Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ben Hur 2016: Definitely Not A Blast From The Past!

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2016

Last week I went to see the new Ben-Hur remake on opening day.  I realize the producers had a very narrow religious agenda but I had to see for myself since historical films about the ancient world have been in such short supply lately.  I had read a review in the Huffington Post saying the CG chariot race alone was worth the price of admission and they were definitely right about that!


The classic Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston has been the gold standard since 1959 even though it is based on an inspirational but broadly historically-flawed novel by Civil War Major General Lew Wallace.

Major General Lew Wallace, 11th governor of the
New Mexico Territory.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I saw it as a girl and have watched it many times since - even more often than Heston's other blockbuster, "The Ten Commandments."  I was pretty much prepared for a retelling of a very familiar tale with different actors and CG effects thrown in.  But, what I saw was a significantly altered story with a lot of Roman bashing!  If you are totally unfamiliar with the story of Ben-Hur and want to see the new remake with no idea what to expect, you should probably stop reading at this point.  Last warning....

The new film begins with the famous chariot race, although it shows just a brief clip before fading to a horse race between a very young Messala and Ben-Hur.  When Ben-Hur's horse stumbles and falls, he is thrown violently to the ground and is severely injured.  Messala runs over to him, scoops him up and staggers back to the Hur residence with his now badly bleeding friend.  There we see Ben-Hur's mother, a very unsympathetic character, shout at Messala, blaming him for her son's condition.  Ben-Hur's sister, though, who is obviously in love with Messala, tells him it's not his fault and together they begin the bedside vigil waiting for Ben-Hur to regain consciousness.

So far, the producers actually had me interested.  In the 1959 film, an allusion is made to Messala's relationship with Ben-Hur's sister Tirza but that's about it.  I actually liked this little anecdote from Ben-Hur's past.

Ben-Hur finally wakes up and he seems to recover fairly swiftly.  It becomes apparent that Messala feels out of place in Ben-Hur's royal family home.  Messala finally confesses to Ben-Hur that he wants to become his own man among his own people and plans to enlist in the legions.  Messala alludes to an apparently disreputable grandfather and how Messala hopes to regain the family honor. So far, so good.

Then we see a series of clips of Messala fighting bravely in brutal combat across the empire.  The filmmakers still have me on board!

Messala is finally deployed back to Jerusalem where zealots have been clashing violently with the legions. Jerusalem appears to be the headquarters of a legion - first major historical error.

Scholar Tim O'Neill tells us, "The Prefects and, later, Procurators, who governed Judea were lower level officials of the equestrian class, subordinate to the higher ranking governors of the province of Syria, who were of Senatorial rank.  Only a senatorial official could command legions.  The Prefects/Procurators of Judea commanded several cohorts of auxiliary troops, not legionaries.  These would have been Greek speaking Syrians or locally recruited Samaritans rather than Romans, though commanded by Roman officers."

"Later in the first century AD, in the wake of the failed Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD, one of the legions that took part in the suppression of the uprising and the destruction of Jerusalem - Legio X Fretensis - stayed behind to occupy Judea  and was based in Jerusalem.  It remained based in Judea for the next 150 years."

Pontius Pilate makes his entrance and is portrayed as thoroughly nasty.  The filmmakers have attempted to demonstrate his elevated rank by including in his costume a fur capelet and fur-lined boots - much more suited to Germania than the blazing desert sun of Jerusalem.  At no point in the film does he demonstrate any compassion to anyone even though Christian scriptures say he tried to dissuade the chief priests and the mob from seeking the execution of Jesus. Pilate is also dressed in military uniform throughout the film even though he served as an administrative magistrate and would have worn a toga as was portrayed in the 1959 film.  He is also barely older than Messala even though he holds such an elevated position and, in history, dies a "mature" man just ten years later.  Obviously, at this point, from a Roman history perspective, things start turning noticeably south.

Messala has apparently made his way up the ranks to become a tribune. However, tribunes were typically posts reserved for young men of the equestrian class with aspirations for a senatorial career.  There are a number of types of tribunes but Messala appears to be a tribunus laticlavius, second in command to the legionary legate.  A legionary ranker may rise to the position of a centurion, a non-commissioned officer post, or even a primipilares (first spear), a senior centurion, but not a tribune. To make matters worse, for those of us who have studied military decorations, Messala arrives at the house of Hur for dinner dressed in a full set of phalerae - awards bestowed upon centurions.  By the first century CE, tribunes and other staff officers could earn coronae (crowns of various types and designs), hasta purae (special spears - some scholars think they were silver-tipped) and vexilla (symbolic standards) - but not phalerae, the sculpted bronze discs worn on a leather harness strapped over the chest of a centurion on formal occasions.  I realize Hollywood frequently uses anachronistic pieces of Roman equipment that the general public associates with Roman soldiers, but I think they should be held accountable for poor research!

