Ben-Hur, Palestinian!

The great epic Ben-Hur, which won 11 Oscars in 1959, is being released in a 50th anniversary DVD edition. The Los Angeles Times notes the occasion with this howler, via Big Hollywood:

Based on the novel by Lew Wallace, the period drama revolves around Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), a Palestinian nobleman who is enslaved by the Romans, engages in one of the most thrilling chariot races ever captured on screen, and even encounters Jesus Christ.

In this bizarre sentence, the Times critic not only misplaces the whole context of the movie–Ben-Hur was, of course, a Jew, and there are no “Palestinians” in sight–but also backhands the whole point of the movie: Ben-Hur “even” encounters Jesus Christ! It would be hard to write a more myopic sentence about any movie or other artistic work.

When my children were very young, they saw Ben-Hur, or portions of it, on television. What they mostly remembered was the chariot race. A few years later we were all in London, staying at the Athenaeum Hotel, which is popular with actors and the like. One night we were leaving the hotel and a tall, rather elderly and definitely familiar-looking gentleman who was also on his way out held the door for us. He smiled as our rather considerable brood passed by, and I thought, Wow, I’m pretty sure that’s Charlton Heston. By that time Heston was a political as well as a cinematic hero, but, regrettably, the moment passed and I wasn’t certain enough to say anything. I did tell my kids that I was pretty sure the man who held the door for us drove the chariot in Ben-Hur; only the next day, when I saw that he was starring in a play in the West End, was I sure that it was actually Heston. I still kick myself for not saying hello and introducing my children to him. One can only wonder what he would think if he saw his most famous character referred to as a “Palestinian nobleman!”


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