Ben Hur: An Analysis of Accuracy

By James Burgess

Ben Hur. One of the greatest film ever produced. Universally renowned for its revolutions in film and cinematography. Savior to an entire company. Real? Everyone is different, but I, like a few others, often watch a movie such as this, especially one with some historical basis, and wonder just how close to reality it may have come. Often you see movies so enveloped with the need for viewers - and rightly so as a company must have customers or their work is for naught - that they neglect to research and incorporate an accurate representation of the true history into their artwork. There are many reasons for this; often the true history isn’t considered as interesting by the writers, or doesn’t translate well on to screen, or hell, they just may not know any history or care to define it. Whatever the case may be, few works these days focus on portraying a true insistence in history in the most accurate context available, unless that is the sole purpose of the film. Ben Hur is not among these. Considered one of the greatest epics of all time, the story of the fictional character Judah Ben-Hur is a timeless classic. The story was originally penned by Lew Wallace, a lawyer, governor, and Union general in the American Civil War, and later translated into film no less than three times (not including an animated film voiced by Charlton Heston himself in 2003, a Broadway musical, and a stage adaptation in 2009). There is little doubt of the powerful and moving story between the covers of that book, and its adaptation and translation onto screen. But what of accuracy? Are the depictions real? The characters of Ben Hur, the society in which they lived… Were they based on reality or were they the whim of the writer?

Often, one would be led to believe that a work of fiction would be exactly that: a work of fiction, with reality totally pushed out of the window. Ben Hur is one movie that proves to be an exception to this concept. While the protagonist and many of the surrounding characters have never existed and do not exist outside of our imaginations, the story was written and is used often to reinforce a concept of religion and reflect the life of one of history’s most famous individuals, Jesus Christ. That the story of this man is interwoven with the fate of Ben-Hur and his influence is undeniable. Perhaps some realization of the power given to Christ in the film is the noticeable point that his face is never shown. It’s almost as if he exists within the storyline as some great power, the essence of which can never truly be captured or analyzed, which moves throughout the world influencing and changing the course of history through every minute action. By this means, the story suggests, in essence, that the story isn’t about Ben-Hur at all, but that he is only a supporting character, there only to give essence to the mercy and power of the Christ, someone who was very much real and a part of our history, and that of the entire world. As a depiction of Christ, the movie details little, other than his influence and his death. Though his absence of characterization in the movie may have been perfect for the emotion it conveys and the presence it instills, from an analytical point of view it can be frustrating. The movie depicts the event of the crucifixion of Christ with some detail, much or all of which was taken directly from the Bible, with the notable exception of the protagonist and his family being present and the slight interaction with the event, this being Ben-Hur’s failed attempt to return a favor granted to him long ago by Christ, a bowl of water for one in thirst. One point that is not quite compatible with the true history of the event and time, would be the tolerance of Miriam and Tizrah, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, who were lepers. Truly, they would not have come into such a crowd of people had anyone at all recognized their illness, as it was considered almost as a plague, and anyone coming into contact with them almost certainly to be afflicted with their illness. Thus, they would have been shunned and evacuated well before coming into such a crowd and observing the crucifixion first-hand.

But what about the other aspects of the movie? The storyline of Christ may have been the focus, but what of the setting? For a movie on such a grand a scale as this, there would have to be many locations in which it would take place. The dry lands of Judea, the palaces of Rome: the travels of Judah Ben-Hur took him many places, one of the most spectacular being as a prisoner aboard at Roman flag ship. This part of Ben-Hur’s life would have to be one of his hardest, three and a half years serving aboard Roman ships, tied by chains, forced to endlessly row, row, row to the rhythmic beat of the drums, often watching those around him collapse and die, either from losing faith in survival, or simply pure exhaustion. Would such a fate, existing as a prisoner in the belly of the ship, forced to keep it moving or die, have befallen our hero for his crimes? The answer, surprisingly, is no. Like the American concept of racial slavery and its backwards realization through the ages, the use of convicts, slaves, and prisoners of war as a means to power in the Roman fleet is totally inaccurate, and based on events having taken place many generations later which forced the stereotype. In actuality, the Roman ships were powered entirely by free men. In fact, the only possible exception one could consider would have been that while in dire need of man-power the Romans would use slaves, but the catch is that they would be freed before even stepping foot in to the galleys to row. From inference, I believe that the Romans saw the rowing as something that one must choose to do. It involved putting one’s self in such a position, requiring exertion and mettle beyond the call of most jobs. Or at least, I believe that’s what a Roman commander might have said. In practicality, likely their reason was somewhat simpler and easier to grasp. What drive would a condemned man have to survive? The movie depicts a sentence to the galleys as a life sentence, or death sentence, as one could more reasonably think of it. One famous line from the movie exemplifies this: “You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well and live.” Another reinforces it when the Roman officer Quintus Arrius questions Ben-Hur’s resolve: “You will never escape while we are victorious. If we are not, you will sink with this ship, chained to your oar.” Why, if there is no possible relief from this miserable existence other than death, would someone fight to save the ship and live?

