Ben-Hur, released last month, reflects the souls of what we are all thinking in a modern-day society—the yearning for peace and to get along with each other, despite differences and conflicts. But at the same time, the movies rips at the raw honesty of how difficult peace can really be to acquire amidst a complicated world where authority figures thrive on a power trip.
In contrast to the newest release, the version from 1959 focuses on how a little baby born as a savior altered the world’s course because of his existence.
But the struggle is ongoing and the newer version depicts the clarity that not much has changed and it takes more than beliefs or a handful of people to spark even the slightest changes.
From a technical standpoint in how Ben-Hur in 1959 was produced, the directors used few close-ups and instead maintained mostly longer shots like a theatrical stage and include as many characters in certain scenes as the camera possibly could. In the newest release, close-ups are often used to establish a personal connection with the audience and pull them in so they feel as if they are getting inside the minds of each character. The audience feels like they are reading a book in that way when they watch the new Ben Hur.
Ben-Hur in 1959 opens up with a long view establishing the time period of the Romans’ rule and then cuts the scene to the baby Jesus who is born in a stable in Bethlehem. Back in the late 1950s to the 1960s, less of a diversity of beliefs existed, so to keep films family-friendly, directors produced films based on biblical stories that generation grew up with. But since then, beliefs have broadened and expanded. Lately, they have sparked a fervor to understand other cultures besides our own and outgrow prejudices, which is what the newest Ben-Hur shows as part of the conflict.
For instance, in one of the first scenes, Judah’s mother tells Messala that the family has other gods after she finds Messala praying to one of his own and after Judah has a horse accident. Despite the difference, the new film version expands on the characters’ personalities and their close friendship with each other. In fact, that’s the reason why Messala originally decides to join the legion – in the hopes he will be able to repay the Ben-Hur family for their kindness.
That’s what really jumped out: Messala is just by the pure expression of his emotions; it was revealed in his eyes, the sadness of not having his own family, but mingled with the love he had for his adopted family at the same time. The Ben-Hur family had chosen to adopt him as their own, so he and Judah grew up calling each other brothers. While the film acknowledges the Ben-Hur religious heritage, especially in how it relates to the politics back then with the zealots, it shows Judah’s willingness to challenge the zealots’ thinking and work with the Romans.
In the 1959 version, Messala is shown as a manipulator and a hater who wishes to expand the Roman Empire and trample the Jews under its feet like they have other civilizations. Meanwhile, Judah is the hero who not only survives the galleys but saves the consul. In the newest Ben-Hur, the latter part is eliminated. Instead, the film moves on to the part where Judah is washed onshore and meets the chariot race gambler (Morgan Freeman), Sheik Ilderim. The Sheik is colder and more reserved than the comical nature of the 1959 version where the sheik treats his horses with endearment like they are his children.
In another creative element of the newest Ben-Hur film, horses may have been used as a symbol for sacrifice and freedom. Judah heals one of the horses that got sick, but later it dies as the crowd surrounds Judah with victorious shouts after he wins the race against Messala. As the camera pulls away from the close-up shot of the horse and directs the focus on Judah, the animal lover is gripped with high tensions. In the scene, it shows how the actions affect the lives of those players in background.
Another touching moment is the scene in which Judah and Ruth pass the Carpenter when Judah confronts Ruth about a question in regards with what it means to be free. The Carpenter, Jesus, interjects and tells Judah to ask Ruth about it since “she knows.” Judah had freed Ruth, a former slave, from a loveless marriage to a wealthy merchant just so she could achieve higher status. Instead, because Judah loved her, he married her himself. The entire theme runs on the meaning that love is often overlooked as a means to unite people.
Even to the end, Judah and Messala had their own struggles. Judah gets upset over the fatal leprosy his mother and sister contract and seeking revenge of Messala, and Messala desires to kill Judah after he accumulates a physical disability during the chariot race. Yet, in one of the final scenes, Judah enables himself to become vulnerable in his honesty about his feelings in how he cannot go on fighting anymore and asks for forgiveness. Messala is also whispering it but he is still clenching the sword which the camera zooms on for the audience to see the shaky hand that wants to stab Judah.
The struggle for peace is no different than today; not only as current wars rage on but among other people whose lives we may not understand. The movie shows a desperate need to step beyond boundaries and embrace other friendships you may be able to form and the differences you are willing to take some risks. While real life circumstances do not always reconcile to peace and understanding, the newest version of Ben-Hur evokes awareness that much more goes on than an individual’s perception and sometimes beyond control.