Monday, August 9, 2010

#96 - Ben Hur

Now would be a good time to discuss what qualifies a movie to be a “war movie”. The editors of Military History Magazine have adopted a very broad interpretation of what a war movie is. Unfortunately, they do not clearly spell out what their criteria were in determining which movies would be considered for their top 100. They do categorize their choices into the following: “prewar intrigues, postwar dislocations. resistance struggles, spy capers, POW sagas, historical re-creations, costume dramas, ersatz biographies, romantic adventures, wacky comedies, barbed satires, burlesques, political allegories, sentimental melodramas, and antihero thrillers”. I would argue some of those categories are stretches. Of course a war movie could be made that could fit into each of the types listed. However, it is unfair to take films that were not intended to be war films and label them as such simply because they fit one of the categories. An outstanding case in point is the #96 movie- “Ben Hur”.

I do not believe anyone associated with this movie intended it to be a “war movie”. It may fit in the category of “romantic adventures”, but that does not make it a war movie. I would personally label it as an “historical epic”. This puts it in the same genre as “Spartacus”. But “Spartacus” is definitely a war movie and “Ben Hur” is not. Here is the difference. “Spartacus” is about a war – the Third Servile War. Spartacus was a warrior and led an army. The movie “Ben Hur” has only one scene that has anything to do with war – the famous galley battle scene. One scene does not a war movie make, especially when the rest of the movie is obviously not even attempting to be classified in the war movie category.

Do not get me wrong – I am a huge fan of this movie. I personally feel it is the greatest movie ever made. This means that if it really is a “war movie”, it should be rated much higher than #96! However, it is not a war movie by any reasonable definition of what a war movie is and thus does not belong on the list.

So what is a “war movie”? Having seen over 100 films that everyone would agree are war films, I will offer the following definition. A war movie must be set in a war. This eliminates “post-war dislocations”. It must be about warriors (including reluctant ones) and/or their leaders. This eliminates most “spy capers”. Those two qualifications should be sufficient for our purposes. “Ben Hur” is not set in a war and Judah Ben Hur is not a warrior except for the brief galley scene. I would describe the categories as: battle movies (“Gettysburg”), soldier life (“Platoon”), POWs (“The Great Escape”), biographies of soldiers, generals, or war leaders (“To Hell and Back”), suicide missions (“Guns of Navarone”), war satires or comedies (“MASH”), strategy (“Downfall”), adventure (“The Man Who Would Be King”), the home front (“The Best Years of Our Lives”), and romances set in war (“Casablanca”).


Judah Ben Hur has been convicted of treason and sentenced to life on a Roman war galley. A Roman consul takes command and uses Ben Hur’s ship as his flagship. He announces that they are going to war with Macedonians who have been conducting raids on Roman territory. He checks out his oarsmen by seeing how they do at “ramming speed”. He takes an interest in Judah and when the battle looms he orders that Judah not be chained. In the battle, the ship shears off the oars of one enemy ship and rams another before being rammed itself. The enemy board and are taking the ship when Judah saves the consul’s life and prevents him from committing suicide when he assumes the battle is lost.

This is the only war scene in the movie and is justifiably famous, but how authentic and accurate is it? As far as authenticity, the scene rings true. Heck, the actors are even sweating when the consul decides to take his ship out for a spin! In a nice touch, the Roman in charge of pace is using wooden mallets on a wooden block, which is accurate. Galley battles at this stage of warfare did feature ramming and boarding tactics. The ships would either shear off the opponent’s oars to disable them or ram them broadside to sink them. They did use missile weapons as shown in the film. The Roman soldiers are equipped appropriately with the short sword (gladius) and shield (scutum).

There are numerous problems historically, however. First, it is out of place in historical chronology. “Ben Hur” is set in the 1st Century A.D. At this point the Roman navy was in complete control of the Mediterranean and would not have been fighting any naval battles. Second, the Roman navy was rowed by freemen, not convicts or even slaves. The slave-rowed galley is a standard Hollywood myth. Third, the standard Roman warship at this time was the quinquereme. The ship in the movie is a trireme - three banks of oars. Fourth, the Romans did have ballistae on their warships, but not catapults. Ballistae would have had the low trajectory and accuracy appropriate for combat on moving ships, whereas catapults with their arced trajectory would have been inefficient. Also, there is no record of the Romans hurling fire in naval battles.

In spite of these inaccuracies, the scene fits well into the plot of the movie and as an introduction to ancient galley warfare it is outstanding. In a movie which is not a war movie, it is a commendable effort.

Next up:  #95 - The Last of the Mohicans


  1. The greatest movie ever made, really? Interesting. Does this also mean it is your favourite movie? I tend to like some movies I don't necessarily think of in terms of great and vice versa. I will have to rewatch it.
    I think I do more or less agree with your war movie definition but would have left out adventure, and romances set in war times. Since I am doing my blog however I take liberties with my own definition as this allows me to watch a broader range of movies but I still stick to the old definition. However some of my favourite movies like King Arthur and Gladiator are not war movies according to my definition, nor is 3oo still I will review them just because I like them.

  2. It is not my favorite movie - that is probably "The Great Escape", but I just think "Ben Hur" has everything. Great acting, romance, action, spirituality, a little comedy, a great villain, and two iconic scenes. It did not win 11 Academy Awards for nothing.
    I am reassessing inclusion of "romances set in war" in my definition. I only included it because of "Casablanca". Do you think it is a war movie? I would argue that an adventure film like "Guns of Navarone" can be a war film if it involves warriors.
    I agree with Gladiator and King Arthur, but I definitely feel 300 fits as a war movie. I do not think it's best fit is in the war movie genre, but many war movies fit in other categories as well. It is about warriors and about a specific battle - two clear qualifications.

  3. Nope, I would not include Casablanca. I like it but I like The Man who Cries and there the war is more palpable than in Casablanca and I would not include it. It is really only backdrop in Casablanca. I am collecting material for a War and Romance post, there I would include it. That will be a long list. As I said, I do like Casablanca but we need to draw a line somewhere.

  4. Ben-Hur is not a war movie by any reasonable standard. It is a Biblical epic or historical epic. By the broadest definition, it could be called a sword-and-sandal picture (although that term usually means the Italian "peplum" movies like Hercules Unchained). The galley battle in Ben Hur is only important to the plot in that it allows Judah to save the consul's life, and that could have been accomplished with some other plot device (e.g. a natural disaster, such as a storm at sea that wrecked the ship). But the movie is a classic, and one of the relatively few epics in which the people are more important than the spectacle.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.