2016-06-30
The recent DVD reissue of the 1959 MGM spectacle "Ben-Hur," starring Charlton Heston, reminds us what a true spectacle this film was--and provides a great opportunity to reflect on the challenges of depicting Christ on the silver screen. For "Ben-Hur," the studio spent the then-gigantic sum of $12.5 million and worked for years on its preparation. It runs three hours and 15 minutes, and is the successor of two previous movies, both of them silents, based on Lew Wallace's immensely popular novel. Today's viewers, I fear, may tend to find that the judgment of a critic of the 1927 production also applies to this one. "Enormous material means and technical facilities," he wrote, "have been used to produce an edifying but stupid story."

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.

Beyond the bathrobe dramas
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  • Still, the underlying question of how to portray Christ on the screen remains. It is, fundamentally, a theological question. The Hollywood biblical epics like "King of Kings" (MGM, 1961) and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (United Artists, 1965) all fail to resolve it. Allegedly "realistic" depictions of Jesus, usually in a glistening white robe, and his era--think beards, camels, and desert landscapes--may be cleverly staged, but they cannot avoid placing Jesus in a picture-book past, leaving us to wonder what connection, if any, he has with us today.

    Only Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (Titanus/Arco/Lux, 1966) comes close to closing the then-now chasm, and it does so by challenging the vacuous sentimentality of the previous films and delivering a baldly political Jesus.

    This, then is the dilemma of the filmmaker who tries to make a Jesus film. The central subject, despite all the assiduous work of the Jesus Seminar, is far more than a historical figure for Christians. But attempts to contemporize him, although usually more interesting than the "bathrobe" dramas, still fail to close the gap. Films such as "Jesus Christ, Superstar" (Universal, 1973) and "Godspell" (Columbia, 1973) took real risks by portraying Christ as a rock icon (in the former) and a circus performer (in the latter). Their filmmakers at least recognized that the "Jesus of history"--even celluloid film history--is just not enough, and for this they deserve some credit. Even Monty Python's deliciously irreverent "Life of Brian" (Warner Brothers, 1979) succeeds in communicating some of the biblical Jesus' biting criticism of religious hypocrisy.

    The problems with these "with-it" representations of Jesus is that they become dated very quickly. But this may not be a fatal failing. The very nature of Christianity requires that it address each newly unfolding stage in human history--and they follow each other in more and more rapid succession today--with an interpretation of Jesus that engages its sensibilities while remaining true to the Gospel message.

    In my own view, by far the most successful of the "Jesus flicks" is still Denys Arcand's masterful "Jesus of Montreal" (Max Films International, 1979). It is so effective because it address what might be called the "hermeneutical" problem head on. It concerns a group of young French Canadians in Montreal seeking to make sense of a Passion play they have been asked to update and perform. As the film unfolds we watch them struggle with the Gospel accounts and with what they might mean today. As they do, the actors gradually take on the character of the biblical figures they are playing, and find themselves in similar situations.

    No film I know about Jesus overcomes the "gap" between the Jesus of the text and the Jesus of our lives today as well as this one. That's because "Jesus of Montreal" acknowledges that for countless modern people this gap does indeed exist, and it cannot be avoided by dusting off the long robes and false beards and renting the camels and donkeys one more time.

    No, whatever its Academy Award credentials and box office success, Ben-Hur is not a "Tale of the Christ." It is not even very good entertainment. The chariot race is admittedly a thriller, but the rest of the film is a swollen, slow-moving Technicolor dinosaur, of interest only as a fading artifact of film history, a sorry commentary on the state of religion in American popular culture, and yet another flimsy attempt to serve both God and mammon at the same time.

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