Ben-Hur: The Chariot Race


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All the many iterations of Ben Hur, up to and including the most recent one (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) have placed a heavy emphasis on the climactic chariot-racing scene. Indeed the first cinematic version, the 1907 silent film, was nothing but the chariot race. The scene has had a strong effect on how racing is presented in Hollywood films. So let’s take a look at Roman chariot racing.



Chariot Racing

The ancient Mediterranean world loved chariot racing. Originally the chariot was a weapon of war, providing a mobile platform from which an archer or spearman could make attacks. Chariot racing probably evolved out of practicing for warfare. The first literary depiction of a chariot race comes from the last book of the Iliad, in which the Greeks conduct a chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus, the fallen lover of Achilles, and the sport is mentioned in later Greek myths as well.

In 680 BC, chariot racing (both two-horse and four-horse teams) was added to the list of Olympic events. A special race-track, the hippodrome, was built to accommodate them. Noteworthy features of the Olympic hippodrome included mechanical starting gates and a series of bronze dolphins that were used to indicate how many laps had been done and how many remained. Whereas most competitors in the Olympics were the athletes involved, so that the man who won the footrace, for example, was the runner himself, the chariot races were different. The competitor was the owner of the horses, and the victory went to him, not to the chariot-driver, who might be a slave of the owner. Since Spartan women were allowed to own property, this became the only Olympic event that a woman could compete in.

It’s clear already in the Iliad that chariot-racing was a dangerous sport; Menelaus crashes his chariot during the race. The teams traveled at a high rate of speed and the chariots themselves were not very heavy vehicles, basically just an axle and wheels with a light frame. The driver essentially balanced on the axle. When the chariots came to the turns at the ends of the tracks, it was easy for the chariot to throw the driver, tip over, or crash into other. The chariots bringing up the rear might collide with or run straight over a crashed chariot, thrown driver, or tripped horse. Injuries and fatalities to both drivers and horses were a common feature of these events.


A modern recreation of a Graeco-Roman racing chariot

Eventually the Romans acquired the sport from the Greeks (as well as the Etruscans, although we know less about Etruscan racing). They began building circuses as race-tracks; like the hippodrome, the circus was an oblong track with a turning point at each end, but unlike the hippodrome, there was a median strip, the spina, that came to be decorated with statues and columns.

The racing itself was much like Greek racing, but there were differences. Although two-horse teams were still raced, the most important races were four-horse teams (and occasionally much larger—10-horse teams are mentioned, but were probably just for demonstrations of skill). Greek races were traditionally 12 laps, but the Romans shortened the race to 7 and later to 5 laps, because they wanted to get more races in during a single day. Instead of holding the reins in their hands, the driver tied the reins to his waist, which meant that if he was thrown from the chariot, he would dragged along unless he could manage to cut himself loose; as a result, drivers carried a knife. The drivers were the competitors (even if they were slaves), so if they won the race, they received the prize money; winning prize money because a way for a driver to purchase his freedom.


A reconstruction of the Circus Maximus, with the spina down the middle

By the start of the 2nd century BC, Roman chariot racing was divided into factions: Red, White, Blue, and Green, with the Blues and Greens being the most important. Charioteers of the same faction raced as a team, so that if any chariot of a faction won, the faction itself won (perhaps a little like the Tour de France today). The job of the lesser drivers was the help the star charioteer win. That opened up a realm of tactics in which lesser drivers supported the lead driver by, for example, blocking other teams from advancing or trying to crash rival chariots. Spectators tended to organize themselves according to the factions, so that they would sit together, cheer for their faction, and occasionally riot if their faction lost. In that sense, they have a lot in common with modern sports fans, who typically have a favorite team that they root for.

Chariot drivers were considered entertainers, just like actors and musicians. Many, though not all were slaves; the cash prizes they won could help buy themselves out of slavery. It is clear that they were very far down the social hierarchy, and they were considered infames, “disgraceful people”; other infames included prostitutes, pimps, gladiators, and soldiers who had been dishonorably discharged. Infames were excluded from many of the legal rights of Roman citizens; for example, they could not give testimony in court, and could suffer corporal punishment for crimes.


A winning charioteer receiving his token of victory

However, although they were socially disreputable people, successful charioteers could still be celebrities and move in very high social circles. Roman society had a rather ambivalent attitude toward entertainers of all types. It accorded them low status and treated them as morally suspect, but it celebrated them for their unusual accomplishments. The rich enjoyed socializing with them and some became romantically involved with extremely powerful people. This somewhat contrary attitude is perhaps paralleled by modern Americans’ fascination with both the glamour of celebrities and the occasionally tawdry scandals they get involved in. The Emperor Nero scandalized Roman society by competing in an Olympic chariot race; he ‘won’ the race, even though he fell out of his chariot and had to be helped back in. The spectacle of the most honored man in the Empire acting as an infamis surely disgusted many conservative Romans.


Chariot Racing in Ben-Hur

When I saw the movie, I was initially skeptical that Jerusalem would have had a hippodrome for formal chariot racing, but in fact it did. The movie exaggerates reality a bit, since Jerusalem’s hippodrome wasn’t carved out of a mountainside, and it wasn’t located just below Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, but those details are just dramatic embellishments. Ben-Hur’s race could have taken place in Jerusalem.


A reconstruction of the Jerusalem hippodrome

But that’s not to say there aren’t problems with it. It’s highly unlikely that the Roman soldier Messala (Toby Kebbell) would have been a champion charioteer. As I noted, charioteers were infames, and most scholars seem to agree that infames were excluded from the Roman army (although surviving law codes don’t actually explicitly say that, so there’s a bit of wiggle room). This version of Messala is struggling to make up for the fact that his grandfather was one of Julius’ Caesar’s assassins, so acting as an infamis is exactly the sort of thing he would have avoided in his quest for respectability. So the whole premise of the original novel is flawed; if Messala isn’t a chariot-driver, there’s no story at all, and if he’s not a soldier, there’s no dramatic confrontation between Roman culture and proto-Christianity. In order for there to be any story at all here, we have to overlook this legal detail.

The film gets the basics of chariot racing right; the chariots used are comparatively light. The one Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) trains in is clearly made of wicker, although the one Messala uses in the race is rather over-decorated and probably too heavy to successfully compete. The film conveys a sense that the drivers are balancing on their chariots rather than firmly rooted. But they hold the reins in their hands, perhaps because tying the reins around their waists would look weird to modern audiences. The race-track has a substantial spina down the middle, complete with dolphins to track the laps.


Messala (Toby Kebbell) and Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) in their chariots

The racers are not, however, organized into factions. There are no Blues or Greens, just eight individual teams all competing against each other. Each driver represents a different ethnic group, so there’s a Persian driver and an Egyptian driver, for example. Judah is the Jewish driver and Messala is the Roman driver, the favorite to win. The race as it’s presented is essentially a way for the Romans to demonstrate their military and cultural superiority over the rest of the world. While that’s untrue to actual Roman chariot racing, it’s not entirely alien to the way Romans thought. Gladiatorial contests were sometimes staged to convey that sense of cultural superiority.

The movie treats chariot racing the same way that movies treat gladiatorial combat, as if killing most of the drivers was a fundamental element of the sport. Throughout the racing scene, the emphasis is on how violent the race is. The six drivers who are not Ben-Hur or Messala all appear to get killed or severely injured during the race, and Messala ultimately loses a leg. When stretcher-bearers are carrying a body off the track, one of them gets hit and presumably killed as well. Many of the horses seem likely to die in the accidents, and one of them gets thrown into the stands, where it immediately starts injuring spectators.

This is surely an exaggeration. Chariot racing was a risky sport, but it wasn’t Death Race 2000. Just like gladiator films, Ben-Hur is presenting an image of Roman sport as being an inherently bloody slaughter as if what the Romans care about is the spectacle of violence and death rather than the competition between skilled athletes.

As Donald Kyle has pointed out in his Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, people have traditionally viewed Greek and Roman attitudes toward athletics in contrasting fashion. The Greeks are viewed as caring about sport (with an emphasis on skill, athleticism, and ideals) while the Romans are presented as interested only in spectacle (dramatic shows, violence, and bloodshed). This is despite the fact that both cultures practiced most of the same forms of athletics. The fact that Greek athletics could be extremely harsh is downplayed. Pankration, Greek all-out wrestling, is one of the most brutal versions of wrestling ever practiced; smashing joints, breaking fingers and toes, outright strangulation, and biting were all legal moves. Chariot racing was just as brutal when the Greeks practiced it as when the Romans did, and yet we associate Greek chariot racing with the Olympic ideal and Roman chariot racing with disregard for human life. In this film, the brutality of chariot racing is a metaphor for Roman brutality toward conquered peoples.

