Our man movie series will largely follow the list posted over at Art of Manliness, 100 Must See Movies: The Essential Men’s Movie Library. It is our goal to showcase the value of cinema as a platform for letting story teach us about our world. Culture shapes and molds much of how we view the definition of masculinity. Movies serve as a platform upon which a cast and crew can convey their worldview and message. Movie goers are subjected to these viewpoints, whether cognizant of that fact or not. Our purpose in reviewing the films in this series is to highlight the good and bad of the movie, cross-examining it with what the Bible has to say about manliness.
These posts are in conjunction with the Men’s Roundtable Ministry of Grace Church in South Carolina. For more information on Grace Church and MRT, go here: Grace Church Men’s Ministry
Today’s post is written by my friend Ryan Donell. Ryan is a husband, father, and works with music and research at Grace.
I believe I was captivated with the motion picture of 1959 Ben-Hur at the age of five. For most of my childhood I said that it was my favorite movie. I would still put it in my personal top 10. This film staring Charlton Heston is one of the truly epic films in cinema history.
Not only is the story woven together with tragedy and triumph, but also the cinematography is transporting. Ben-Hur takes you to a world of 1st century Greco-Roman world like Gladiator, but with the narrative texture and existential payoff of The Shawshank Redemption.
The movie is an adaptation of the novel by General Lew Wallace, published in 1880. This was arguably the first, yet definitely one of the few cinema experiences that subtly portrays the Messianic Jesus figure, yet only as one understood through the reactions of others. The film never actually shows Jesus’ face, but his power is felt when a Roman soldier who confronts him is overwhelmed by his unique presence.
Unlike so many ‘Christian’ films, Ben Hur surprises the audience with a story that confronts us with the ethical tensions of revenge, injustice, vindication, and the nature of hope, yet without the cheap and easy conclusions that fail to reflect the complexity of real life.
Ultimately, forgiveness rings a strong note in the final scenes rather than vengeance. However, the story provides a little bit of ‘have your cake and eat it too’ since Judah Ben-Hur ‘wins’ in every possible sense. While this is satisfying to many conservative audiences, it seems to betray the message in the empty crosses. The Passion of the Christ at least implied resurrection, yet Ben-Hur falls completely short on this essential development. This is one of many anachronisms between the 21st and the 1st Century perspectives. Jews would have certainly respected a courageous martyr (1 and 2 Maccabees), but a failed messiah would not have fulfilled Jewish expectation without the actual defeat of the powers, no matter how forgiving he was under crucifixion. Even the Gospel of Mark provides more trajectory than this.
Despite these drawbacks, the film was a first of its time and outstrips many current attempts at cinematic storytelling with Judeo-Christian roots.
And while Judah Ben-Hur recognizes the man named ‘Jesus’ who offered him water while he was still a slave, we are still left with the question concerning the Christ, “Do I know this man?”
- Ryan Donell