of the film is A Tale of the Christ. I very much like the depiction of Jesus here (as far as I remember it!). I believe that showing Jesus only from behind was a fairly common technique in early 20th century films, but as yet I haven't seen any others that use it, as I haven't yet seen any of the earlier films. I think it works well, especially for a film that is really about Ben-Hur himself, whatever the subtitle says. The parallel scenes of Jesus and Ben-Hur offering each other water are nicely done and I like the fact that Jesus is barely in the rest of the film - Ben-Hur gets on with his life and his encounters with Jesus are just part of the world he lives in (albeit a rather important part). I remember the ending as being perhaps a little overly melodramatic, and the movie's depiction of leprosy being, well, less than authentic, but the scenes between the human Ben-Hur and the human Jesus are simple and sweet.

Well, those are the parts of the film that really made an impression on me (along with everyone else, I suspect). There are other things I remember - the frustratingly ridiculous tile incident that kicks off the whole plot, the views of ancient Rome, brief appearences by Tiberius and Pontius Pilate - and other things I've learned more about later - mainly the supposed homoeroticism between Ben-Hur and Messala (not what Charlton Heston was going for). I'm sure there's also lots more of academic interest to discuss, and I suspect that if I watched the film again I would spot lots and lots of incidences of artistic licence being taken (or stuff that's just plain wrong!). I'll leave it there for now, with my dim memories of enjoying an exciting film on a long afternoon during the summer holidays, and come back to the film again in a little while, when I've had a chance to watch and enjoy it all over again.


  1. I haven't seen this one in a while... but it would be easy enough if I wanted just. I'd just have to wait for Easter to come around!

    I don't know about in the UK, but in Mexico and SPain every Easter holiday the TV is just full of these old Hollywood early Christian movies! :p

  2. We used to get them on Bank Holiday Mondays, when the schedulers didn't know what else to fill the afternoon with, but lately they seem to have decided not to bother and just leave us with the same old daytime rubbish that's usually on!

  3. This, The Ten Commandments, and The Bible used to get a lot of air play in the US on Easter weekend. That tailed off with the advent of home video and they probably don't show any of them anymore.

    The most obvious thing that's wrong, of course, is that the Romans didn't use slaves to row their galleys. I think the Spanish were actually the first to do that, but Lew Wallace, who wrote the original book, was partly inspired by The Count of Montecristo, so that might have something to do with it.

    Wallace was a fascinating fellow, actually. The youngest Civil War general, he was later the governor of the New Mexico Territory and tried to work out a pardon for Billy the Kid in exchange for his testimony in the Lincoln County War. It failed, but he later claimed that he wrote the crucifixion scene right after his meeting with Billy. He also wrote a play about Commodus.

  4. Whether or not Romans used slaves to row their galleys has been the cause of some academic debate. Although they may not usually have used slaves as oarsmen, in emergency situations they were prepared to do so, as Livy describes here: If you have access to JSTOR you can read an article about it here: (though Wikipedia metnions it as well here: This is one of those things that no one will ever know for sure, but overall we can say with reasonable certainty that it would have happened sometimes. It's been too long since I've seen the film, so I can't remember whether the battle in Ben-Hur would have constituted such an emergency or not.

  5. It was a similar situation with the Greek navy (which I beleive pre-dates the Spanish). Slaves are thought to have been called up during the Sicilian Expedition.

  6. One cannot really talk about a "Greek" navy in Antiquity, since the various city-states all did things differently. Sparta occasionally created armed helot units, but I don't know whether or not they rowed; much of Spartan military organization is still very vague, with no clear idea of who did what out of the various Spartan citizen classes, the various perioikoi, and allies. To the best of my knowledge, Athenian ships were always rowed by citizens, albeit by the thetes, the very poorest. Alas, Thucydides is a poor read and my copy has a crap index, so I can't really double-check, but Adkins & Adkins (Handbook of Life in Ancient Greece) explicitly say no.

    In any case, these were always exceptional circumstances. More importantly, in all of these cases, including what Livy describes, the slaves were recruited from the general slave population as volunteers, with the promise of freedom after their service. They were not chained to their oars, since they were expected to fight once contact was made with an enemy ship.

  7. According to the Livy passage, the slaves themselves weren't volunteers - a slave does not own his own body and cannot volunteer. Their masters volunteered them. We honestly don't know whether they were chained to their oars or not, not from this passage anyway, Livy doesn't give that much detail.

  8. My apologies, I meant the Athenian navy. Which still pre-dates the Spanish by a few hundred years.

  9. Well, of course the slaves would need their master's permission as well, but usually the slaves themselves also had to be willing as a sign that they would fight (and fight FOR their master's side in the conflict). In any case, they weren't chained to their oars, because they would be expected to fight once the ship rammed the enemy.

    I'd say that Livy implies it actually happened. He says thus and thus was decided and then the levy was made. Sounds like he thinks it actually happened.

    All of this is relatively moot as far as Ben Hur is concerned. I'm not 100 % sure of the timing, but we are probably talking about the teens or twenties of the 1st century AD. That's basically the peak of the Pax Romana under Augustus, possible even the period when the gates of the temple of Janus were closed. The Romans certainly wouldn't have considered there to be a reason to put slaves in their warships.

  10. Diana and I saw 'Ben-Hur Live' at the O2 - it was pretty bad...

  11. That's shame - it looked all right when it was on the telly!

  12. I picked up the Blu-Ray of Ben-Hur recently and the restoration is nothing short of staggering.

    The two scenes mentioned are both memorable; the galley slaves is a favourite of mine. When Jack Hawkins' character Arrius comes aboard and 'road tests' the slaves with a build up from 'battle speed' to 'ramming speed', I particularly love the music cues as it builds up with speed and tension.

    But in terms of spectacle, re-visiting the chariot race, especially on the Blu-Ray is jaw dropping. When we've been saturated with cgi over the past 20 years, the chariot race is so much more enjoyable, as you know it's all for real (except of course the various people getting run over!).

    1. I really need to re-watch the film, it's so long since I've seen it! Will have to do that over the summer...

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