And yet, right at the end of the film, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) makes a rather telling observation to Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). After Ilderim has won the race, Pilate takes note of the way the Jews are celebrating Ben-Hur and essentially says that the race has served its actual purpose of acculturating Jews to the Empire, by teaching them how to love racing the way the Romans do.

While I don’t know of any scholarship on this specific point, it’s a broadly accurate statement. The Roman Empire succeeded in part because the Romans were very good at developing institutions and practices that encouraged conquered peoples to absorb Romanness. This taught conquered peoples to see themselves as Romans as well as whatever ethnic group they belonged to. It gave the Empire a shared set of practices and values that helped hold it together for so long. A passion for chariot racing was certainly something held on long after the Roman Empire had broken up. It was perhaps the favorite sport of the Byzantine Empire for centuries.

I was able to see Ben-Hur because some people very kindly donated to support my blog. If you liked this post and want to help me continue reviewing films, please consider making a small donation.


Want to Know More?

The movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur is.

Donald Kyle’s Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World looks primarily at Graeco-Roman athletics  and tries to understand them as as sport, rather than just cataloging facts about the various games. It’s a really good discussion of what Greeks and Romans understood sport to be about. Alison Futrell’s The Roman Games: A Sourcebook is a collection of primary sources related to Roman sports, including chariot racing.

Start the Revolution Without Me: Farewell, Gene Wilder


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Like all right-thinking people, I was deeply saddened to learn that comic actor Gene Wilder had died. The news brought back memories of my childhood in the 70s, watching his movies with my older brothers in Milwaukee, the hometown I share with Wilder. Although Wilder’s film career ran from 1967 to 1991, he did his best work in the 1970s, managing to release two of his most famous works in 1974, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.


Wilder in his most iconic role

But of course, what Wilder will always be best known for is his delightfully charismatic performance as Willy Wonka in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. In some ways it’s an unlikely film. Although it was inspired by the great children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the reason it got made into a movie is that Quaker Oats was looking for a vehicle to promote a new candy bar. Despite having no experience in film-making, Quaker bought the rights to the novel, renamed the new candy bar the Wonka Bar, and filmed the movie as publicity for its launch. That’s right. One of the greatest children’s movies ever was actually a massive exercise in product placement. The Wonka Bar was a bomb; it was released in 1971 and then quickly recalled because of problems with it, and the movie did poorly in the box office, but by the 1980s it had entered the canon of children’s films because of constant showings on television.

Wilder insisted that when Willy Wonka first appears, he seems to be near-invalid, leaning heavily on a cane, until he executes a somersault and reveals that he’s actually in good health. As Wilder realized, that moment would destabilize Wonka as a character, because the audience would never know if he was telling the truth or not. And it works brilliantly, setting up later scenes such as the frightening boat ride he subjects his guests to and even more importantly, the famous “You get nothing!” scene at the end. And the Wonka character plays perfectly to the two halves of Wilder’s screen persona, the calm, gentle, empathetic man and the man teetering on the edge of hysteria and total loss of control. It’s a performance for the ages. It is precisely what the best children’s literature offers, a combination of reassurance and uncertainty.

In contrast, the ill-conceived 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp failed to achieve that same quality because Depp’s Wonka is just weird. The film strips away all of Wonka’s mystery by giving him a complex back-story, father issues, and motives that pulled Wonka down to humanity where Wilder’s Wonka was some sort of supernatural tutelary deity given human form.

But this is a blog about movies and history, and so I want to call your attention to one of Wilder’s earliest films, a little known gem that holds a special place in my heart just beneath Willy Wonka.


Fun and Games with the French Revolution

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970, dir. Bud Yorkin) was only Wilder’s third film, and only his second in a leading role. It’s a parody of films and literature set in the Ancien Regime of 18th century France. It’s only nominally about history, but it’s a glorious romp through a lot of clichés about the French past.


It opens with Orson Welles, that 1970s symbol of high-brow respectability, gazing at a French chateau. “Hello, I’m Orson Wells. It’s lovely, isn’t it? The summer palace of Louis XVI. You know, historians have recently discovered a previously unknown fact concerning this palace, an event that almost changed the entire history of Western Europe. Did you know that the entire French revolution could have been avoided? It’s true. No one knows what took place there. It’s an event of such importance that men of integrity and may I say considerable resources made a film on the subject. It’s a color film, which I am not in.”

The premise of the film is that in the mid-18th century, a traveling Corsican nobleman and his pregnant wife are forced to stop at a small inn so his wife can give birth. At luck would have it, a peasant woman is also giving birth, and both women produce twin boys. Unable to figure out which boys are which, the harried doctor gives one of each set of twins to each father.

As a result, Wilder and co-star Donald Sutherland each play half of two sets of brothers, the cowardly but well-meaning peasants Claude and Charles Coupe, and the haughty, ruthless noblemen Philippe and Pierre de Sisi, the best swordsmen in all of Corsica. Louis XVI (Hugh Griffith) is a bumbling king dominated by his wife Marie (Billie Whitelaw) and the ruthless Duc d’Escargot (Victor Spinetti). Louis summons the de Sisi brothers to Paris because he wants them to kill Escargot, but Escargot intercepts the message and uses it to persuade the de Sisis to kill Louis instead. He plans to offer the brothers half of France while he marries Marie and rules the other half.


Sutherland and Wilder as the de Sisi brothers

The de Sisis travel to Paris disguised as peasants, not realizing that revolutionaries, including the reluctant Coupe brothers, are planning to attack the boat they’re on because it’s carrying weapons and ammunition that they need for their rebellion. In the confusion of the attack, naturally the rebels mistake the de Sisis for the Coupes and drag them off to their hidden base while Escargot’s men mistake the Coupes for the de Sisis and take them to the palace.

From there, the Coupes stumble their way through the intrigues of Louis’ court, where everyone seems determined to persuade the Coupes to kill someone else. Escargot is planning to marry Princess Christina of Belgium, because that will give him the Belgian army and allow him to kill Louis, marry Marie, and rule France, but only if Louis’ plan to have Pierre kill Escargot, marry Christina, and use the Belgian army to help him get rid of Marie doesn’t happen first. Marie wants Claude to kill Escargot, marry Christina, use the Belgian army to kill Louis, then kill Christina, marry Marie, and help her rule France. You get the idea.

The characters are drawn with broad strokes and make use of all sorts of tropes from French literature. Whitelaw’s Marie is a sex-crazed woman who is juggling multiple lovers simultaneously, including seemingly the entirety of the palace guard, and Louis is too addled to realize it; in one scene he fails to notice Marie and Escargot making out right next to him in his own bed.

Louis is kindly, but utterly incompetent. In one of my all-time favorite movie scenes, he shows up to a formal ball dressed as a chicken, because, as he spends the rest of the scene explaining to people, he thought it was a costume ball.


Whitelaw and Griffith as Marie and Louis

Escargot is a sneering villain, given to absurd extended metaphors such as “The brains of a chicken, coupled with the claws of an eagle, may well hatch the eggs of our destruction.” And that’s one of the simple ones. Here’s a scene where he verbally spars with the Coupes masquerading as the de Sisis.

The film borrows liberally from historical fiction, including Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Alexandre Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers and The Man in the Iron Mask. It doesn’t particularly care that the Man in the Iron Mask belongs to the 17th century, not the 18th century.

The twin roles of Claude and Philippe allow Wilder to channel the two halves of his comic persona as well as Willy Wonka does. Claude is simply a decent man trying to survive his unusual circumstances, while Philippe is a leather-clad sadist barely able to control himself. Rosalind Knight has a number of brilliant scenes as his desperate, put-upon wife Helene that tell us more than we want to know about Philippe’s sexual habits. “You said we weren’t going to do the Choir Boy and the Monk any more! You said you wanted to do the Woodchopper and the Shepherdess! How many costumes do you expect me to pack?” (Apparently, that costume required her to pack a small flock of sheep.)


Poor Helene!

Start the Revolution Without Me shares a number of qualities with another comic gem from the same period, 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both are nominally historic films with the stars playing multiple roles. Both borrow liberally from literature but without much concern for accuracy. Both employ parody of historical documentaries in which the narrator is killed by a character from the documentary he’s narrating, and neither film has a conventional ending. As a result, both wind up using the instability of genre conventions as a key comic tool. It would not surprise me to learn that Revolution helped inspire Holy Grail.

