One of the unfortunate aspects of Ben-Hur (1959), the 100th entry on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list, is the scene for which it is most remembered. If you think about or remember this movie at all, you likely recall the chariot sequence. Do not get me wrong, it is thrilling. You have to keep in mind that this was done in a time before computer generated images (CGI) has ruined film, in the mind of some. Hence, what you are watching are actual horse drawn buggies being pulled at breakneck speed around a track, and in some cases ending in actual broken necks. That is for the characters, to be clear. Remarkably, there appears to have been only one minor injury during its filming. At any rate, it is but a short sequence in an epic that has little to do with the Roman sport of chariot racing. There are a whole host of reasons to watch this movie, and none them have to do with this specific scene.
There is a lot of material before you get to the beginning of Ben-Hur. There is an overture that lasts over five minutes, and then a prelude about the birth of Jesus. Jesus (Claude Heater) is an important character (and boy is that the biggest understatement ever by itself), but not the main one. After this sequence and the opening credits, we get the arrival of Messala (Stephen Boyd) as a new Roman tribune in the province of Judea. He is not a stranger to this part of the world. He grew up there, and he is soon reunited with his childhood friend Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). Though they easily renew their friendship, it is clear that they each represent different worlds. The Romans are the conquerors of the Jews. Messala believes that Ben-Hur will tow the Roman line, while Ben-Hur thinks Jewish rights will be upheld by Messala, each using their relationship as the baseline for these thoughts. How far apart they actually are comes to the fore at a dinner to which Messala is invited at Ben-Hur’s estate. Messala expects Ben-Hur to inform on Jews that are behaving in a disloyal manner towards Rome, and Ben-Hur refuses. Tensions are further raised when the new governor is injured by a tile that falls from Ben-Hur’s roof. He and his sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), had stood there to see the Roman official pass by and are thus blamed for the accident. Not only is Ben-Hur taken into custody, but so too is Tirzah and their mother, Miriam (Martha Scott). Though Ben-Hur briefly makes a prison break and confronts Messala, he is told that if he kills Messala then Miriam and Tirzah shall die. Thus, Ben-Hur submits to become a slave on a Roman galley, rowing an oar for a few years to the beat of a drum, but vowing vengeance. It is in this capacity that he meets Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a Roman consul tasked with defeating Macedonian pirates. During that battle, the ship that Ben-Hur is serving on is rammed and begins sinking. Being unchained by Quintus owing to a previous exchange, Ben-Hur dives into the water and saves the consul. In gratitude, Ben-Hur is taken to Rome and rides in victory on the chariot next to Quintus. Later, Quintus adopts Ben-Hur, giving the Jew a Roman name and his freedom. Ben-Hur is touched, and nearly moved by Quintus to stay in Rome. Yet, Ben-Hur is determined to get back to Judea to continue his quest for revenge on Messala. Not long after Ben-Hur lands in his home country, he witnesses a chariot team belonging to Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). Ben-Hur notices some instant improvements that could be made to how the chariot driver is handling the horses, which brings the notice of Ilderim. The Sheik invites Ben-Hur to be his new charioteer, but Ben-Hur refuses for the moment, wanting to get home. When he gets there, he finds Esther (Haya Harareet), the daughter of his former slave, Simonides (Sam Jaffe), and whom Ben-Hur had been in love with before he had been sent away. He also learns the Simonides had been imprisoned by Messala, and the experience had left the old man even more infirm. Ben-Hur goes to Messala, who is surprised to see his old friend alive. Ben-Hur demands knowledge of the fate of his mother and sister, citing his new found rights as a son of Rome. They are still alive, but the years of living in a dank prison with little light has left them with leprosy. Without telling Ben-Hur, they are released and intend to go to a leper colony outside of the city. Before they do, they go by their old home where Esther finds them first. Miriam and Tirzah do not want Ben-Hur to know of their condition, so they make Esther swear to tell him that they are dead. This all adds to his hatred for Rome, and Messala becomes Ben-Hur’s target. He thus tells Ilderim that he will drive the chariot team because it means competing against Messala. Ben-Hur does so despite being told to let go of his anger, with Esther repeating to him what she has heard of Jesus’ teachings on these matters. Nonetheless, he goes through with the race, which ends with Ben-Hur’s victory and Messala being mortally wounded. He has an emotional moment with Ben-Hur, telling his old friend that Miriam and Tirzah are alive, though lepers, before dying. Ben-Hur’s hurt is worsened when he finds Esther at the colony bringing food to his mother and sister. He is mad at Esther, but madder still at Rome for being the source of the harm caused to his family. In response, he revokes his adoption by Quintus. Ben-Hur then goes to get Miriam and Tirzah. Hoping for a miracle, he decides to bring them to Jesus. Unfortunately, the day this happens is the same as Jesus’ Crucifixion. Ben-Hur decides to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross, while Esther takes Miriam and Tirzah back to the colony. Along the way, they are cured of their leprosy. Thus, when Ben-Hur returns home a changed man by what he has witnessed, he finds Esther and his mother and sister disease free.
The word that came to mind while watching Ben-Hur was Adoration. Much of this has to do with the various postures and looks of awe on the faces of those who see Jesus. One can only imagine how one would react to coming face-to-face with Our Lord and Savior. In this film, you witness some actual examples of how this might have looked, even though it is only a movie. I say “postures” because there are a few different ways people react. My favorite involves Ben-Hur’s direct interactions with Jesus. There are two pertinent scenes that I left out in the synopsis. You cannot entirely blame me as the runtime here is over three and half hours. At any rate, while Ben-Hur is being transferred in chains to his fate as a rower, the guards have been instructed not to allow him any water. It is a desperate situation that tugs at the heart strings. He prays to God for water, and Jesus appears with a cup full. Not only does Ben-Hur stare in wonder at the Son of God, but so too does the soldier supervising who initially is going to stop the quenching of Ben-Hur’s thirst. What brought me to literal tears is when Ben-Hur attempts to return the favor while Jesus is carrying the Cross to His Crucifixion. Ben-Hur gets a scoop of water for Jesus while He lies on the ground, only to have it kicked away by a Roman centurion. To be clear, this is not Biblical, though there is a facsimile in Scripture when, just before giving up His life on the Cross, Jesus says, “I thirst.” It is a literal thirst, for something to satisfy his parched lips, and for souls dedicated to Him. That means you and me, boys and girls. Ben-Hur tries to give Jesus literal water, but it is evident that the experience of what he witnesses in Jesus’ Passion is more along the lines of Ben-Hur giving his soul to quench that Heavenly desire. This is Adoration. Us Catholics get the special blessing of having dedicated times of Adoration when we can bring our cup-fulls to Jesus in the flesh. There are other opportunities for this in our daily lives for, as the film also points out, Jesus lives in all of us. In this manner, the heartfelt prayer you say in a moment of need becomes Adoration. The giving of yourself to another is Adoration. The acknowledgement of God as the Creator of the beauty around us is Adoration. And it all works for His Glory.
That was not a typo in the last paragraph, by the way: Ben-Hur is over three and a half hours long. The time investment is worth it. The chariot scene is only part of the incredible production value you see in this movie. This is a temporal argument in its favor. The spiritual ones are worth putting in the effort to see it, too.