This essay will attempt to reconstruct the life and times upon which the film Ben Hur is based. The film and its pertinent historical significance will be considered given the source on which the film was created and miscellaneous other contributing factors, including contemporary society. The trend of using cinematic license to subtly alter historical facts, thereby infusing films with added action and entertainment is also highlighted. Film as a popular medium of recreating history and the concomitant issues arising from it are discussed. In particular, the film Ben Hur and its religious overtones, biases and historical accuracy will be examined in detail.
Summary of the film Ben Hur
The main plot of Ben Hur, and the central characters of Messala and Judah Ben Hur portray friendship overpowered by dreams of political power and betrayal. Set against the backdrop of Roman occupied Judea during first century. Most of the film is devoted to the personal struggles of Judah Ben Hur but it also captures important events in the biblical life of Jesus. These events are strategically placed in the film commencing with the birth of Jesus and ending with his crucifixion.
The actual film enveloped within these biblical scenes starts with the reunion of childhood friends, the Jewish Prince Ben Hur and the Roman military commander Messala. The reunion does not go well, with Messala wanting Ben Hur to betray his fellow Jews. Disagreement occurs resulting in Messala framing Ben Hur, his mother and sister for the attempted murder of the Roman governor. Ben Hur swears revenge and is sent to work as a galley slave while his sister and mother are imprisoned. During his slavery, Ben Hur rescues a Roman commander Quintus Arrius, who adopts him as his son and takes him to Rome. He subsequently returns to Judea where circumstances pit him in a chariot race against Messala, which Ben Hur wins. Messala is mortally injured during the race, and while dying reveals that Ben Hur’s mother and sister are alive but are inflicted with leprosy. At the end of the film Jesus miraculously cures his mother and sister and removes the need for revenge from Ben Hur’s psyche.
In the film Jesus and Ben Hur only meet in a few scenes. Although, the face of Jesus is never seen in the film, the spiritual and symbolic significance of Jesus is noticeable. Starting with Jesus offering the enslaved Ben Hur a drink of water and ultimately, miraculously curing his mother and sister.
Cinematic License and Historical Accuracy
The film Ben Hur is based on the historical novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ written by Lew Wallace. The novel portrays the religious, cultural, social and political atmosphere in the first century, and the film follows suit.
A historical film “includes dates, events and characters known to all members” (Sorlin, Pierre, 1980). The film Ben Hur is not based on any one historical event but instead uses a smattering of historical details. Some of the accurate historical references include the name Hur, Jesus and the Roman Emperors of the time. There is no historical evidence linking Ben Hur and Jesus. The life of Jesus which is touched upon in a few scenes is mostly based on accounts from the New Testament of the Bible.
The film is replete with Judeo-Christian religious symbolism giving the impression that it was tailored to suit an audience’s preconceptions rather than mirror history. In a film, catering to the broadest section of the audience results in historical facts being diluted or reinvented. “But Cinema has its own constraints that impact its authenticity” (Sorlin, Pierre, 2001). Cinematic license used to spice up the film is fairly evident when comparing the film Ben Hur to the novel and actual historical events. Ben Hur in most aspects caters to an American Christian audience which Jewish sympathies.
“Much as they may deplore the fact, historians have no monopoly on the past and no franchise as its privileged interpreters to the public” ( C. Vann Woodward, 1987). Films are an increasingly popular method of interpreting and recreating history. Chiefly, because a large part of the audience just does not have time to read and catch up on history. History as portrayed in films is highly convincing as it uses the visual medium to literally come alive.
As a film, Ben Hur is useful to a discerning historian and an educated audience and should not be seen as a statement of historical facts. When seen from a historical perspective it only serves as an alternate view of history.
William Wyler. (Director). (1959). Ben Hur [Motion picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
Sorlin, Pierre (1980): The Film in History: Restaging the Past.
Sorlin, Pierre (2001): ‘How to Look at an ‘Historical’ Film’.
C. Vann Woodward (1987): “Gilding Lincoln’s Lily,” in The New York Review of Books.