Or, How Non-Believers Mayeth Enjoy a

Perennial Easter Favorite

(This Easter, row well and live.)

Winner of 11 Oscars!


By Chris Matthew Sciabarra

[On 14 April 2000, TDO published Sciabarra's list of favorite movies taken from his "Favorite Things" page. Sciabarra received a number of emails from Objectivists, who are atheists, asking him to explain his choice of "Ben-Hur"--a film with a religious theme--as his favorite movie of all time.  What follows is a slightly expanded version of Sciabarra's TDO published response; given the reappearance of the ancient epic in film, in such movies as "Gladiator," "Alexander," and "Troy," and of the Christ story, in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ," this discussion of "Ben-Hur" remains timely.]

Within days after The Daily Objectivist reprinted my lengthy list of favorite movies, I received mail from disgruntled readers upset by the "random" quality of my choices, which seemed, they said, to bear "no relation" to one another or to Objectivism. Though I had prefaced my list with a warning against the disease of PC ("Philosophical Correctness") within Objectivism, I was not surprised by the charred epistles I received.

One reader, however, was especially disturbed by the choice of "Ben-Hur" as my favorite film of all time. In a post to the movies@wetheliving.com discussion group, he argued that while the film had "some fantastic action sequences...the plot resolution is a literal deus ex machina: Christ shows up, cures everyone of leprosy and saves the day. Certainly this deserves some kind of demerit from a rational (not to say artistic) perspective."

Since the published list had no more than two or three sentences of explanation attached to each entry, I think it is worthwhile to offer some explanation at least for my choice of "Ben-Hur" as my all-time #1.

How it all began

When I was nine years old, I saw "Ben-Hur" at New York City's majestic Palace Theater. It was the tenth anniversary re-release of the all-time Oscar champ, and the movie was being shown in all its magnificent 70-millimeter glory. Walking into the Palace, seeing the famous portrait of Judy Garland, who had just passed away, and then taking in some three and a half hours of ancient Roman spectacle, was an overwhelming experience. I loved the story and was as deeply moved by its characters and themes as any nine-year-old could be.

Today, after having seen the film umpteen times, I have learned to appreciate it on many different levels. The film, among the 100 greatest selected by the American Film Institute, won an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards (tied in 1998 by "Titanic" [and in 2004 by "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"]), and has been celebrated by directors from Martin Scorsese to James Cameron for its immense artistic impact.

In my view, there is not a single Oscar award that it did not deserve. The cinematography, film editing, art direction, set decoration, sound, and special effects are superb. Its score, written by the great Miklos Rozsa, is among the finest achievements in symphonic soundtrack music ever recorded; in fact, the themes stand on their own as orchestral compositions in their eloquent expression of passion, struggle, and redemption. (For an introduction to the importance of orchestral scores from an Objectivist perspective, see Jeff Britting's essay, "Romantic Music: Dead or Alive?," in ART Ideas 5, no. 3 (1998): 7-8.) Charlton Heston's "Best Actor" performance (in the title role) is one of the most nuanced of his career. Hugh Griffith's supporting actor performance (as Sheik Ilderim, owner of the horses that Ben-Hur rides to victory in the chariot race) and William Wyler's remarkable direction were also worthy recipients. (The only Oscar the movie failed to grab was the one for "Best Screenplay," an omission that can probably be chalked up to Hollywood politics. The script involved everyone from Karl Tunberg to Christopher Fry; even Gore Vidal got into the act. Wyler was livid that Tunberg was the only nominee, and he publicly praised Fry's contributions in Variety. The controversy apparently led most Academy members to vote for "Room at the Top" instead of "Ben-Hur.")

Ultimately, however, it matters not how many awards or accolades a film garners. What matters is the film. Is it a work of art worthy of our attention? Such a question has much to do with the plot and the theme, which is why some Objectivists might be disturbed by my selection of a film explicitly subtitled "A Tale of the Christ."

Levels of appreciation

But as Ayn Rand tells us, there are many levels on which we can appreciate art. Rand lists four dimensions of appreciation: the literal (which pertains to the specific events of the story); the connotative (which pertains to the values portrayed or suggested through the events); the symbolic (which operates on a deeper level of meaning); and the emotional (which encapsulates our spiritual response to art).

"Ben-Hur" is based on the post-Civil War novel (1880) written by General Lew Wallace. Translated into a well-known play, and into three cinematic versions (the one-reeler 1907 version, the sprawling 1925 MGM version with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, and the 1959 MGM epic), the book, says C. L. Bennet, is "one of the most successful works of fiction ever written in any language." As a film, it is at once passionate and subtle, both action-packed entertainment and a testament to aesthetic symbolism. No brief summary of the story can do it justice, for there are many interconnected characters and subplots. Here, I present the essentials.

The film tells the story of a wealthy Jew, Prince Judah Ben-Hur, who is reunited with his boyhood friend, Messala (played by Stephen Boyd), who saved Ben-Hur's life when they were boys. The strong emotional ties between these two characters have been described as "homoerotic" by Gore Vidal, who had a small hand in the script. Upon their meeting, they hug and laugh, and, arms intertwined, drink to their mutual happiness. They throw spears in friendly competition, hitting the same target ("where the beams cross"--an omen of the crosses to come), "still close in every way"--except one: Messala is a Roman in a Roman world...Ben-Hur is a Jew.