But where Holy Grail is fundamentally absurdist, Revolution is essentially slapstick. There’s a great deal of pratfalling and mistaken identity. The film culminates in a comic chase in which the Coupe brother are trying to flee the palace along with Princess Christina and Claude’s fiancée Mimi (as well as a charter of reform they’ve persuaded Louis to sign), while the de Sisis are trying to sneak into the palace to kill Escargot. At the same time the revolutionaries are trying to storm the palace and Louis and Marie are just trying to survive.

The slapstick element of Revolution hasn’t aged as well as the absurdism of Holy Grail, which is perhaps the reason that the former has faded from the popular mind while Holy Grail has become a classic. But if you’re in the mood to revisit Wilder’s career, you should give it a look; it’s available on iTunes. Even though I’ve seen the film numerous times, re-watching it last night gave me a number of laugh-out-loud moments that reminded me of what a joy Gene Wilder’s best work really is.

Goodbye, Mr. Wilder. Thank you for giving me so many laughs.

If you like this review, please consider donating a buck or two so I can expand the range of films I cover.


Want to Know More?

Start the Revolution Without Me is available on Amazon. While you’re at it, pick up Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory too. There’s also his lovely memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger

Ben-Hur: A Long History


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The new Ben-Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) is constantly talked about as a remake of the 1959 version starring Charleton Heston as the title character. But that’s not really true. The reality is that Ben-Hur is a complex enough body of material that it’s almost its own minor genre.


The origins of the film lie more than a century ago, in 1880 when Lew Wallace published his novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It’s a sprawling novel of more than 500 page that interweaves the lives of Judah Ben-Hur and Jesus’.Iin fact Judah only makes his first appearance in Part 2 (out of 8); Part 1 is devoted entirely to a retelling of Jesus’ birth. So basically, Wallace took the Biblical account of the life of Christ and used it as a background to the life of his hero, with Judah periodically running into Jesus or meeting his followers.

Wallace himself was an interesting character. Trained as a lawyer, he served as a Union general during the American Civil War and served on the military commission that tried the conspirators involved in Lincoln’s assassination. He supported Rutherford B Hayes in one of the most controversial elections in American history, and was rewarded in 1878 after Hayes’ victory by being appointed Governor of New Mexico Territory. It was during his time in that office that he wrote Ben-Hur (having already written a novel and a play). He also found time to arrange for Billy the Kid to testify in exchange for immunity for his crimes. In 1881 he was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.


Lew Wallace

Sales of the novel were slow at first, but within a few years the novel took off, and by 1900 it had becomes the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It remained at the top of the charts until 1936, when it was knocked off by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

Wallace initially resisted allowing the novel to be turned into a play, out of a concern that no one could properly portray Jesus, but in 1889, he agreed to an adaptation in which Jesus was represented by a beam of light. That production was a run-away success, drawing an audience of religious men and women who had previously been uncomfortable with theater for moral reasons. It became a touring show and only ceased to be performed in 1921. The production used a system of horses running on treadmills with a moving background.


Ben-Hur in Films

Given the story’s intense popularity at the start of the 20th century, it was a fairly natural choice for movie-makers. In 1907, Sidney Olcott made a 15-minute silent movie that focused entirely on the chariot race, using New Jersey firemen as the charioteers and horses that normally pulled fire wagons. However, Olcott never bothered to get permission from the Wallace estate, triggering a landmark lawsuit that established that film makers were legally obligated to obtain the rights to any previously published work that was still under copyright. If you’re interested in this version, you can watch it on Youtube.


In 1922, Goldwyn Studios secured the rights to Ben-Hur and made an epic silent movie staring Ramon Navarro in the title role. Filmed in Italy, this version told the whole of Ben-Hur’s story, but stripped out most of the material about Jesus and his followers. It was the most expensive silent movie ever made and when it was released late in 1925, it managed to lose money even though it was a blockbuster (in part because the licensing deal gave the Wallace estate 50% of the profits). The film made Navarro one of the leader Hollywood actors. Its version of the chariot race was highly influential, and provided the template for racing scenes in the 1959 version of the film, as well as the 1998 Prince of Egypt animated movie and the pod-racing scene in The Phantom Menace.

The production was extremely troubled; among other catastrophes, May McAvoy, who was playing Esther, dislocated both her wrists; it was rumored that several extras died during the naval battle scene because they couldn’t swim; and the racing scene involved the death of quite a number of horses. The chariot race drew the whole pantheon of Hollywood royalty to watch it, and if you looked closely, you can see  Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lilian and Dorothy Gish, Sid Grauman, Samuel Goldwyn, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Fay Wray in the stands. If you’re a fan of cinema history, it’s worth reading about the production.


The film is also quite explicit about its pro-Christian stance. It opens with the Nativity. Jesus cures Judah’s mother and sister of leprosy, while Judah attempts to lead an anti-Roman rebellion in the name of Jesus. It ends with the whole Hur family converting to Christianity. Like the stage play, Jesus is never show full-on, and is sometimes represented by a shaft of light.

In 1959, the story got its most famous cinematic treatment when it was directed by William Wyler, with Charleton Heston playing the lead. Like the 1925 version, it was a huge hit, winning 11 Academy Awards (a feat not equaled until 1997’s Titanic). It is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made.


But getting the script written was a challenge; it went through 12 different drafts. Karl Tunberg got the script after numerous re-writes and stripped out a good deal of material that had been in the novel, including a substantial chunk of material that follows the fate of the characters after the Crucifixion.

Wyler intensely disliked Tunberg’s dialog, which he felt was too modern, and so he hired Gore Vidal to re-do the dialog. In 1995, Vidal famously claimed that he felt that the dynamic between Judah and Messala only made sense if the two men had once been lovers and that Messala was hoping to get back together with Judah but felt rejected after Judah spurned his advances. According to Vidal, he persuaded Wyler to accept his reading, and told Stephen Boyd, who was playing Messala, to play the scenes that way, but did not tell Heston. When the notoriously conservative Heston learned about Vidal’s claim, he vehemently denied it, but if Vidal’s story is true, Heston wouldn’t have known about it.

Decide for yourself if you believe Vidal’s story.

Regardless of whether Vidal added a homoerotic subtext or not, the film made other changes to the novel. Wallace’s novel is unabashed in its treatment of Christianity being superior to Judaism; the major Jewish characters mostly wind up converting to Christianity after all. Wyler’s version, which was made about a decade after the establishment of the modern state of Israel, was more respectful to Judaism. Jesus’ face is not shown and the actor who played him was not given any lines. Although the ending strongly hints at Ben-Hur’s conversion, it doesn’t make it explicit.

In 2003, Charleton Heston reprised his role in an animated version of the story, produced by his own production company. This version returns to Wallace’ approach to the religious issue. Jesus (voiced by Scott McNeill) is seen and given dialog. Ben-Hur’s sister and mother are both miraculously healed of leprosy, and Messala is miraculously cured of the injured leg he received in the chariot race. Mary Magdalene witnesses Jesus’ resurrection and ascent into Heaven, and the film closes with Judah teaching his children to be Christians.


There was also a 2010 Canadian miniseries of the story, with a cast that included Hugh Bonneville, Alex Kingston, Ray Winstone, and Ben Cross in supporting roles, but I haven’t been able to find enough about it to know how closely it adheres to the original material.


The 2016 Ben-Hur

I think it’s important to see the 2016 film in this light. Many people who’ve commented on the film seem unaware of any version other than the 1959 one, and consequently assume that the Heston version represents a sort of baseline from which the 2016 version has deviated. In fact, the Heston version is really the outlier. With the exception of the 1907 silent version, which is just the chariot race, most of the other versions have been explicitly Christian in their sympathies, and it’s the Christian element of the story that really attracted its executive producers, Roma “Touched By an Angel” Downey and Mark Burnett. Downey and Burnett have been nicknamed “Hollywood’s Noisest Christians” for their unabashed interest in pursuit of the evangelical film market. They produced the History Channel miniseries The Bible, and they have said they viewed the film as “a story of forgiveness with an underlying story of Jesus”.


Downey and Burnett are Christians, in case you were at all unclear

So the film’s decision to cast Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus and to give him several scenes beyond just the Crucifixion is in fact quite true to the source novel. It represents a movement away from Classic Hollywood’s desire to avoid directly showing Jesus on screen, but that’s a convention that no longer has much force.

