Ben Hur and Joseph: Making The Right Choice
The purpose of this series is to consider how film can be used to communicate the Biblical theme of ‘Transformation in the Wilderness’. In each edition we explore a film-hero's journey in key scenes and match them to their closest Bible character. By comparing the film hero’s journey to their Biblical counterparts, we will see the lesson being taught. In this final instalment, we will be looking at the classic epic by William Wyler, Ben Hur (1959).
The film is about a Jewish prince who is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend. He regains his freedom and comes back for revenge. We will use the art of film theory to analyse key scenes in his ‘wilderness transformation.’
In addition, we will see how Judah’s wilderness story is a type or a picture of Joseph in the Bible. Judah and Joseph are men of great honour and nobility. Both are betrayed, lose everything and then rise to power. However, as we will see, they are separated by one ultimate choice. In the end, Judah uses his power to choose vengeance, but Joseph uses his power to choose forgiveness.
THE SET UP
Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Hetson) has just been falsely accused of striking a Roman governor. In reality, the loose tiles on Judah’s palace wall fall on the governor in a freak accident. Imprisoned and betrayed by his old friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), Judah looks for an opportune moment to confront him. After successfully eluding his Roman captors, he faces Messala in his private quarters with a spear. In return, Messala threatens him with the execution of his family, who have also been imprisoned. Our hero relents, but not before lunging the spear into the wall behind his nemesis’ head.
Messala commands his guards to escort Ben Hur away. He is told he will never return, and this marks the beginning of his journey into the wilderness.
1. He is betrayed by a friend
The prop of the spear being flung into the wall is significant. In an earlier scene, Judah and Messala rekindle their childhood friendship with a spear throwing game. Interestingly, they throw the spears at a cross beam in the wall. The theme of the cross and redemption is prevalent throughout the film.
When Judah is later betrayed and escorted off, the spear in the wall behind Massala appears to have impaled him. His cast shadow can also be seen on the wall. This signifies that their friendship has been severed and the shadow of death hangs over Masala for his betrayal.
2. God brings relief and hope in the wilderness
In the following scene, Judah collapses from dehydration in a literal desert. In the story, Jesus of Nazareth gives him a cup of water to drink. The lighting here is key. After Judah satisfies his thirst, he looks up at Jesus in awe and wonder. The key light illuminates his face and eyes showing his character has renewed focus and vision. This is also highly reminiscent of Maximus’ restoration scene in Gladiator.
3. He is tested
In a following scene, we see Judah chained to an ore, alongside other prisoners on a Roman galley. He is now simply referred to as the number ’41.’ Here, his strength is tested by Roman consul, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). Arrius is elevated in the scene, wearing red and staring down upon Judah with a menacing look in his eyes. This gives his character a sense of authority and danger. He becomes like a type of Satan in the Wilderness, seeing if Judah will give up.
A drummer is instructed to play at battle, then ramming speed. The men must match his backbreaking pace, rowing along with their ores. The drummer is shown in dark shadow like a figure of death which is significant since many of the men collapse from exhaustion.
The lighting in Judah’s eyes here indicate both control and contempt. His hate is part of what keeps him alive. A similar line from the dialogue is delivered earlier by Arrius himself:
“Your eyes are full of hate, 41! That’s good… Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”
Much like Maximus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Judah Ben Hurs’ journey is also motivated by revenge. His deep hatred for Masala is what drives his character on in his quest for freedom. But as we will discover, his main purpose for staying alive is setting his family free.
4. Judah remembers His God and passes the test
In the next scene, Judah is summoned to Arrius’ chamber and discovers him sleeping. He faces a test as to whether he will give into his anger and kill his Roman captor or not. But Judah holds his peace. The surprised Roman wakes up and scurries to his feet. The acting and lighting are most significant here.
“You could have killed me as I lay there. You’re a condemned man, why didn’t you?” Arrius demands.
Judah responds by saying, “I’m not ready to die.”
“Who do you think will save you?” Arrius replies.
“The God of my fathers,” Judah states confidently.
The hard quality light on Judah’s face gives him an almost angelic and noble appearance when he delivers this line. This shows that his character has not lost hope in God’s power to deliver him. This also indicates that he has passed a test by not exacting his revenge on the Roman counsel. He is not blinded by anger even though he is driven by it. Coincidentally, Arrius expresses an interest in freeing Judah for his own purposes. Evidently, he is impressed by Judah’s test of strength.
Judah’s decision also marks the beginning of a turning point for his character. Behind all of his hate, is a selfless drive to save his family. This purpose is actually the thing that is keeping him alive. He wants his mother and sisters freedom more than he wants his revenge. And in order to do this, he must stay alive. This reveals that the only thing stronger than his hate is his love.
5. God delivers him
At the end of the sequence, Judah ends up saving Arrius’ life after the ship goes down in flames during a battle. Once the men are rescued, Arrius hands Judah a cup of water: A symbol of his freedom and an ironic gesture which alludes back to a previous scene where Jesus Christ gives him a cup of water in the wilderness.
As a result, Judah becomes an adopted son of Arrius and an honorary Roman. Ultimately, we learn it is God who delivers Judah and sets him free. Those who honour God, God honours.
JOSEPH - THE BIBLICAL PARALLEL
Of all the parallels we’ve seen in this short series, Ben Hur and the Biblical character of Joseph might be the closest. Take a look at this list and consider what we’ve just seen:
- Joseph is betrayed and sent into slavery by those closest to him
- God is with Joseph, and his abilities grant him favour in the wilderness
- Joseph doesn’t forget God during his testing and resists temptation
- His abilities eventually get him noticed by the Egyptian leader, Pharaoh
- He saves the life of Pharaoh and all of Egypt (through a God-given dream) and is set free
- Joseph is exalted to a higher position and and becomes an honorary Egyptian leader
- God is the one who sustains and delivers him in the wilderness
VENGEANCE OR FORGIVENESS?
When Judah returns to his homeland and confronts Masala, he offers to forget what has been done to him. His only condition is that his mother and sister are released. Once he receives the news that they have since died, Judah’s thirst for vengeance is rekindled. As a result, he challenges his betrayer to a chariot race which eventually leads to Masala’s demise. There’s a sort of poetic irony to Masala’s death, given what happens at the beginning of the film. His character dies in a tragic accident when his chariot wheels get entangled with Judah’s. As you may recall, it was a tragic accident which led to Judah’s incarceration to begin with. We also saw the shadow of the spear hanging over Masala’s head after he sent Judah into slavery. It could be argued that Masala’s treachery has come back to haunt him. In this sense, he becomes a type of Judas almost. One who arguably gets his just reward for betraying his close friend. At the same time, it's sad that Judah sought vengeance. Even though he doesn’t kill Masala directly, there is a sense in which his blood is on his hands.
Conversely, when Joseph is faced with a final test of facing his brothers he chooses the noble path. Rather than taking vengeance on his treacherous brethren who sold him into slavery, Joseph’s response is to choose to forgive them. Unlike his counterpart, Joseph uses his new found power to deliver his brothers from death. By doing this he presents us with a picture of God’s grace. A picture that we ultimately find in the person of Jesus Christ Himself.
Adam Brennan is a Digital Producer at Premier