Sunday, April 07, 2024

Forgiveness vs. Vengeance: "Ben-Hur" (1959)

When I was young, Ben-Hur (1959) was one of my top ten favorite movies. As a child, I enjoyed the spectacle of big set pieces like the sea battle and the chariot race, but when I moved into my teens, I began to understand the themes and character arcs more. While it’s slipped down a few notches over the past couple of decades, it’s still one of my absolute favorites, a film I don’t have to be “in the mood” for— I can enjoy it any time. And every time I watch it, I find new nuances, new layers, new depths to the story and the characters. 

Ben-Hur tells the story of a wealthy Jewish man named Judah Ben-Hur, sometimes referred to as “the prince of Hur” because he’s so rich and powerful. Around the year 30 AD, Judah’s childhood best friend, Messala, returns home after years fighting with the Roman army. Now a mighty tribune, he wants Judah to help him quiet the unrest in the area, and help Rome govern Judea peacefully. This would mean informing on any troublemakers Judah might know about. Judah refuses, Messala leaves in a huff, and the next thing you know, he’s framing Judah for attempting to assassinate the Roman governor. 

Judah gets sent to the galleys as a slave without a trial, and his mother and sister are thrown into prison. His wealth is confiscated, his servants tortured for information about his activities, and his entire life is ruined. Or so you’d think. But Judah rises from this defeat to become even more powerful than before, and grinds his former friend Messala into the dust to repay him for what he did to Judah and his family. 

Revenge is obviously a huge theme in Ben-Hur. Messala has revenge on Judah for his refusal to help; and Judah has revenge on Messala for destroying the Hur family. The story could have ended there, Judah triumphant over his enemy, but it goes on to show how focusing on vengeance can hollow a person out, leaving them empty and confused after they have gotten their revenge. With Messala gone, Judah is purposeless, vacant, his soul eaten away by the hatred he’d harbored for so many years. 

Into this void come the words of a young rabbi, someone Judah’s one-time slave Esther has started following. This rabbi, or teacher, is named Jesus, and he teaches that people should forgive those who wrong them, should love their enemies, and should leave vengeance to God. Judah has had his revenge and found it bitter, and the rest of the film deals with the question of whether it’s possible for him to forgive those who did him wrong, even the dead Messala, and to forgive himself for his actions as well. 

The movie is based on a book by General Lew Wallace, who had served under General Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War. Wallace wrote Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ in the 1870s, finishing it while he was Governor of New Mexico and submitting it for publication in 1880. He began writing it after having a debate with a friend about Christianity. Wallace realized how little he knew about Christianity or the history of Christ’s life, and began to do research into that time period. It eventually led to his fleshing out a short story he’d previously written about the journey of the Magi. 

By focusing on a fictional character the same age as Christ, from the same area of the country, Wallace was able to impart historical detail to his readers about the world Christ lived in without fictionalizing the Biblical account of His life. I think Wallace’s experiences living in a country trying to knit itself back together after a civil war must have informed his decision to make the story revolve around two former friends who become bitter enemies. The lesson of finding peace through forgiveness would have resonated with the readers of the day, who were struggling with similar issues. In today’s fractured world, its message is equally poignant. 

When I was a kid, I loved Ben-Hur‘s epic excitement. When I got a bit older, I valued its excellent story-telling and character development. But now, it’s the themes of forgiveness versus vengeance that resonate with me. Who knows—in another ten or twenty years, this story might mean even more to me! In the meantime, I think I’ll watch it a few more times.

(This post originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Femnista magazine.)


  1. Replies
    1. Ivy Miranda, I can well believe it! Such a wonderful film.

  2. Still have never seen this one -- which is absolutely crazy, I know. One day...

    Definitely a rich field of conflict to explore, though. I can't say how they compare / sounds like they're on slightly different tangents, but your description reminds me a bit of the the conflict in True Grit -- re vengeance v. justice. (Though I'm always left a bit conflicted on the protagonist's motives in that one -- though maybe part of it's just reflecting the real life messiness that happens.)

    1. Heidi, well, you have a great treat ahead of you, then!

      And, yes, there could be some comparison here to True Grit. Mattie Ross is only fourteen, so I always feel like her insistence to see justice done and bring her father's killer to account is very mixed up with a desire for revenge, and her own grief is making her mix the two up in some ways. Which provides much food for thought!


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