Given the explicitly Christian background of this version, it’s perhaps surprising that the script isn’t even more Christian than it is. Until the Crucifixion scene, none of Jesus’ dialog comes from the Gospels, and you might be forgiven for not figuring out that this anonymous carpenter is supposed to be Jesus instead of some New Age political thinker. The film even has a clever twist. Dismas (Moises Arias) is an angry anti-Roman zealot whose attempt to assassinate Pontius Pilate causes the ruination of the Hur family, but at the end of the film he’s one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus, the one who declares that Jesus has does nothing to deserve this punishment.


Santoro as Jesus

Unfortunately, the film’s treatment of its Jewish characters is rather awkward. Given the anti-Semitism that was so common in American culture in the late 19th and early 20th century it’s not surprising that the novel and the earlier cinematic versions were so explicitly pro-Christian. The 1959 version, as I noted, downplayed that. But in 2016, having literally all the Jewish characters convert feels rather culturally insensitive.

At no point does the film make any real effort to establish what Judaism involved in this period, except that it doesn’t involve the worship of multiple gods. There are a few minor details in the sets; for example, the individual graves in the Jewish cemetery have small stones placed on them in keeping with the modern Jewish custom of doing just that. But that’s about it. None of the Jewish characters ever does anything that seems distinctly Jewish in either a cultural or a religious sense. For example, there are no shots of the Second Temple or depictions of any Jewish religious rituals, no references to Jewish dietary rules, or anything like that. Combined with the conversions at the end of the film, it seems clear that Judah and the rest of the Hur clan aren’t really Jews so much as proto-Christians.

And perhaps the expanded Christian elements of the film are part of the reason that it did so poorly at the box office. The story isn’t Christian enough to draw a large evangelical audience, but it’s Christian enough that its tenor feels out of step with what contemporary film-goers are looking for. It’s a bit like Toby Kebbell’s Messala, too Roman to fit in with his Jewish adoptive family and not Roman enough to please the Romans he serves. In the end, both Messala and the film failed to win out.

This post was written with the help of generous donations to my blog. If you like it, please think about sending a few dollars my way.


Want to Know More?

The 2016 movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1925 silent version and 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur are. The 2010 miniseries is also available.

Or think about reading the original novel, which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It’s still one of the 20 best-selling novels of all time.


Ben Hur: A Few Thoughts


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Yesterday, thanks to generous donations via Paypal, I went to see the new Ben Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov, based on the novel by Lew Wallace). I’ll get around to writing a longer post soon, but today I’m just going to post a few random thoughts that aren’t enough for an individual post.


Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you intend to see the movie, you may want to do so before reading this. But if you’re like most people and don’t intend to see it, read on!

  1. It’s not a good movie. At 2 1/2 hours, it still manages to be too short. The backstory between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) needs more time than it’s given. The performances are unexceptional; Morgan Freeman delivers his lines as if he’s narrating March of the Jewish Resistance Fighters. 
  2. Apparently 1st century Jewish men dress like 21st century fashion models. In one scene, Ben-Hur appears to be wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt that he just bought from Abercrombie. It’s such a jarring look that I honest-to-God thought that somehow the film had veered into meta-theater by shooting the scene in contemporary clothing. Note to the costume designer: the only Middle Eastern people who wore pants in this period were Persian women.


    See what I mean?

  3. The film continues the Hollywood tradition of having trouble with Roman names. Messala Severus has no praenomen (no private ‘first’ name) for his adoptive family to use; they all just call him Messala. It’s no wonder he never feels like he’s really part of the family; they’re calling him by his last name. And one of the supporting characters is named Druses instead of Drusus. But I suppose we can forgive it, since the characters’ names were lifted from a 19th century novel.
  4. The film also continues the Hollywood tradition of depicting Rome as an evil, oppressive empire that the world would be better off without. The characters spend so much time complaining about how horrible the Romans are, I wanted to shout “but what about the aqueducts?” (Given that the theater was virtually empty, I could have done so with impunity.)
  5. I’ve already commented a little about the naval combat scene. And the full scene holds up pretty well. It does a fairly good job of capturing the realities of trireme combat from the rower’s point of view, and it’s quite an effective scene: claustrophobic, chaotic, and frightening. As I pointed out before, however, by 33 AD, there was no naval combat in the Mediterranean, because the Romans ruled the whole Mediterranean basin. The ‘Greek rebels’ the Romans are fighting in this film never existed, and are invented entirely to provide an action scene in a film that really only gets three of them, as well as to provide a way for Ben-Hur to escape captivity.
  6. Since I’ve complained before about films whitewashing, I feel obligated to say that this film did things better. The performers who play Judah Ben-Hur’s household are actually mostly Jewish or at least Middle Eastern, even if Jack Huston is British. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is played by a Italian-Portuguese Brazilian actor though. Has Hollywood ever cast a Jewish actor to play Jesus?
  7. Freeman’s Ilderim has literally no motive whatsoever. He decides to bet Pontius Pilate a massive sum of money to allow Ben-Hur to race Messala even though Messala is an undefeated champion and Ben-Hur has never been in a chariot race before, and he agrees to cover all bets on the races because the climactic chariot race won’t happen unless he does, but he never explains why he’s doing this, except for a throw-away line that he used to hate the Romans for killing his son, but he’s over that now.

And thank you to those who donated to my Paypal account so I could go see this! If you want me tackling more first-run films, donating is a good way to make sure I do.

Want to Know More? 

The movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur is

Or think about reading the original novel, which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

An Open Letter to Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson


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Dear Senator Johnson,

In a recent interview, you complained about what you called the “higher education cartel” and called for abandoning the diploma process in favor of a certification process. You cited your past experience volunteering in the Catholic educational system in Oshkosh (the high school system, I assume). And then you said

One of the examples I always used ― if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas. 

I’ve been teaching in the University of Wisconsin system for about two decades, so I guess I’m part of that ‘higher education cartel’, but I think I know a few things about teaching, so let me explain why simply showing documentaries is a poor substitute for having a fully-trained scholar teaching students about history.

Your teaching model relies on a faulty notion of what history is. You assume that history is the study of the facts of the past. In a model like that, the goal of education is to have students memorize those facts so they will ‘know history’. This assumes that the past is just a set of knowable facts, a record of ‘what happened’.

The problem with this model is that historians don’t really study ‘what happened’, because we can’t. Until someone invents a time machine that allows us to travel back in time and directly observe events as they happen, historians are dependent for our knowledge of the past on the written records left behind by those who were involved in the events.

To use your example from the American Civil War, one of the important moments in the Civil War was President Lincoln’s famous Second Inaugural Address. We possess the text of the speech, so we know what Lincoln said, more or less, but no one alive today was present and there are no recordings of it, so we can’t be 100% sure that he actually said these exact words; perhaps he added something to the speech, or changed some of his words as he delivered it. We can’t know how he said the words, where he paused for effect or which words he gave particular emphasis. The comments that others made about the speech, for example in news stories or private correspondence, might get us a little closer to Lincoln’s delivery, but ultimately, we can’t study the event itself; we can only study the text of the speech as it has come down to us.

That means that historians don’t study ‘what happened’. Instead, we study the written record of what happened, the various surviving documents that can tell us about the events. To be sure, we make use of knowledge from archaeology, numismatics, anthropology, and so on, but what history is as an academic field is specifically the study of the written documents of the past. Historians don’t study the facts of the past; we assemble them from the written record as best we can, and two historians working on the same issue might assemble the facts in very different ways. For example, an historian who is interested in presidential politics might assemble the facts of the Second Inaugural Address in a different way than an historian interested in the history of American slavery would. By asking different questions or putting it alongside different documents, two different scholars could find two very different meanings in the same speech.History isn’t the study of ‘what happened’, it’s the study of how we interpret the documents that tell us what happened.

The problem with written documents is that they have a lot of limitations. Some authors write about things they know little about, while other authors actively lie. Some authors are trying to cover up or justify their own actions. Some authors’ understanding of events is sharply limited by their access to the event, or by the way their culture influences how they think about the event. Some authors are writing years later and may have forgotten things. So historians need to learn to read very carefully, looking for the clues to help us evaluate how reliable the document is, what it might be omitting or getting wrong, and what it can tell us about the intentions of the author who wrote it.


An Example

These skills are far more complex than they might sound. Freshmen college students have a strong tendency to read uncritically, because very few students enter college with highly-developed reading and thinking skills, and it’s my job to help them acquire the basics of those skills. 