Messala has returned to the province of Judea a Tribune of Imperial Rome, in the hopes of making Ben-Hur a collaborator in Roman rule. When Ben-Hur refuses to name the freedom fighters among his people, the friendship is irreparably fractured.

Later, Ben-Hur and his sister Tirzah (played by Cathy O'Donnell) watch from the roof of their home as the new Roman Governor, Valerius Gratus, enters the unfriendly city with Messala. There is an accident: Tirzah leans on some loose tiles that fall to the street and strike the governor. Ben-Hur takes the blame, swearing it is an accident, but Messala will hear none of it. He orders Ben-Hur, his mother, and his sister into custody. And though he discovers the loose tiles himself, he wishes to make an example of the family of Hur. This one action, knows Messala, will strike fear into the hearts of potential Judean terrorists.

An oath of vengeance

As Messala sends him off to slavery in the galleys of the Roman fleet, Ben-Hur swears revenge. He leaves behind his mother, Miriam--played by Martha Scott, who also played the mother of Moses (Heston) in "The Ten Commandments"--and sister, who are sentenced to prison as co-conspirators in the attempted assassination of Gratus. Ben-Hur also leaves behind a woman named Esther (played by Haya Harareet), daughter of his steward, Simonides (played by Sam Jaffe).  (The ties between Esther and Ben-Hur are not immediately consummated, but their romantic bond is clear.)

Crossing the desert on the way to the galleys, Ben-Hur nearly dies of thirst. He is given water by a young Nazarene, a carpenter's son. His strength is renewed, his life saved. The symbolism of the water, its cleansing power and life-giving qualities, is used in so many instances throughout the film that it merits an essay in and of itself.

After three years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur, who has been reduced to a number ("41"), meets the Consul of Rome, Commander Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins). Arrius tells the galley slaves that they are all condemned men who will die chained to their oars: "We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well and live." Despite the brief on-screen time they share, the scenes between Heston and Hawkins are striking in depth. (See especially the camera cuts that flash their expressions during a test of wills, as Arrius orders the Hortator to increase his rhythm to "ramming speed"--the galley slaves rowing faster and faster, collapsing all around, while Ben-Hur finds the strength to go on.)

As a harrowing naval battle against a fleet of Macedonian ships looms, Arrius gives Ben-Hur a chance to survive. In the violent hand-to-hand combat that follows, Arrius is thrown overboard; Ben-Hur dives into the water, dragging him to safety on a floating piece of wood. Thinking the war lost, Arrius wishes only to die. But as they sit safely on the raft, Ben-Hur tells him to "row well and live."

Meanwhile, back in Judea

When Arrius returns safely to Rome to meet the Emperor Tiberius in a Victory Parade, traveling with Ben-Hur by his side, the emperor allows the Consul to take Ben-Hur as his slave, as reward for his valor. Ben-Hur learns to drive Arrius's chariots to victory in the Roman games. And although Arrius adopts Ben-Hur as his son, in place of the son he lost, he knows that Ben-Hur yearns to return to Judea in search of his mother and sister.

Return he does, as the Young Arrius, ordering Messala to find his mother and sister or pay the consequences. Some four years after their imprisonment, they are now thought dead. But they are discovered in the lower levels of a Judean prison--lepers. On their way to the Valley of the Lepers, they stop at the house of Hur, now in darkness and disarray. Miriam and Tirzah beg Esther not to tell Ben-Hur of their plight; she swears on her love for him to respect their wishes and to tell him that they are dead.

Devastated by this news, driven by desires for revenge, Ben-Hur confronts Messala in the Judean circus. The ensuing chariot race (copied to some extent by Lucas in "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace") is among the greatest single cinematic achievements in the history of film. Ben-Hur emerges victorious. But with his dying breath, Messala exacts one last cruelty on his old friend. He tells Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are alive, and that he can find them in the Valley of the Lepers: "if you can recognize them." Indeed, says Messala, "the race is not over."

Broken, sobbing, and helpless, Ben-Hur begins a slow descent into spiritual corruption. Though a new citizen of Rome, he knows that he has become "part of a [larger] tragedy." He becomes self-pitying, consumed by hate, disgusted with the world at large. He wants to cleanse the land in blood. He laments ever having taken a sip of the stranger's water in the desert. "I should have done better if I'd poured it into the sand. I'm thirsty still."

Pontius Pilate (played by Frank Thring), the newly-appointed Roman governor, fears Ben-Hur's growing influence and instructs him to Rome before "crucifying" himself "on a shadow such as old resentment or impossible loyalties. Perfect freedom," claims Pilate, "has no existence." But Ben-Hur renounces his ties to Rome. He begins to understand how the authoritarian power of the Empire corrupts the best among men (shades of Rand's We the Living).   Not only was his friend corrupted, Ben-Hur declares, but he himself is "unclean...and at the mercy of tyranny." He understands Pilate's point that the world is Rome (indeed, Rome would be the world, the given, for another 400 years). But if full political freedom for his people is not immediately possible, it is still possible--and necessary--to seek a rational life in an irrational society. Or as the Christ figure says in another MGM epic, "King of Kings"--while it may not be possible to be freed from one's prison cell, it is still possible to be free within one's prison cell. What Ben-Hur seeks is peace within himself, even as he contemplates death.

