Back in Theaters: Ben-Hur (1959)

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, is such a remarkable, visceral yarn that it has been filmed three times. In 1925, a two-hour silent version became the most expensive and highest-grossing picture of all time, and featured a handful of technicolor sequences well before Gone with the Wind made its debut. In 1959, William Wyler directed the seminal update with Charlton Heston; and 2016 brought us the Timur Bekmambetov reboot, which was most memorable for me because of its poster’s similarity to that for Sausage Party.

To celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter, Fathom Events brings the 1959 Heston version back to a big screen near you for a 60th-anniversary extravaganza–two days only, Sunday and Wednesday. If you’re a film fan and have never seen Ben-Hur on the big screen, this is truly a rare treat!

The film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a “Hebrew prince” who was raised in privilege alongside a Roman citizen, Messala. When the latter, as an adult, is sent back in charge of the Roman garrison under Pontius Pilate during a time of political unrest, his boyhood friendship with Judah is tested and ultimately found wanting. When Judah is unable to placate Messala’s ambitions, he and his family are framed for sedition, dispossessed, and imprisoned. Judah is sent to serve as a slave in a Roman galley, and thus commences a tale of epic revenge which culminates in the legendary chariot race pitting the freed Judah Ben-Hur against the Roman champion, Messala.

How, then, does this become a “tale of the Christ”? Good question.

The connection of Judah’s story to that of Jesus becomes more tangential in the 1959 version than in the 1925, or in General Lew Wallace’s novel. On more than one occasion, nonetheless, Judah crosses paths with the Jewish Messiah as their stories overlap; we, of course, follow Judah. While the 1925 version wove the threads together tightly at the end, the Heston version keeps Jesus more off-stage. But the effects are no less dramatic as the encounters that Judah and his family have with the Christ bring the kind of healing and resolution that no amount of revenge ever could. “Mercy triumphs over justice,” as the Scripture says, and “true love casts out fear.”

“Which is easier?” Jesus once asked, as recorded in Matthew 9. “To say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, and walk’?” His point: that healing the heart is often the harder task, the one we deem truly impossible. Sometimes it takes a physical miracle to get us to believe in the power of spiritual change.

And that, my friends, is how Ben-Hur becomes a tale of the Christ: a parable of the change of heart we all seek.

On a big screen, with a sweaty and grimy Charlton Heston, and the spectacle of a thrilling victory which still leaves him searching for more.

Ben-Hur is playing Sunday and Wednesday at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, and the Century Federal Way.


Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.