For example, I teach Early Western Civilization quite frequently, and when I get to the early Middle Ages, I have my students read the Life of St. Balthild, a 7th century Frankish saint. By this point in the course they’ve already read a little bit about early Christian saints, and had a discussion about the rising importance of virginity as a feminine virtue in Western society. Balthild had quite an eventful life; she started out as a noblewoman, but was taken as a slave and sold to a government official named Erchinoald. According to the author of her Life,

[Balthild] gained such a reputation that when the wife of Erchinoald died, he wished to marry Balthild, that faultless virgin. When she heard of this, she fled from his sight. When he called her into his chamber, she hid herself in a corner and covered herself with bundles of rags so no one might find her. Because she was humble, she attempted to flee from the honor that was to be hers. She had hoped not to get married but to have Jesus alone for her spouse.

Divine providence intervened, and Erchinoald found a different wife. Thus it happened that Balthild, with God’s approval, escaped marriage with this prince, but eventually came to be espoused to Clovis, son of the former king Dagobert. By virtue of her humility, she was thus raised to a higher rank. She was wed to the king by divine dispensation, and honored in this station. She brought forth royal children. These events are known to all, for now her royal progeny rule the realm.

So after being Erchinoald’s slave and would-be wife, Balthild somehow wound up marrying the son of the Frankish king and eventually became queen herself. After her husband died, she ruled the kingdom on behalf of her young son for a while, until she joined the monastic house at Chelles and became a nun. After her death, the other nuns began to claim that she was saint, and the Life was written as part of an effort to establish her in popular imagination as a saint.

But when you read those two paragraphs I quoted, did you notice how the text contradicts itself? If not, go back and re-read it and see if you can find the contradiction. Don’t feel too bad if you miss it; my students never spot it until I point it out.

In the first paragraph, the author claims that Balthild wanted to be a virgin her whole life. In that, she fits into a standard model of female sanctity in that period, which champions virginity as superior to all other possible sexual and social statuses; according to this model, being a virgin is morally superior to being a wife or a widow. And, according to the author, God supports Balthild’s desire to be a permanent virgin by intervening and causing Erchinoald to get interested in some other woman. So Balthild is such a devout Christian that God gives her a small miracle to protect her virginity.

But not two sentences later, God arranges for Balthild to get married to Prince Clovis. Suddenly the text forgets Balthild’s desire for permanent virginity and never mentions it again. God and Balthild apparently change their minds when a prince comes along. So the author of the text makes one claim about Balthild as a way to demonstrate her sanctity, and then drops that claim when the known facts of her life prove inconsistent with that claim. It’s a clever piece of authorial sleight-of-hand; like I said my students never spot it until I point it out. And this isn’t the only time the text does this. The author repeatedly makes claims for Balthild’s intentions and then has to explain away behavior that contradicts those claims. Supposedly as queen, Balthild had a deep desire to become a nun, but then the author has to explain why she stayed on as queen after her husband died; supposedly her subjects loved her so much they refused to let her step down. Then the author has to explain why her subjects suddenly changed their mind and let her become a nun.

Once I get them to see the contradictions, I’m able to have a conversation with the students about what’s going on. That leads us to looking at what the author’s purpose in writing the Life is, namely that the author (possibly one of Balthild’s fellow nuns at Chelles) wants to persuade people to consider Balthild a saint, so she employs a series of standard motifs about female saints (the desire for permanent virginity, the threat to the saint’s virginity, the miracle that protects it, and so on). And she does this despite the fact that Balthild’s life stands in direct contradiction to those motifs; Balthild’s son became king, so she obviously wasn’t a virgin. And that leads into questions of why the nuns decided to promote Balthild as a saint if she wasn’t a good fit for traditional ideas about female saints, which brings up the fact that Chelles stands to benefit in a variety of ways from having a saint buried there. And all of this is just one of the many documents I use in this class.

I use the Life of St. Balthild precisely because it’s a perfect example of why critical reading skills are important to develop. But it’s not an easy lesson. The students are so accustomed to trusting what they read that they struggle to make the simple leap to the idea that the author isn’t being completely honest. Exploring this one document takes at least 20 minutes of class time, often a good deal longer. The better students carry that lesson into the rest of the documents they read, but many of the students seem to forget it the next time we look at a document, so I have to bring the issue up again to help them become more skeptical readers.

It takes a long time for students to acquire critical reading skills and the closely related critical thinking and critical writing skills. When my freshmen leave my Early Western Civilization class, most of them have started to develop those skills, but they are nowhere near finished. The ones who continue on by taking further history classes (and other classes in the Humanities) will graduate college with those skills highly developed. But it doesn’t happen in the course of a single class. It can’t. These are complex skills and they take years to develop, just like cooking, playing basketball, or engineering. They require constant practice, practice that history classes are designed to require.

And they’re not skills students can acquire through watching a documentary, any more than you could become a great basketball player by watching a documentary on the sport. Ken Burn’s documentary on the Civil War is a wonderful piece of work, and certainly has a place in the classroom. It’s engaging, does a good job of holding the viewer’s attention, and helps convey the idea that history happens to real human beings. But it cannot teach students how to read documents, even though it quotes many documents. It cannot ask them why the author of a letter expressed his or her sentiments in a particular way and then lead a discussion that explores students’ answers to that question. It cannot help students explore what the document doesn’t say and why it might be omitting certain facts or ideas. It cannot get students thinking about how the author’s race or gender or wealth might have shaped what the document says. These are things that are necessary for students to develop those critical skills, and they are things that can only be taught in a classroom with a highly-trained scholar leading the way.

No documentary could teach the Life of St. Balthild the way I teach it, because part of my teaching process is putting a puzzle in front of the students (why does the Life contradict itself?) and then letting them fumble with the possibilities until they start to figure it out. A crucial part of the educational process is letting them wrestle with that puzzle for a while, because it forces them to identify possible answers and then work through them to see whether they make sense or not. They learn more by having to work it out for themselves than if I simply tell them the answer, because simply giving them the answer doesn’t help them develop their critical reading and thinking skills very much.

Why does any of this matter? Why do we need people with highly developed critical reading and writing and thinking skills? I’ve already discussed in a different post the wide range of things that a history student can do with a history degree, but let me talk for a moment about where those skills come in handy. You’re a businessman; I’m sure at some point you must have received a business proposal that looked too good to be true. It’s the critical reading and thinking skills that helped you figure where the proposal wasn’t being honest. I’m sure in your time in politics you’ve learned that politicians often distort or fragment the truth when they give speeches; it’s those same critical thinking and reading skills that help you find the flaws in the arguments you’re being presented with. Or perhaps those aren’t skills you’re good at. Maybe you need to take a few history classes to brush up on them. I mean the kind of history class taught by a professional historian, not the kind taught by someone who just plays a documentary for students and calls it teaching.


Heartless: Vampires, Witchcraft, and Teen Romance in Denmark


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I recently ran across the shortlived Danish tv Heartless (Danish with English subtitles) on Netflix. It was only 8 episodes and I’d read some interesting things about it, so I gave it a try. It’s not a great show, but it has an interesting take on vampirism and part of the show is set in 17th century Denmark, so I figured I’d fire off a quick post about it.


Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) and Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) are teenage homeless twins living in Copenhagen, dealing with a dark secret. To survive, they need to steal people’s life energy through kisses. If they take too much, the victim bursts into flames and dies. Sebastian is guilt-ridden over this while Sofie shrugs her shoulders and is resigned to her existence. But Sebastian convinces her that they need to find out why they are the way they are, and their investigations eventually reveal that their mother, shortly after dropping them off at an orphanage, went to Ottmannsgaard Academy, an elite private school (the school prides itself on the quality of its fencing instruction) where she evidently vanished. So they manage to enroll and begin seeking clues. Cue all the usual teen drama angst that one expects at that age: social competition, teen romance, existential angst, and vampiric murder.


Sofie getting what she needs

It turns out that Ottmannsgaard has its own dark history, stemming back to Denmark in the 1670s, when the local nobleman, the weak-willed Count Ottman (Lior Cohen) gets his peasant mistress Ane Sørensdatter (Shelly Jacquline Levy) pregnant. His pregnant wife, understandably pissed about her husband’s wandering eye, evidently leans on the local Lutheran minister to accuse Ane of being a witch (like you do). The count tries to get Ane to flee the area, but she refuses because she’s young, in love, and fated to die for the plot to happen, and so instead she gets arrested, tortured, and sentenced to burn at the stake, even though she’s carrying his child.

