Ben-Hur: the Travis Bickle of His Day
A man looking to wash this land clean.
I watched “Ben-Hur” over the weekend. I'd never seen it beginning to end.
It was fun—the epic sprawl, the overture, the intermission, the pace—but most fascinating was how much I didn't identify with its hero, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). In fact, I kept agreeing with everyone but Ben-Hur. That includes Pontius Pilate. Yeah: Pontius Pilate.
When Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) first arrives on the galley ship, for example, and demands that the exhausted slaves row faster and faster, then at attack speed, then at ramming speed, what do we make of him? Is he a sadist? Is he testing Ben-Hur, whom he notices early and often? Does he just want to see him sweat and glisten? I assumed he was a villain. Then he says this to Ben-Hur, who, at this point in the story, because of an earlier face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is a believer:
The God I pray to will not save me. The God you pray to will not save you.
That pretty much sums up my thoughts on religion, but Ben-Hur argues the point:
Ben-Hur: I can't believe God would let me live these three years to die chained to an oar.
Quintus Arrias: It's a strange, stubborn faith you keep—to believe that existence has a purpose.
Again, I'm with Arrius.
But Ben-Hur winds up saving Arrius (of course), who adopts him as a son, and Ben-Hur triumphs over his enemy, Messala (Stephen Boyd), in the famous chariot race. Except it doesn't end there. Despite all of the good that has come since his encounter with Jesus, Ben-Hur actually loses his faith again when he discovers that in his long absence his mother and sister have become lepers. He refuses even to hear the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, he goes to Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring), who warns him thus:
Perfect freedom has no existence. A grown man knows the world he lives in. And for the present, the world is Rome's.
You might not agree with that thought, you might fight it, but you'd be a fool to ignore it. Ben-Hur is a fool here. Think of it: He actually had a face-to-face encounter with God and he still lacks faith. Makes the rest of us, who get no such face-time, seem positively pious.
Indeed, for the last hour of the movie, before he gets all Christianed up again, Judah Ben-Hur reminds me of a movie protagonist who would come along 17 years later. This is Ben-Hur talking with Esther (Haya Harareet):
I tell you every man in Judea is unclean ... No other life is possible except to wash this land clean.
And here's Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” in 1976:
Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.
What's truly fascinating about “Ben-Hur” is the assumption by the filmmakers of the audience's shared Christian background. They assumed we all believed in the same God, and if we didn't, if there were Jews around (and apparently there were), well, it was OK since our God was a Jew. Jews got a pass, but only them. Donuts or bagels—no other options.
Yet we were only seven short years from the year TIME magazine would ask on its cover “Is God Dead?” What a leap. Our shared assumptions were gone by then; the fragmentation of the culture had begun. When today's conservatives complain about how Hollywood doesn't make old-fashioned movies anymore, this is what they're complaining about. They want Charlton Heston again and an all-star cast but wind up with Kirk Cameron on a miniscule budget.
“Ben-Hur” was the No. 1 movie of 1959 and remains in the top 15 all-time if you adjust for inflation. But its world, the 1950s world in which it was made, was ending. A rain came.