There is a sub-genre of movies set in the first century of the Roman Empire about chance encounters with Jesus Christ. Generally, they resulted in profound life changes for those that met the Messiah unexpectedly. Jesus is most often seen from the back or not at all; perhaps a shadow or a gentle hand. It is his presence that is felt, not his person that is represented. The best known of these films, two versions of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, based on the 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, set the mold for establishing the ministry of Jesus as the alternative to submission to worldly power under the Roman Empire. The novel was the most popular literary work of its time.
Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
This early silent film is a bit long at two hours and twenty minutes, but I could not keep from thinking what an astounding spectacle it must have been for moviegoers in 1926. The culture clash between Judah Ben-Hur, the aristocratic Jew on his way to becoming Christian, and the Roman commander named Messala, played out on the screen in the famous chariot race. It is often mistakenly thought that this was the famous Circus Maximus of Rome (upon which the movie set was modeled) but it was not. In the novel, this is the circus at Antioch on the shores of the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Ben-Hur has enjoyed huge success as a novel, on the stage, and at the movies.
Though this film is something of a slog at the beginning and ending, it is a contender for the greatest film epic of 20th century Hollywood. It’s long enough to require an intermission at two hours and twenty minutes into the running time. In the beginning of the film, the Roman commander in Judea is concerned that there is a new and seditious teaching in the land, which preaches that “God is in every man.” This is not good news for the Romans who make gods of their emperors. Judah Ben-Hur detects the anomaly and opposes the Romans even though it will mean slavery for him and terrible trouble for his family. Can it be said that this is the core drama of Western Civilization: the opposition of the internally motivated individual to any power that truncates freedom? I am not prepared to make such a pronouncement, but I like the question.
In the year 2003, Charlton Heston was involved in the production of an animated version of Ben Hur. This would be a good study for those who are interested in how the West teaches its young the stories that have shaped our culture.
Anthony Quinn takes the title role in this story that begins in the last days of Christ. It opens with the moment of choice for the people of Jerusalem, and the release of Barabbas from a Roman prison. Back on the streets of the city, he is haunted by constant reminders of what has happened to the man who was crucified while he went free. He has more trouble with the law and is sent to the sulfur mines of Sicily. There is a moment where a Roman official declares that the baser impulses of the populace must be controlled “in the name of civilization.” We are still in the reign of Tiberius. Barabbas works for twenty years in the mines, but is allowed to return to the sunlight after he survives a mine disaster. In an unlikely twist, he and a fellow survivor, a Christian, are brought to Rome by a noble couple that see them as good luck. They are placed in a gladiator school.
The star gladiator (Jack Palance) sees Barabbas as a spent old man and ridicules him. When the friend is revealed as a Christian because he refuses to kill his opponent in the games, he is executed by spear in the arena. Barabbas denies the faith and is spared. The next day, Palance stages a spectacular combat in the arena where he kills individual gladiators from a chariot while they are forced to fight on foot. When Barabbas takes his turn, he outwits Palance and slays him on the thumbs-down signal from the Emperor Nero. As a reward, the emperor gives him his freedom.
He arrives in Rome to find the city in flames and the Christians are being blamed for the fire. Barabbas takes a torch and helps to spread the flames. When he is arrested by Roman soldiers, he furiously declares that he is a Christian. In prison he meets Peter and the other Christians of Rome. They tell him it is the Emperor who has burned Rome. In the end, we see a field full of hundreds of Christians crucified on crosses. Among them is Barabbas, who commends himself to God.
The Robe (1953)
This is a popular religious epic based on the 1942 Lloyd C. Douglas novel about a man who was there on the day Christ died. It stars Richard Burton, with Victor Mature and Jean Simmons. Marcellus (Burton), a Tribune and son of a senator, narrates the opening in the eighteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. The scourge of Rome is slavery; “there are more slaves than citizens.” In the slave market, Marcellus buys a Greek, named Demetrius (Victor Mature) and gives offense to young Caligula who wanted to buy the slave for gladiator training. He also meets his childhood sweetheart, Diana (Simmons), in the marketplace. She is a ward of Tiberius and living on Capri. Because of his impudence to Caligula, Marcellus learns he is to be sent for military duty in Jerusalem. He takes Demetrius along, arriving in time to hear news of the arrest and trial of Jesus. Pontius Pilate assigns him to supervise a routine execution by crucifixion. At the scene, Demetrius picks up the robe worn by Christ and Marcellus is afflicted with the feeling that he has been cursed. Suffering from hallucinations, he is sent to the palace at Capri to be nursed by Diana. The concerned Emperor instructs Marcellus that his only hope for a cure is to return to Jerusalem, find the robe, and destroy it. Tiberius predicts that this is the onset of “the greatest madness of them all – man’s desire to be free.”