The execution succeeds, but triggers a curse that follows the children of both the Countess and Ane (who must have been a witch, because her unborn baby somehow survives her mother being burned to death. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is). There’s a twist of sorts here that I won’t give away, although it’s not a huge one (so don’t get your hopes up).


Jessen as Sebastian

Eight episode of that doesn’t give me a whole lot to comment on. But the show at least gets the witchcraft details in the right ballpark. There were no executions of witches in the 1670s, but there was one in the 1680s (the Rugard Trials), in which Jørgen Arenfeldt, a local nobleman, used his authority as the lord of the manor to imprison, try, and execute a half-dozen women as witches. One of the unfortunate women was named Anne Sorensdatter. In doing this, Arenfeldt violated the law by torturing the women and by prosecuting women who lived outside his jurisdiction. The last execution for witchcraft in Denmark happened in 1693.

So the trial and execution of Ane Sørensdatter could actually have happened in loosely the fashion the series depicts. Like the Rugard women, Ane is subjected to is, I think, supposed to be ducking. As usually happens with this practice, the show misunderstands ducking as a form of torture intended to elicit a confession when in fact it was an effort to obtain objective evidence of witchcraft. But Ane’s ducking is more like just being held underwater rather than being put in a classic ducking stool, so maybe it’s simply supposed to be torture. Torturing witches was illegal in Denmark in this period, but the show doesn’t touch on that, so I think we’re just supposed to understand that early modern authorities were gullible sadists and we’ve moved beyond that.

It’s nice to see a show in which historical research (albeit conducted at the high school level) is actually an important component of the series. Throughout the show, Sebastian is constantly seeking clues to the past, speaking with his history teaching, asking to write his term paper on witchcraft trials, reading old books, and so on. So in a way, the show offers a nice example of the way a historical researcher chases events through the evidence to unravel the mysteries of the past. It’s rather convenient that at key moments he runs into people who just happen to have saved boxes of old stuff for more than a decade and those boxes always have a clue he needs, but hey, it’s a teen drama so I think we can forgive that wild coincidence.

Sofie’s character is handled particularly nicely. As the show goes on, she develops an attraction to the headmaster’s daughter Emilie (Julie Christiansen) who gradually reciprocates her feelings. When the headmaster discovers this, he’s uncomfortable with the relationship, not because of the lesbianism but because he’s suspicious of Sofie’s motives and nature. There’s a very nice scene in which he tells Emilie that he doesn’t care that she might be attracted to women, but that he doesn’t want her involved with Sofie. The show’s treatment of two young lesbians is really refreshing because their lesbianism isn’t in any way the problem in the relationship.


Sofie and Emilie

Heartless is not a great show, either in its treatment of its historical themes or the quality of its teen drama. It nearly got cancelled after 5 episodes, and the network apparently decided to film three more episodes simply as a way to give the story a conclusion. It’s filled with lots of wordless brooding of the kind Scandinavians are so good at depicting but which can get sort of tedious for American viewers. But it captures some of the complexities of teenage sexuality and identity quite well, in which the problems of vampiric existence become an interesting metaphor for the transition to adulthood, and the show doesn’t try to stretch out its central mystery further than the story can support. So if you’re in the mood for a novel approach to vampirism or just want to see lots of Scandinavian teens yearning for what they can’t have, give it a look.


Want to Know More?

Heartless is available through Amazon.

I can’t offer you anything on witchcraft in Denmark, but if you want to know more about witch trials and related matters, a good introduction to the Early Modern Witch Hunts is Joseph Klaits’ Servants of Satan.

Ben Hur: The Trailer


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The remake of Ben Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) is opening this weekend, and I haven’t said anything about it on this blog yet. Let’s take a look at the trailer.


The first part of the trailer features a naval battle, and judging from what we see in the trailer, it looks like the film gets the basic facts right. Ancient Mediterranean naval combat relied on galleys that could sail for transport but were rowed during combat. The basic tactic used first by the Greeks and later by the Carthaginians and Romans was to row their ship as fast as possible into the side of the enemy ship and punch a hole in the hull using the bronze prow, which acted as a battering ram. If successful, the enemy ship would start to take on water and sink.

(An alternate tactic was to maneuver alongside the opposing ship and smash through its oars, leaving it crippled and vulnerable to a subsequent direct hit or being boarded by marines.)


A modern reconstruction of a Greek trireme

As a result, speed and maneuverability were the critical traits for Graeco-Roman ships. That’s why the emphasized rowers rather than sails. Large numbers of rowers working in unison could propel the ship faster and more reliably than the wind. But at some point making the ship wider to accommodate more rowers would have made the ship slower in the water. Instead, the Greeks pioneered a technique of stacking decks of rowers one above the other, with the oars being slightly off-set so they wouldn’t get tangled. At first these galleys were biremes (having two decks of rowers), and then triremes (with three decks). The Romans eventually embraced the quinquereme. Scholars argue about exactly how the oars were arranged on a ship like this, but the most common theory was that a quinquereme was not a ship with five banks of oars, but rather a type of trireme with three banks of oars, two of which were manned two to an oar with one bank manned by a single rower. Thus these were ‘five rower’ ships, not ‘five-oar’ ships.


A diagram of how the oars were placed

Rowing a complex ship like this took a great deal of practice, because all the oars had to be moved at the same time; otherwise they would foul each other. The need for complete coordination is the reason that these ships employed a drummer, to help the rowers keep the proper rhythm. A quiquereme is thought to have required 300 rowers, and the Romans found the easiest way to ensure the crews of their ships was to use slave rowers. So criminals could be sentenced to serve as rowers, which is what happens to Ben Hur in the novel and the film.

And that’s exactly what we see in the film (although I suspect the detail of the man tied to the prow of the ship is just made up). So props to Bekmanbetov for getting the tactical details right. (300: 2, I’m looking at you. You were supposed to be using exactly this system, although with free citizen rowers.)

However, there’s a problem. I’m unclear when this version of Ben Hur is set, but the novel and the 1959 version are set in 28 AD and the years just after, since Ben Hur’s life is synchronous with the life of Jesus. However, after 31 BC, the Romans ruled the entire Mediterranean basin, and from that point on down to the late 4th century AD, the only major naval battle in the Mediterranean was during the civil war between Constantine and Licinius in 324 AD. In the late 20s or 30s AD, the Empire was firmly under the control of Tiberius, so there was no one to fight. The Romans continued to maintain galleys throughout the Imperial period, but there simply weren’t any naval battles happening. So I have no idea who Ben Hur’s ship is going up against.

Still, at least it looks like the battle is plausible.

Once I’ve had a chance to see the film in the theater, I’ll have more to say about it.

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The Milwaukee Riots


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I live in Milwaukee, and over the past day or so, I’ve gotten calls and text messages from friends and relatives elsewhere wanting to know what’s happening in Milwaukee. The riot that broke out on the night of Saturday, August 13th has made headlines around the planet.

This blog isn’t about politics. But I’m a scholar, and at the moment, my professional research is focused on student violence at the University of Oxford in the Middle Ages, so I tend to notice things about riots these days. And while I’m a medievalist and not a scholar of contemporary America, I think I have something to add to the discussion about the riots in my home city. So I hope you can forgive me for digressing from my normal topic of historical movies for a post. As a scholar, I feel I have a duty to offer the perspective my research provides on contemporary events.

Urban riots seem shocking to modern Americans. At least up until the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in August of 2014, there was little discussion of them in the media, and you might be forgiven for thinking they rarely happen in the US. In reality, however the United States experiences at least a half-dozen riots every single year, because college students riot with almost predictable regularity in this country. Let me demonstrate with a survey of just the past two years.

In March of 2014, several hundred students at the University of Arizona mourned the loss of a NCAA tournament game by throwing fire crackers and beer bottles at police.

In April of 2014, students at Iowa State University  rioted during the university’s annual Veishea celebrations. Students flipped at least three cars, pulled down three lamp poles and a number of street signs, and threw things at police. One man was knocked unconscious when he was hit with a light pole. Rioting is something of a tradition during Veishea; previous riots happened in 1988, 1992, 1994, 2004, and 2012 (when a student fell to his death). In 1997, a student was murdered during Veishea.

