Personally, I am not even so sure how edifying it is. Sometimes subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," the film is really a tale of revenge and of the toll it takes. Judah Ben-Hur is the scion of a wealthy Jewish family in Jerusalem who runs into trouble when a boyhood friend, Messala, returns to Palestine to assume command of the Roman legions there. Messala asks him to report on anti-Roman activities, and when Ben-Hur politely refuses, Messala finds an excuse to imprison his family and to ship him off to die as an oarsman on a Roman war galley. But sustained by his hatred and thirst for vengeance, Ben-Hur survives and even manages to save the Roman fleet commander (skillfully played by Jack Hawkins). He becomes a charioteer for the Roman races. When Messala shows up as a rival driver, the stage is set for the justly praised chariot race, in which Ben-Hur not only wins but Messala is fatally injured.
Injured, but not yet quite dead, Messala calls Ben-Hur to his bedside and cruelly informs him that his family members have become lepers and live in a loathsome leper colony. Ben-Hur finds them, and--in a rather unlikely coincidence--they all stand along the alley where Christ is carrying his cross to the hill of crucifixion. Christ heals their leprosy, and the film swells to a conclusion on a mighty musical hallelujah with three crosses against a sunset in the background.
But what is the point? Ben-Hur has indeed wreaked his revenge on Messala, who dies in agony, unrepentant and still breathing hatred. Christ himself plays at best a marginal role. Even though an earlier taboo against showing Christ's face in movies had already faded, here we only catch passing glimpses of him, and never either full or frontal. Early on, one of Ben-Hur's family members peers into the cave where Mary and Joseph can be made out, but there's no child there. Later, the hands of a carpenter reach out to give Ben-Hur water when he is being force-marched (presumably through Nazareth) to his galley, but we only see a white robe and long auburn hair from behind. Still later, we can make out a figure on a distant hill surrounded by a crowd (the Sermon on the Mount), and then we see Jesus from behind and at a distance being sentenced by Pilate and finally--again from behind--on the way to his crucifixion.
No doubt this visual reticence was a decision made by the director, William Wyler. It was probably a wise one. This is not, in reality, a "Tale of the Christ" at all. It is a pseudo-biblical spectacle that made lots of money and won 11 Academy Awards. Along with the new DVD, the producers are distributing a Bible study guide by the Rev. Robert Schuller and his son. Though it's clearly intended to beef up the film's spiritual message, it remains unconvincing.