Viewers might ask themselves though, what is the climax of this movie, and what could it teach us about the era in which this movie takes place? The answer here is very obvious. One would have to watch a great many movies to find one which comes even close to offering the complexity and grandeur of the climactic chariot race of Ben Hur. It is considered to be one of the most revolutionary sequences in the history of cinematography, rivaled by none and copied by many. One of the things that made this scene so impressive, though, was simply its immensity. Could it have been truly such an event in ancient Rome? The answer is a resounding yes. Just look at our modern Super Bowl or Nascar race. Imagine though, it’s thousands of years ago, the press of people, the contained excitement. You, like so many others have your bets placed, not your life savings, maybe, but close. The chariots line up, you see your favorite driver over the other spectators… No doubt the experience would have been something to live for, and in the case of the drivers, something to die for, and they often did. Usually slaves, they could become a legend in the sport simply by surviving. This was a particularly dangerous sport, an aspect which the movie does well to catch. One debilitating difference though, between the Greek way of racing and the movie’s portrayal, and the true Roman way of chariot racing was the means by which the drivers were constrained to the chariots. In the movie and in earlier Greek times, drivers were held only in their chariot, or not at all. The Romans on the other hand, for whatever reason, tied the reins around their waists, meaning that they would either have to cut themselves loose or untie themselves, or be dragged around the track. For this reason, many carried falx, or curved blades used to cut the reins if need be. Another disparity between the movie and reality is the number of rounds. A typical number of rounds for a Greek race was twelve, and due to wanting to cut down the number to allow more races in a day, the Romans used seven, which was later cut down even more to five. The race in the movie had nine. The differences though, in the comparison of the movie’s scene to the historical truth are relatively few and mostly irrelevant. This may be because something as grand a scale as this needed little sprucing up for Hollywood. The majesty and power of such as event are of a magnitude rivaled only by the largest of our events. The accuracies though, were surprising. Just as Pontius Pilate crowned Ben-Hur with an array of laurel leaves, so too did the winners of the great races thousands of years ago receive. So too were the races started, with the leading official dropping a handkerchief. One of the most troubling similarities, though toned down for the movie, was the use of the spina. This is what the Romans called the center of the track, more massive in the movie than reality, but less dangerous. In the Roman times, it was a structure made up of statues, obelisks, etc., objects devastating to a moving object, such as a chariot. Like the movie though, one of the objectives many of the racers employed was to move another cart into the spina, resulting in a most violent and spectacular crash, undoubtedly an intentional side-effect which lured crowds of spectators much like the crashes of Nascar today, and proof that subconscious sadism is no new phenomenon.

So was it accurate as far as cinema goes? Absolutely. Was it accurate enough to be used as a teaching tool or to be recommended as a learning experience? I would say yes; not only a learning experience, but an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Yes, there are a few discrepancies from fact, but mind you, even most documentaries have some room for correction. I challenge you to find any film, any more correct in fact, that could rival Ben Hur as a masterpiece of cinematography, something that could be enjoyed time and time again, which really sticks in the memory and gives someone a taste of a civilization long since gone. It will truly live on, in my mind, as one of the greatest films of all time and one the best learning experiences one can have.