The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Ben Hur

Revenge quests. Thrilling races. Joyous parades. William Wyler's 1959 epic featured many ideas that would resurface in Star Wars.

Released in 1959, Ben Hur is a cinematic achievement from director William Wyler that took the world by storm. In its day, it pulled in $74 million at the box office. When adjusted for inflation, that makes it the 13th highest grossing film of all time, right behind The Empire Strikes Back, which clocks in at number 12. It also won 11 Academy Awards, a record held by only two other films: Titanic and Return of the King.

It tells the story of Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, a Jewish prince betrayed by his Roman friend and sent into slavery. His competing honor and thirst for vengeance elevate him out of slavery and into Roman nobility. Eventually, he’s able to face off against the man who wronged him in a chariot race. The film is framed by the birth and death of Jesus, who teaches Judah humility and the strength to cast aside much of the hate in his heart for those who wronged him.

Watching all three and a half hours of Ben Hur it’s apparent that it had an influence on the Star Wars saga. On a base level, this film used a lot of matte paintings and composite shots of the sort that Star Wars built upon, making the first film possible in the first place. But the film that shares the most with Ben Hur is The Phantom Menace, though Anakin’s journey through the entire era of the old Republic echoes that of Judah Ben Hur.

The film sets Heston’s Ben Hur against Messala, played by Stephen Boyd. Ben Hur won’t betray his countrymen at Messala’s behest and Messala tells Ben Hur in a very Darth-Vader-in-Revenge-of-the-Sith sort of way, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.”

Eventually, Ben Hur is sentenced into slavery by Messala for a crime he didn’t commit and his mother and sister are imprisoned in his absence. Like Anakin in Attack of the Clones, Ben Hur is driven to save his loved ones against the reality of his situation. He arrives back to his desert home, just like Anakin, only to find his family presumed dead and in himself finds a growing thirst for vengeance.

Before Ben Hur is able to get home, though, he wins his freedom by saving a Roman commander from drowning. A parade in Rome is thrown in his honor and the comparisons to the parade on Naboo at the end of The Phantom Menace could not be more clear. From the confetti and horses and music, to the way the crowd is photographed and how the leaders of Rome are watching it from the top of a massive staircase, it’s all, shot for shot, the sequence of the film set to Augie’s Great Municipal Band.

The biggest comparison that can be made between Ben Hur and Star Wars, though, is the similarity between the chariot race and the Podrace. Just like the Podrace, the chariot race begins with a piece of trumpeting music that introduces us to the players we’ll see on the track. Sebulba and Anakin are stand-ins for Messala and Ben Hur. Sebulba’s pod is built to damage the other pods around them, and so is Messala’s chariot. His chariot’s wheels have spikes protruding from them that destroy all of the other competitors.

At one point, the decisive moment in the race, Messala and Ben Hur’s chariots are locked together at the wheels, just like Anakin and Sebulba at the end of the Podrace.

As I do more and more of these articles and examine films through the lens of Star Wars, my breath is constantly being taken away by how George Lucas was able to take storylines, sequences, and themes from classics like Ben Hur and distill them to their essence for inclusion in Star Wars. It’s truly remarkable.

That alone would be remarkable, but Lucas is able to improve on the ideas. With the chariot race in Ben Hur, the sound design was two-dimensional. The horses galloping and the crowds cheering sounded the same at all points during the race. But with the Podrace, Lucas directed Ben Burtt to create a soundscape that adds much more personality than the chariot race could ever have achieved. Instead of the two-dimensions of Ben Hur, each pod is given its own distinct sound, making them characters. When Sebulba is just off screen and behind Anakin, you can hear and feel it.

For all of the greatness of Ben Hur, it’s incredibly long, doesn’t have an intermission, and delves into religious territory. It’s appropriate for children of all ages, though the chariot race gets intense. I watched it with my son and we both marveled at the amount of violence many of the secondary racers suffered. It’s nothing worse than what Rats Tyerell or Teemto Pagalies suffered, but since they’re human and look much more real, it definitely has a more visceral effect.

Availability: Ben Hur is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray, and can be streamed instantly on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes for a small rental fee.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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