Representations of Conflict with Authority in Ben Hur (1959)


           Ben Hur has become a classic film over the decades and remains an unforgettable tale for viewers of all ages. It is a prime example of conflict with authority and offers itself as a medium for this in many different aspects of its content. The story is of two childhood friends who are reunited as adults. They are much the same, but find each other to be different from themselves in many ways that have been magnified by the arrival of adulthood. Prince Judah Ben Hur (played by Charlton Heston) is a member of the Jewish religion and society, while Messala (played by Stephen Boyd) has become a Roman soldier. The tale is set during the time of Christ and tensions between the Jewish community and the Roman military were running exceptionally high.

The music playing throughout the film is especially noteworthy. The film’s musical score was produced and conducted by Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa did extensive research into the music of the time and allowed his findings to heavily influence the score and to impart the music with a flavor that is both modern and representative of the past. Ben Hur boasts the longest musical score ever to be composed for a film. The music does a lot in the way of emphasizing emotions and tensions as they build along the shorelines of the progressing plot. A scene in which the music artfully highlights the building conflict with authority is the one in which Ben Hur tells his old friend Messala that given the options of being for him and thereby supporting the Roman occupation and practices or against him, he is against his childhood companion. Once this is stated, the music erupts to accentuate this climax of emotions and slows down, while maintaining its darker notes to exemplify the sadness Ben Hur feels at denying his old friend.

Another scene in which music played a large role in displaying conflict with authority is when Ben Hur is rowing in the galley as a slave upon a Roman ship. The pace is set at an unreasonable pace and those who are unable to keep up their rowing to match the rhythm are whipped. The scene’s tensions mounts and climbs along with the intensity of the music. The rhythm of the music speeds to match its pace with that of the Roman overseer who beats two large mallets in time to demonstrate how quickly the rowers should be rowing. The music finally breaks and comes to fruition when the Roman counselor of the ship relents and declares that the slaves have a period of rest. During the mounting tension sof the scene created by the situation accompanied by the frantic nature of the music, Ben Hur and the Roman counselor have kept a strange eye contact and the music has an air of triumph as Ben Hur casts a victorious glance in his direction after the rowing has come to completion. In some small way, he has proved himself and his strength while symbolically besting the expectations and whims of the Roman counselor upon the ship. He has met unyielding expectations placed upon his and has neither cowered nor fainted upon realizing them, but rather met them with aplomb.

The costumes are also worth noticing in this film. Not only was tremendous detail applied to the costumes-especially those of the Roman soldier, but they also served a further purpose of portraying status. This is especially important when examining the film for element representing conflicts with authority. The power of the characters is portrayed through their dress. The Romans are often dressed in very clean, very ornate robes, which are detailed with some pattern or color. The Jewish people in the film a mostly dressed in neutrals with very little ornamentations, asides from Ben Hur and his family, whose intricate costumes at the beginning of the film reflect the extent of their wealth and status among the Jewish community. While Ben Hur suffers as a galley slave, he is in rags, depicting his lowly station. During his stint upon the ship, the Roman counselor is shown wearing rich and opulent robes of white with details of intricate patterns and colors. This represents his status and power amongst the slaves and other Romans upon the ship. When Ben Hur saves the counselor from the ship and fashions them a raft, his costume is much changed from its prior state of richness and wealth. Instead, he is in rags as well, alongside Ben Hur, his unlikely savior. Together, they ride the waves with nothing, merely clinging to life and shreds of hope. In this scene, the costume of the counselor has become extremely diminished and he looks no greater and no more powerful than a man who once served as his slave. They both don identical robes in twin states of tatters.

After this, Ben Hur achieves great status and elevated power. He is seen wearing ornate robes with a dark blue cape. The dark blue color of his cape is in the same color family of purple which is worn by royalty. It is a true symbol if his newly acquired status. When Ben Hur returns to the place of his homeland, he is shown in luxurious robes that are detailed with the same red colored thread that Messala wears upon his own robes. This represents the equality of power and status that Ben Hur has been able to reach. He has become the contemporary of Messala once more. During the race sequence, Ben Hur wears robes of brown, which represent the connection he shares with his heritage and the common people, despite his changed status and altered name. Messala wears robes of black and gold, which signify opulence and dominance. Not necessarily a part of their costumes, but definitely worth taking notice of- Ben Hur’s horses are white and Messala’s horses are black. These colors represent good and evil respectively and Ben Hur’s white horses represent the peace that he wishes to bring to his suffering people.


Amanda Chalaire

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s