Checks premises

But Esther tells Ben-Hur that "death generates death." She pleads with him to listen to the words of peace being spoken by the Rabbi from Nazareth. When Ben-Hur, committed to the destructive path before him, refuses, she declares: "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 is turning you to stone. It's as if you had become Messala."

Stunned by the comparison, Ben-Hur checks his premises. He eventually travels to the Valley of the Lepers, and, with Esther, finds his sick mother and dying sister. They begin a search for the Nazarene. The search is stillborn. Condemned by Pilate, Christ walks to his death on Golgotha. Ben-Hur recognizes the man--he is the man who had given him water in the desert, and the will to live. He attempts to return that gift, struggling with Roman guards to give Christ a sip of water. But the water barely touches Christ's lips before it is kicked to the ground.

A witness to Christ's execution, and of Christ's courageous ability to rise above a state of metaphysical torment, Ben-Hur begins to reassert his own will to live.

As a storm commences, the blood of Christ drips into puddles of water, which carry this most precious blood throughout the countryside. It is ironic that Ben-Hur would have cleansed the world in blood, for here blood and water merge. In a powerful series of mythic images, the cleansing rain falls on the lepers, and at the moment of Christ's death, they too are cleansed.

Ben-Hur tells Esther that he felt Christ's voice, Christ's call for forgiveness, telling him to take the "sword" out of his hand. The physical miracle, which he celebrates upon seeing his mother and sister alive and well, is a symbol of the greater spiritual miracle: for in the end, Ben-Hur reclaims his values, and his life with those he loves.

In the earliest scenes of the movie, the centurion Sextus had told Messala that he wondered how the Romans would ever control Judea given the powerful "ideas" that fuel its struggle for freedom. Messala answered: "You ask how to fight an idea. Well, I'll tell you how: with another idea." And so the conflicts in the film are conflicts of ideas: of individual liberty versus state power, of love versus hate, of values versus their extinction, of salvation versus corruption.

The film is indeed bracketed by two divine events: the first scenes concern the Adoration of the Magi and the final scenes take place in the shadow of Christ's Cross, as we witness shepherds tending to their flock. Christ makes a few cameo appearances, but we never actually see his face or hear him speak. More than anything, we feel in him the symbolic presence of the call for personal redemption in the face of oppressive tyranny and self-exile. About the same age as Christ, Ben-Hur is also on trial, and like the soon-to-be resurrected Christ, Ben-Hur must triumph over the darkness. [The parallels with Christ are quite explicit actually; when Ben-Hur wins the chariot race, Pilate, the Roman Governor, places the crown of victory upon his head and declares Ben-Hur the cheering crowd's "one true god, for the moment"--foreboding another who will stand before Pilate, wearing upon his head a crown of thorns.]    With this "tale of the Christ" taken as backdrop, the film deploys the motif of birth, death, and rebirth with great effectiveness. (Indeed, the opening credits of the film and its very last frames display God's bestowal upon Adam of the spark of life as depicted in the Sistine Chapel.)

All things possible

And so it is possible for a perennial Easter favorite to have meaning for non-believers and even for atheistic Objectivists: for "Ben-Hur" can be read in much more secular terms. The film focuses on how the central character moves from his own unjust imprisonment, to his self-imprisonment via the very vices he seeks to destroy, to his personal redemption.

Interestingly, Ayn Rand herself counted a Biblical work of historical fiction as among her favorites. She regarded Quo Vadis? by Henryk Sienkiewicz as one of the greatest novels ever written. In fact, Rand tells Ross Baker (Letters of Ayn Rand, 11 December 1945, 251):  "A book expert in New York told me that the biggest fiction sellers of all times (and the surest recipe for a bestseller) have always been religious novels with a good story (Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis?, The Robe [all made into spectacular epic films--CMS] )--and that The Fountainhead is a religious novel [insofar as] it gives to . . . readers . . . a sense of faith, courage and moral uplift."   Clearly, Rand was impressed by other works of Western mythology as well, given her own use of the Prometheus myth, and her own creative construction of novels that might be viewed as epic myths. Many Objectivists would not think twice about recommending Greek and Roman myths and legends, such as "Jason and the Argonauts," "Hercules," "The Iliad and the Odyssey," "The Aeneid," or even modern myths like "Star Wars." Yet they recoil in Philistine horror over reverence for such a masterpiece as "Ben-Hur," which revolves around the Christ story.

The Biblical "mythology" of the New Testament is one of the "greatest stories ever told." It has influenced some of the most passionate literature, art, and music in the Western canon. "Ben-Hur" makes great use of this imagery and conveys through it a powerful message of individual struggle and salvation. Thumbs up; way up.

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