One of nine silvered bronze phalerae depicting a mythological figure
(Bacchus or a young satyr?) awarded to Titus Flavius Festus Roman 1st century CE.
Bacchic imagery was popular in the legions because the melee of combat was
said to resemble the frenzy of Bacchic revelry.  Photographed at the Neues Museum
in Berlin, Germany by Mary Harrsch © 2016
We also see Roman soldiers wearing the classic segmented armor known as lorica segmentata which, although the time period is correct, would have probably been too hot in the desert.  At least there were a few scenes with soldiers in mail shirts (lorica hamata) which would have been more reasonable.

A Roman reenactor wearing lorica segmentata at an event
at St. Alban's.  I was practicing my compositing skills and
time traveled him to medieval Yorkminster!
Photo by Mary Harrsch  © 2006
More sinister, though, from a psychological perspective, was a scene where Roman soldiers are seen plundering the Jewish necropolis for stones to build the hippodrome.  There is no evidence this type of activity ever occurred there. Romans typically did not interfere with local religious or funerary customs.  In fact, although Rome expected conquered peoples to worship Roman gods along with their native pantheon, Jews were declared exempt from this requirement after they were conquered in 63 BCE. Judaism was declared a legal religion and the Jews were allowed to worship freely.

The reason I found this scene particularly pernicious, though, was that this past week I have been researching why so few Roman military decorations have ever been found and came across pictures of Christian churches with the tombstones of Roman soldiers incorporated into their walls. These images were produced by Professor Lawrence Keppie to illustrate his paper "Having Been A Soldier: The Commemoration of Military Service On Funerary Monuments of the Early Roman Empire," published in the Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies.


Roman veterans who were decorated for their valor were sometimes buried with their military decorations crafted from precious metals.  We can only assume the dona militaria were also plundered and probably melted down by church workmen or officials. So this scene depicting the Romans in the act of desecrating graves was not only historically inaccurate but indicted the Romans for unsavory acts the later Christians actually practiced. I also heard the local inhabitants in the film referring to the Romans under their breath as killers.

Then I was surprised that instead of Tirza knocking a loosened tile from the roof to rain down on the prefect's entourage as depicted in the 1959 film, we see a young zealot, who has been recuperating in the Hur household, fire an arrow that misses the prefect and kills a nearby Roman signifer.  The boy runs away and Ben-Hur takes the blame to try to protect his mother and sister.  But, all are dragged away and Ben-Hur is sentenced to the galleys.  Of course, this is where the novel itself is totally inaccurate. Rome did not use slaves on its military galleys.  They were manned by trained sailors and marines. The Romans did not want a battle's outcome dependent upon the performance of slaves. But, to be fair, this information may not have been known to Lew Wallace in 1880 when he published Ben-Hur.

Fresco of a Roman war galley from Pompeii 1st century CE.  Photograph by
Mary Harrsch © 2007
In reality, prisoners like Ben-Hur that somehow escaped execution would have been sentenced to the mines or the quarries.  However, it would have been difficult for Ben-Hur to rescue a Roman naval commander there like he did in Lew Wallace's novel.

I actually liked the updated sea battle sequence.  The CG was pretty good and heightened the tension. However, the Roman commander was portrayed as totally despicable and went overboard during the battle, apparently dying.  Ben-Hur did not rescue him or go to Rome and eventually be adopted by him as in the 1959 film. Instead, Ben-Hur is washed ashore and found by the kindly African, played by Morgan Freeman in dreadlocks, who wants to race horses in the hippodrome of Jerusalem.

That brings us back to the chariot race.  This part of the novel serves as the exciting climax both for it and the film adaptations. However, although thrilling, it is based on historical inaccuracy as well. Charioteers, although wildly popular, were, like gladiators and other Roman entertainers, members of the lowest social class in ancient Rome.  At this point in time, a Roman military tribune would have never competed as a chariot driver.  As I said, though, it was absolutely thrilling.  I even had to look away a couple of times because of the realistic violence.  I watched the following trailer on YouTube that included a "Behind the Scenes" look at the filming of the chariot race.  Although I'm sure some CGI was used, the actors actually did drive the chariots.  The filmmakers mounted cameras on the chariots themselves along with other moving camera vehicles to give us some really unique camera angles. I do hope none of the horses were injured during the filming!  Jack Huston looks like he's having the time of his life!




Of course, probably the most misleading scene of all depicted the Romans arresting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Even the Christian scriptures say Jesus was arrested by armed men sent by the Jewish high priests! That scene was inexcusable!! Talk about vilifying an entire culture to promote your own religious agenda!

But, the new film offers a totally alternative ending which I actually liked.  I will leave that for you to discover for yourself, though.

For those of you with a nostalgia for earlier productions of Ben-Hur, I will leave you with a link to a .pdf I created of a souvenir booklet for a 1900 live production of Ben-Hur that I found at a local flea market a couple of years ago:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/gvj2jqpdjhvm47u/BenHurSouvenirBookletTake2.pdf?dl=0 

Scene from a 1900 live production of Ben-Hur.  Photo (now in the public domain) by Joseph Byron.

This play ran for 21 years in the United States, Britain and Australia, ending in 1920.  It is estimated over 20 million people saw it during that time.

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