The same month, University of Connecticut students celebrated a basketball victory by lighting fireworks, flipping cars, smashing the windows of businesses and at least one academic hall, and pulling down a street light. The defeated University of Kentucky students rioted in Lexington, KY, lighting at least 38 fires, including 19 couches, 18 trash cans and a vacant house. Similar riots happened in Lexington in 2012 and 2013. The 2012 riot involved a reported 10,000 students and at least one shooting.

Also in April of 2014, about 200 students at Colorado State University shouted and threw objects at police after a party spiraled out of control. No injuries or property damage was reported.

Also that same month, a crowd estimated to be about 15,000 UC-Santa Barbara students (and others) tore down at least 6 traffic signs, lit small fires, attacked a car, and threw things at the police. Several dozen people, including 6 officers, were injured. This was to celebrate the university’s Deltopia Spring Break event.


A flipped car at the Deltopia Riot

(Photo: AP Photo/The Boston Globe, Jeremy Fox)

In October of 2014, University of New Hampshire students rioted during Keane’s annual Pumpkin Festival. Students set fires, tore down street signs, tried to flip a car, and threw rocks, pumpkins, skateboards, and bottles at the police. At least 30 people were injured.


The same month, about 5,000 students at West Virginia University caused an estimated $15,000 worth of property damage by starting fires and pulling down street signs and threw things at police and firefighters. WVU students are famous for doing this after athletic victories. In the past 15 years, athletic events have provoked 1,799 street fires and 633 dumpster fires. In 2012, they lit cars and light poles on fire.

On Nov 1st, a series of Halloween parties in Berkeley, CA got out of hand. An estimated 3-5,000 students rioted. At least three people were assaulted, a car was vandalized, and someone drove a car into a lamp post.


A smashed windshield at the Berkeley Riot

(Photo: Atreyue Ryken)

In April of 2015, our student friends in Lexington, KY rioted again after losing an NCAA game. They lit lawn furniture on fire and threw things at riot police.

In May of 2015, an argument at a formal night event at Plymouth State University turned into a riot of about 300 people when students began throwing things at police who arrived to break up an argument.

In January of 2015, students at Ohio State University rioted to celebrate a football victory. A  crowd of around 8,000 started a dozen small fires, lit several dumpter fires, forced their way into the stadium after the game, and tore down a goal post.


A street fire during the Ohio State Riot


On May 24th of this year, a crowd of 200 to 250 students at Colby College, ME used furniture to make a bonfire in the street and started a dumpster fire the night before commencement. When firefighters and police arrived, the students brawled with them and threw bottles. Burning furniture and similar items is apparently something of a tradition at Colby at graduation.

This list leaves out riots that developed out of political protests of various sorts. If I had included those, the list would have been much longer. And I could easily have gone back further than 2014. When I was a graduate student at UW-Madison in the 1990s, the annual Halloween party often reached near-riot levels, with windows on State St being smashed and cars tipped. My husband has told me about the annual St. Patrick’s Day riots at UW-Oshkosh; that a decades long tradition was only ended when the university changed its Spring Break to coincide with St Patrick’s Day. Ohio State has a tradition of arson accompanying games against rival Michigan; in 2002, a single game triggered 10 dumpster fires. And as I’ve noted, some of the riots on this list are part of a tradition of rioting going back years.


The Milwaukee Riots 

Now let’s talk about the Milwaukee riots. Let me say that I have no first-hand knowledge of these events; my knowledge comes entirely from the local news media and a few discussions on Facebook. So I am reporting the facts as best I know them, but some of the details may be wrong, because the reporting on the events is still developing.
The Milwaukee riot started on August 13th, when police officers pulled over a car in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Sylville Smith, a black man who was reportedly carrying a gun, fled the car on foot, but apparently was cornered in a back yard by a pursuing police officer (who is black), who fired two shots into the man and killed him. The incident was reportedly caught on the officer’s body camera, but the footage has not yet been released. A crowd of about 100 black protesters gathered later that day, and the protest escalated into violence. Several cars were set on fire, a gas station was looted and set on fire, three other businesses were set on fire, and at least one other business was looted. Objects were thrown at police officers, shots were fired, and at least four officers were injured.

On the 14th, a peaceful protest occurred at the police station, and a large group turned out to help clean up the damage from the previous night. That night, there was more violence, with rocks being thrown at police and shots being fired; four more officers were wounded, as well as a young man. Governor Scott Walker activated the National Guard on Sunday night but it was not actually deployed. Here is a summary from Wikipedia, which links to numerous news stories on the riots.


(Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


Comparing the Riots

What does this have to do with student rioting? On the surface, nothing. So far as has been reported, the Milwaukee protesters were not university students. The cause of the riot was something far more serious than student athletics. At least two businesses were looted and shots were fired, neither of which seems to have occurred during any of the riots I’ve noted above. The student riots tend to be one-day but often semi-annual events, whereas the Milwaukee riots happened two nights running.

But the scale of the Milwaukee riots is far smaller than the student riots I’ve mentioned. The crowd was 100 or so people, whereas the smallest of the student riots was 200-300 people, and the Santa Barbara riot was an estimated 15,000 people. These student riots tend to be much larger in scale than the rioting we see around various police killings of black men.

While the looting of businesses does not typically happen during student riots, buildings certainly get vandalized, fires are lit, city property destroyed, and police officers are assaulted. Most of these riots triggered dozens of arrests.

Now here’s the key point of my post. You’ve probably never heard about most of these student riots. They get local news coverage, but most of them don’t make the national news. The only one that I recall seeing a major news outlet cover was the Ohio State riot. So the media treats student riots as minor affairs, even when they involve thousands of people, multiple fires, cars and other property being destroyed, and police officers being injured. The impression this gives is that when white, middle-class college students riot over trivial things like football games or Halloween parties, it’s nothing serious. It’s just students being students. A little student violence is nothing to get worked up about, even if it perhaps results in the death of a student (as in Iowa), flipped or torched cars (many of these riots) or arson (most of these cases). In fact, news organizations are sometimes reluctant to call these events riots; sometimes the word riot is put in quotation marks, suggesting that these aren’t really riots, no matter what they look like.

But when a comparatively small group of black people violently protest a very serious issue, the killing of a motorist, it’s treated as world-level news. The governor thinks seriously about calling out the National Guard. The national news media suggests that the whole city is in flames (as I said, I’ve gotten worried messages from friends and relatives who were concerned for my safety).

Milwaukee-area police have killed at least four black men in the past two years. In April of 2014, a police officer shot the unarmed, mentally ill Dontre Hamilton 14 times during an altercation in a public park, killing him. In July of 2015, police in suburban Wauwatosa fatally shot a mentally-ill black man who was brandishing a sword. In June of 2016, Wauwatosa police fatally shot Jay Anderson, who was sleeping in a car in a parkway at 3am; he reportedly had a gun. And now this weekend, Sylville Smith. Regardless of whether any of these shootings were justifiable or not, many black Milwaukeeans are concerned about police violence toward their community, and the tendency of police officers to kill black men during traffic stops and for minor crimes like selling cigarettes is obviously an issue of serious concern nationally. And yet somehow it is the black riots over police violence that are seen as unacceptable, and not the student riots.

As a scholar, it’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that there is something seriously out of balance in the way people respond to these two very different sorts of riots. When white people riot over small issues, it’s barely news, no matter how large the crowd of rioters may be. When black people riot over a genuine issue of human lives, it’s treated as an alarming offense. Middle class white people apparently possess some unnamed right to engage in rioting that black people don’t possess.

That is not in any way to defend or justify this weekend’s violence. The destruction of businesses and the injuring of police officers and ordinary citizens is a serious matter, and those who committed crimes should be prosecuted. Nor is this to deny that some of the student rioters were prosecuted for crimes and suspended or expelled; typically these riots seem to produce one or two expulsions. My point is entirely about how we as people and the media as a body respond to these events in drastically different ways.

Because right now, the media seems to be suggesting that the lives of black citizens are less important than university students’ right to be upset about a football game.

Next time, I promise I’ll get back to posting about something far less important.


Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identify the Veishae riots as occurring at the University of Iowa; in fact they occurred at Iowa State University. My apologies for the error.

Mohenjo Daro: Back to the Bronze Age


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My local shopping mall multiplex mostly runs the usual big-budget action films and rom-coms, but one of its 18 theaters is dedicated to Bollywood films. So when I noticed that it was running a movie about Mohenjo-Daro, one of the cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, I decided I had to go and see it. Mohenjo Daro (2016, dir. Ashotush Gowariker, Hindi with English subtitles) is set in 2016 BC in a civilization that most people have never even heard of.


