Monday, December 25, 2006

the greatest story

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, I devoted myself to relaxing and thinking about the day. I had no last minute things to do, or chose not to, went to church, came home, sat down and flipped through the tv channels. I found one of my absolute favorite films just starting, "Ben-Hur", the version with Charlton Heston, released in 1959. I decided to hunker down, because that masterpiece of film-making is almost four hours long. It aired on Turner Classic Movies, and there is always a short bookend by the company giving details about the films. This one took two years and ten million dollars to make at a time when studios did not devote such huge capital in films. It almost sank MGM financially. It was nominated for 11 Oscars (won one) for Best Director (I think), William Wyler. My choice for an in-the-bag Oscar would have been Best Movie Score. The musical score by Miklos Rozsa is, in my humble opinion, one of the best of all time. The music punctuates and moves the film's message and action, draws the viewer-who could hear the triumphal trumpet march played during the chariot race and not envision the entire scene? It is magnificent. Every character, place and bit of action have musical cues that set the scene so well. Every other film that includes ancient Rome takes borrows from this film and this score.

The movie was adapted from a book by a Christian man, General Lew Wallace. He does an outstanding job of telling the story of Christ through another parallel story involving two friends, a Jew and a Roman. Charlton Heston is the Jew, Judah Ben-Hur, and Stephen Boyd the Roman, Messala. The fates of each man are intertwined throughout their lives and clash in adulthood as Messala rises in power in the Roman army. My children think the movie is overly dramatic, and in a way it is, but the story rises to such high drama without being hokey anything else seems less appropriate. I think actor Stephen Boyd is the unsung hero in this fim. His portrayal of a man determined to secure his own destiny by persuasion and then utter cruelty by betraying his friend is the foil that makes the film work. Who can forget the death scene after the chariot race that caps his performance? It is so life-like and so hideous the message is clear as a bell-if we live only for this life we die with only it's worn-out remnants of selfish ambition in the end. I will never forget his last drawn-out breathe and the expression that accompanied it. It is so haunting.

This film has always been special to me. It came out a year after I was born, and I did not see it until it was rereleased in theaters in the 70's. I think this was the instrument that softened my heart to follow Christ. I was shell-shocked after seeing it. This was my "Passion of the Christ" because it spoke so clearly to my psyche. The film is highly symbolic in a way that does not crack you over the head. Water is a main theme-Jesus as the Living Water. There is a scene where Christ gives water to Judah as he is led away in slavery, and then in the end of the film, he is present as Jesus carries the cross and falls, and attempts to give Him water. The scene is framed from Judah's back, water dipper clearly in his hand as Christ struggles with the cross. Without question the most powerful scene is the storm after the crucifixion. Rainwater is shown flowing down from the cross, mingling with Jesus' blood and traveling over the ground. The music that is played as this scene moves forward still causes the hair on my neck to stand up.

So, on this Christmas Day, I take the message of the film into my heart once again. The life of Christ moves over the whole earth for all eternity, changing those who trust in His saving blood. I could identify in a very small way with this story of a man wrongly treated by the world and those he trusted, only to find making it right is impossible without the power of God. The answer was not to seek revenge or force an outcome, but to receive the peace that only comes from the cross and a Life lived to seek and save the lost. We are powerless to save ourselves. We sang "O Holy Night" at our New Year's Eve service last night, and I thought of the lyrics in light of the movie, "Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt it's worth". I felt my soul's worth watching this movie and I know how much I need to surrender my own ambitions and desires to Christ this Christmas. That is my gift to Him.


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