Back in Jerusalem, Marcellus wanders in humble disguise among the good Christians of Judea and is swayed by their virtue. The apostle Peter is there. In a moment of crisis, Marcellus learns that Tiberius is dead and Caligula is Emperor. Marcellus sees the Romans for what they are, and gives himself to Christ. The scene shifts to Rome where the rampant Caligula has called Diana to the palace. He informs her that Marcellus has returned from Judea and is working in Rome on behalf of the Christians. Demetrius, now in Rome and a convert to Christianity, has been caught and is being tortured in a dungeon. Diana finds Marcellus and helps him to rescue Demetrius. Caligula is in transports of rage. The Romans capture Marcellus and put him on trial before Caligula. The Emperor addresses the court, branding the Christians as little more than slaves. He reminds the assembly of the revolt of Spartacus. It seems ridiculous to suggest that the role of Caligula can be overacted, but this guy comes close. Marcellus speaks for his new faith, but Caligula rants about a treason in which a poor carpenter is worshipped as a king. Marcellus is sentenced to death. Diana elects to die with her intended husband.
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) – Sequel to The Robe
Following quickly on the heels of The Robe, this sequel took as its sources the characters in the original novel, the historical record of the reign of Caligula, and a heavy infusion of screenwriter imagination. Victor Mature steps into the foreground as Demetrius, now a free man. He has come to Rome to deliver the Robe to Peter, “the big fisherman,” who is in hiding with the Christians in the catacombs. When soldiers come in search of the Robe, there is a fight, and Demetrius is taken to court where he is sentenced to gladiator school. Claudius and Messalina arrive at the school to announce they will give a series of games in honor of Caligula’s birthday. They are to be held in a private arena, called the “palace enclosure.” Demetrius attempts to run away, declaring “This is a place where men are trained to kill each other like animals!” Messalina coyly replies, “And men aren’t animals?”
Demetrius has success as a gladiator but is unlucky in love. When the young woman he loves appears to die, he feels his prayers have not been answered and loses his faith. He becomes a killer in the arena. The madness of Caligula sets the tone for his descent into chaos. The wanton Messalina, wife of Claudius and soon to become Empress, does her best to seduce Demetrius. He comes to his senses and returns to his faith when he discovers that the woman he loves is not dead after all, but has been saved by Jesus (who appears onscreen). Caligula is assassinated by his guards and Claudius becomes Emperor. Those that have transgressed express contrition and all seems well with the Empire, for the moment.
The Big Fisherman (1959)
This epic film appeared a few months before Ben-Hur. It is based on a novel by the author of The Robe. Howard Keel stars as Simon/Peter, who is resistant to the allure of Christ at first but is changed when he brings a blind baby to Jesus to be healed. Much of the action involves Arabia and Arabian royalty. A young woman named Fara discovers that she is the daughter of Herod Antipas by his first marriage. She travels from Arabia to Galilee, disguised as a boy, to assassinate Herod in revenge for the wrong done to her mother. She is eventually dissuaded from her purpose by an encounter with Peter and the teachings of Jesus. Antipathy between Arabians and Christians fuels this lopsided film. It was released by Disney despite their prohibition against overtly religious movies.
The Silver Chalice (1954)
Based loosely on the Thomas B. Costain novel, this biblical epic included the screen debut of Paul Newman. The story begins and ends in Antioch, a center of sea and caravan trade in the Roman Empire. There are significant relocations to Jerusalem and Rome in the time of Nero. A Greek slave named Basil (Newman) is commissioned by Joseph of Arimathea to craft a silver chalice to encase the tin cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. Basil’s concentration is compromised by a complicated love triangle involving his childhood sweetheart, Helena, and the daughter of Joseph, Deborah.
Helena is enthralled with a charlatan magician who has aspirations for being the next Messiah. Peter, the big fisherman, is on hand when all of the characters meet in Rome. Helena and the charlatan (Jack Palance) publicly humiliate themselves and cause an uprising against Nero in the process. The people riot in the streets, looting wealthy houses. Peter reports that the Chalice has been stolen. Suddenly, Basil and Deborah are boarding a ship for Antioch. Peter bids them farewell from the dock and announces portentously that one day the lost Chalice will be rediscovered and it will be in a time that will need it more than Rome needs it now. A story of the Holy Grail has been squandered. This might have been an interesting bit of Christian folklore if it had been done well. It is notable for it’s film portrait of Joseph of Arimathea. Newman was embarrassed by his work on this film, and it did poorly at the box office.
There is one other movie in this segment of MovieJourneys that involves an encounter between Jesus and a citizen of the Roman Empire. It is The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). See Movies about Pompeii.
After the crucifixion of Christ, Christianity began to spread throughout the regions of the Roman Empire. Persecutions were common and many were martyred. In Jerusalem, the Jewish population rose up against their oppressors and suffered heavy defeat in the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE).
Peter O’Toole heads the cast of this fairly serious and apparently not inaccurate depiction of the siege of Masada in 73 CE. He plays a fictional Roman general. It is surprisingly balanced in covering the tactics of the Zealots, the crisis of faith for their leader, and the inevitability of defeat. It is equally unflinching in depicting the internal dissension among the Romans, the brutality of slavery, and the hollowness of the victory. The opening scenes show only a little of the destruction of Jerusalem, including the Second Temple. There is much talk of the command of Vespasian, but he appears only briefly in a scene where O’Toole returns to Rome with an offer of compromise made by the Zealots. The Jews have retreated to Masada, a high mesa south of Jerusalem where the Romans will lay a long siege. Richard Basehart narrates. Originally made as a six and a half hour TV mini-series, it was later released as a feature-length video. It was filmed at Masada and visitors today can view the Roman ramp built by the movie company.