Spoiler Alert: If you’re interested in seeing this film, you should stop reading after my summary of the Indus Valley Civilization, because I discuss major plot points, including the resolution of the plot.


The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley was home to one of the first four great civilizations of the Old World. It emerged around 3300BC, so it was slightly younger than Sumeria and Egypt, but slightly older than China. At its peak, from about 2600 to 1900 BC, it may have had as many as 5 million inhabitants, making it much larger than those other three civilizations, and more than 1000 cities and town are known to have belonged to it. Although it possessed a written language, scholars have not yet been able to translate it, and consequently it is known purely through archeology.


The Indus Valley Civilization

As the name implies, the IVC developed along the banks of the Indus and Sarasvati Rivers, in what is today Pakistan. The cities of the IVC show considerable urban planning efforts, including a regular street grid, warehouses for goods, and most impressively of all, a sophisticated system of hydraulic engineering that provided running water, efficient sewers, public baths, and the world’s first flush toilets.

All of that suggests a complex urban government, but the nature of that government has largely eluded scholars so far. There is no evidence for temples, so it does not appear to have been a theocracy, nor is there evidence for palaces or large homes, which suggests that the cities did not have powerful monarchies or wealthy elites who monopolized the wealth. But there was considerable standardization of units of measure, such as weights and building bricks, across the IVC, suggesting that there was large-scale co-ordination of efforts. So scholars are divided as to whether there was a single over-arching government, a network of monarchies or religious leaders in individual cities, or some more egalitarian system we cannot currently work out.


Statue of a so-called ‘Priest-King’

The IVC is thought to have been the first culture to produce cotton, and may have been the first to domesticate chickens. There is evidence for fairly sophisticated dentistry. And they clearly traded with Mesopotamia and Egypt. They had a complex writing system of between 400 and 600 symbols, which were used on seals and pottery, but what these symbols mean or what function they played is unknown.


Seal with symbols and a ‘unicorn’

The IVC began to go into decline around 1800 BC, for reasons that are unclear. The best theory seems to be connected to climate change. This theory holds that changes in the climate caused the monsoon that brings so much water to India to shift southward toward India proper. That would have caused the decline in the amount of water reaching the Saravati and Indus rivers. The Saravati also seems to have shifted its route, causes its water to drain into the Ganges watershed rather than the Indus. Accompanying these hydraulic changes may have been increasing salination to the soil, thus hurting the IVC’s ability to grow crops. There is also some evidence that violence may have been a factor. And archaeology suggests that Mohenjo-Daro, one of the IVC’s two best-excavated cities, may have been destroyed in a flood. And one theory holds that the IVC population migrated eastward to the Ganges and helped lay the foundations for later Hindu culture.


The ‘Dancing Girl’ statue


Mohenjo Daro

Ashotush Gowariker was serious about trying to recreate some sense of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like. He consulted a half-dozen experts to get a sense of how the community’s architecture looked like, and one scene takes places around what archeologists have called The Great Bath. His city has an upper and lower city, which roughly corresponds to the citadel that rose over the main city. There are only hints of what IVC clothing looked like, so Gowariker admits they simply made it up, but they tried to reflect surviving artifacts where possible; one character is dressed exactly as the statue of the ‘Priest-King’ is, and the Dancing Girl statue appears in one shot.


The Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro

Unfortunately, given that we cannot read the IVC script, the plot was made up wholesale (and to Gowariker’s credit, a prologue text admits as much). The plot turns on Sarman (Hrithik Roshan) a small-town indigo farmer who is drawn to Mohenjo-Daro by a strange dream involving a unicorn, which is the symbol of Sindha, the goddess of the local river. He meets Chaani (Pooja Hegde), the Chosen One of Sindha, and this being a Bollywood film, immediately falls in love with her and starts trying to win her hand.

But Chaani is engaged to marry Moonja (Arunoday Singh), the villainous son of Maham (Kabir Bedi), the ruler of Mohenjo-Daro. The city is governed by a Senate, made up of representatives of all the major occupations (farming, mining, merchants, weavers, etc). Maham is the chief of the Senate, something like an elected president. That’s not a totally implausible idea for a society that lacked the usual foundations for ancient government. Maham has dammed the Sindha river so that he can mine gold from the river bed, and he is using the gold to buy copper weapons from Sumeria and hire thugs to help impose his rule on the city by force, as part of a plot to destroy Harappa, the city that exiled him twenty years ago.


Sarman (Hrithik) courting Channi (Hegde)

All of this brings him into conflict with Sarman, who thinks that Maham’s taxation is immoral, so he starts to foment rebellion, while still finding time to sing and dance (this is Bollywood, after all) and romance the Chosen One. Eventually, he realizes that the arrival of the monsoon is going to cause the dam to burst, and so in addition to leading a revolution, he has to persuade everyone to flee the city and migrate to the Ganges river. This last sequence, in which the city is destroyed by a torrential flood, is really the high point of the film, and feels a great deal like a classic Cecil B. DeMille epic.

So while the film’s story is entirely fictitious, at least Gowariker made some effort to incorporate what is known about the IVC. The film has a tendency to project later Hindu practice back onto the IVC; both cultures revere rivers and cremate their dead, for example. And at the end of the film, Sarman leads his people to what he declares to be the Ganga (Ganges) river, explicitly positioning the Indus Valley Civilization as one of the foundations of Indian culture. But Hollywood is constantly projecting its values onto the past, so it’s hardly surprising that Bollywood does exactly the same.


Old vs New

What I find most interesting about Mohenjo Daro is the way it dramatizes, probably unintentionally, the clash between a traditional agricultural society and an increasingly sophisticated urban society that is embracing new technologies and long-range trade. Given that the IVC was probably in the middle of that transition, it is not impossible that some version of that tension existed at the time.


An artist’s idea of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like

Sarman represents a traditional pre-urban farming culture that is barely out of the Stone Age. Throughout the film, he favors wooden tools, rocks, and his bare hands, only briefly making use of copper or bronze weapons when he has no choice; late in the film his followers use spears tipped with sharpened stones. On some level, he is xenophobic. All his enemies are in some fashion foreign to Mohenjo-Daro; when he discovers that Maham is buying copper weapons from the Sumerians, his solution is to attack the Sumerian caravan and force them to stop trading with Mohenjo-Daro. And after living in Mohenjo-Daro, he discovers a secret about his past that intersects with Mohenjo-Daro’s past, so he is literally a representative of the past returned to the city to restore the way things used to be (at least until the flood wipes out the whole city and he is forced to lead the people to a new place).

In contrast, Maham and Moonja represent new technologies and practices. Maham used the new idea of trading gold to acquire the new technology of copper weapons, and he, Moonja, and his cronies all use metal weapons, often in a  way that makes them explicitly villainous. He is a merchant, and wants to make Mohenjo-Daro powerful by trading with distant cultures like Sumeria, Mecca, and Bukhara, but his new practices are explicitly corrupt and abusive. Early in the film, Sarman and Moonja come into conflict because Moonja refuses to offer what Sarman deems a fair price for goods, so Moonja is comfortable with inflation and Sarman is not. Maham uses the new technology of damming to divert the river. Ultimately, the river (or perhaps the goddess Sindha) rejects this new practice, destroying both Maham and the city, while Moonja is killed with his own metal dagger.


You can tell Maham is a villain just from his hat

So the film seems to be appealing to a conservative, anti-modern sentiment, showing how the old ways are both morally better and more reliable, whereas new things are bad, corrupt, and unreliable.

Unfortunately, the film resorts to the tired cliché of the Woman as the Prize. Chaani would be right at home in most American films from the 1950s. Although the film asserts through a prophecy that Mohenjo-Daro’s survival rests on Chaani’s decisions, in fact at no point does she actually make a decision and she has no agency whatsoever. Instead, when Moonja decides to kill her because Sarman has found a way to break their engagement, she is simply helpless until Sarman runs to her rescue, and thereafter she is simply his reward for overcoming all the hardships of the film. Bollywood cinema is quite conservative this way, so it’s not surprising, but it is rather boring and predictable.

Still, it’s a reasonably fun story in a setting you’ve never seen before, and at least on the level of the sets and art direction, it offers at least an approximation of what the Indus Valley Civilization might have been like. And the dance numbers are decent. Check it out.

Want to Know More?

The movie isn’t available on video yet.

If you want to know more about the Indus Valley Civilization, you might look at Gregory Possehl’s The Indus Civilization.