Ben Hur and Rome
Both versions of Ben Hur — 1959 and 2016 — are enjoyable and reflect their own culture and time.
Unlike most reviewers, I enjoyed the new Ben Hur film. It is different from but not necessarily inferior to the famous 1959 version with Charlton Heston. Each reflects its own culture and time, the 1950s versus the 21st century.
The new version is considerably more negative on Rome, which is portrayed almost exclusively as oppressor of conquered peoples. The only exception is Messala’s early explanation to Ben Hur of his joining the Roman army, which he says fights for their ideals of a world of law and equitable justice. This idealism, contrasted with subsequent events, is seen as ironic.
In the 1959 version, there is more nuance on Rome, partly reflected through the subplot, omitted in the new film, of Ben Hur’s rescuing at sea a noble Roman patrician officer, Quintus Arrius, who adopts him as his own son and as a son of Rome. (The new film, by contrast, has Ben Hur at sea kill the vicious commander.) Ben Hur the Hebrew former galley slave is feted in Rome as a hero of the empire, decorated by no less than Pontius Pilate, of later infamy.
Ben Hur honors his adoptive father and his new citizenship, experiencing the glory and imperial virtues of Roman civilization. But he eventually with respect disavows it to seek, like Moses, his calling among his own people, as well as to seek vengeance against Messala for betraying his family. Pilate warns him that he can no longer protect him, with which Ben Hur doesn’t quibble.
Interestingly, the 1959 film cast American actors as Hebrews and British as Romans, distinguishing between colonialists and the colonized. Jack Hawkins was Quintus Arrius, while Frank Thring was Pilate. Heston as the ultimate American is naturally Ben Hur.
In the 1950s Rome for some may have equated with the fading British Empire, while America was the noble republic, perhaps like the Hebrews. Rome was honored for its achievements even if seen as corrupt and passé. Today, in Christian circles especially, America is often equated with Rome, a decadent empire that oppresses people of faith. The Gospel and church must resist the empire.
In both films Rome plays its sinister role against Ben Hur’s family and also against Christ Himself. The new film emphasizes Rome as oppressor of the Hebrews and countless other conquered peoples, including the family of the African horse merchant who rescues Ben Hur, played by Morgan Freeman.
There is of course much historical truth in this portrayal, although most of the peoples Rome conquered were themselves oppressive empires that conquered and enslaved other peoples. Benign republics without territorial ambitions were rare to nonexistent. Messala was not wholly incorrect in saying Rome established a form of peace and universal law.
The French Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked that Divine Providence was wide, and the same Rome that executed Jesus and persecuted the church also facilitated the Gospel’s spread across its vast empire, eventually adopting that faith as its own. This complicated portrayal of Divine Providence is hard to capture in any film, of course.
In some ways, the new Ben Hur is more explicitly Christian in the style of American evangelicals. And in some ways the 1959 version has a more nuanced appreciation of how Providence deploys nations and empires.
Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism, August 22, 2016. Republished with permission.