There had been nothing like it before with its scale, sweeping scope and spectacle. It smashed box office records and won 11 Oscars including Best Pictures of 1959. I’m talking about William Wilder’s epic religious adventure drama Ben-Hur. It stirred the public’s imagination of the power of cinema like no other film before it except maybe for Gone With The Wind or The Ten Commandments. Still today it is revered for its celebrated achievements like its awe inspiring chariot race sequence but also at its heart a tender story of love and humanity.
It’s interesting that I should mention Ben-Hur’s chariot race as one of the scenes most remembered about the film. While I would love to take a closer look at its triumph as motion picture art, I would for now instead like to focus on Judah Ben-Hur and his fateful meeting with Jesus Christ in Nazareth. (It’s important to note that Jesus is present only in a minor role in the film, but the whole undercurrent of Jesus’ influence over Judah is felt throughout the film.)
But let’s start with the end of the movie first (spoiler ahead) where after years of hardship and struggle Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is reunited with his family and faith in humanity. The latter in particular is important in understanding Judah’s journey. Like Christ, Judah has also travelled a fateful road to Jerusalem to witness Christ crucification. Here he remembers Jesus as the humble Nazarean who helped him years earlier. While he cannot stop Jesus crucification, he does what he can by offering an exhausted Jesus a drink of water in an attempt to repay a kindness to the man who first gave him water years earlier.
This kindness I speak of occurs earlier in the film, where we find Judah being marched as a slave to the Roman galleys. (Judah found himself in this predicament after being falsely accused of a crime.) Upon his forced new journey, Judah and the group of slaves in his company stop in Nazareth for a break. Exhausted and dehydrated Judah is mocked and denied from quenching his thirst by a Roman centurion. Judah subsequently falls to the ground and asks for God’s help. It is here in this important early scene of the film that we unexpectedly meet Jesus of Nazereth. What makes this scene so powerful is the fact that Jesus is introduced as a faceless man. We do not need to see his face to realise he is an important individual and that his kindness speaks volumes, especially through his gentle touch and warmth. When he pours water over Judah’s face its like he is reinvigorating Judah for his new journey of self discovery: “Whoever thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”
As the scene plays out the Roman centurion catches Jesus kneeling over Judah. He pulls out his whip and angrily demands the stranger to stop giving him water. The brilliant scene just gets even better when Jesus rises to his feet and abruptly stand his ground before the centurion. The most curious thing happens next when the centurion is stopped in his tracks. He looks on in awe at this figure and decides not to confront him. (The expression of guilt and shame on the centurion’s face was also seemingly enough for him to stand down.) From the centurion’s next to last reaction, I’m left to wonder if he could sense who Jesus was? That said, as Judah finally manages to stand, he too looks upon Jesus as if a miracle had just occurred. Did Judah just realise his life was about to change in his chance meeting with this stranger? The compassion of Jesus would without a doubt leave an indelible impression on him, especially upon Judah’s journey’s end where after witnessing Christ’s death that he finally comes to realise that forgiveness is a virtue better than vengeance, something he strongly sort against the Romans who ruined his life.