Who Do You Say That I Am?

My bride was watching Ben Hur (1959) and I was struck yet again by the above scene, one of the most powerful depictions of Christ.  A wonderful melding of music and dialogue as Christ goes silently to the aid of Ben Hur and gives him water.  The wordless encounter between Christ and the Decurion was amazing, as the Decurion’s face registers bewilderment, shame and curiosity as he has a totally unexpected encounter with the Divine.  Whatever the actor who played the Decurion, Remington Olmsted, was earning that day, it wasn’t nearly enough.  It is interesting that Ben Hur, a good man, has no idea who has given him water while the Decurion, an evil man, can clearly sense who Christ is.

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7 Comments

  1. It calls to mind the story of the faithful centurion. Men in those positions understood authority and recognized it. You could also read the scene as this centurion recognizing someone who outranks him, even if he doesn’t understand how or why.

    The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” -Matthew 8:27 (the same chapter He helps the Centurion)

  2. “It is interesting that Ben Hur, a good man, has no idea who has given him water while the Centurion, an evil man, can clearly sense who Christ is.

    Maybe because the Centurion isn’t an evil man, per se, just a hard man doing what he was trained to do with the same brutal efficiency with which he was trained?”

    One of my favorite Biblical epics because Christ isn’t seen, he’s felt. The second, distant encounter between them at the Sermon on the Mount conveys this particularly well.

    Really one of my favorite movies period.

  3. Maybe because the Centurion isn’t an evil man, per se, just a hard man doing what he was trained to do with the same brutal efficiency with which he was trained?”
    It would evil to carry out an order to have a man die of thirst who has been sentenced to the galleys (An anachronism. Ancient navies did not normally use slaves to row galleys.)

  4. Objectively you are correct. Which just goes to show how fundamentally transformative the Christian world revolution really was.

  5. The star, R.I.P, had recollections about the scene, and what it took to get it shot. Charlton Heston, In the Arena, An Autobiography (Simon & Schuster/ Boulevard Books, 1997), 196-197.
    He never knew who Remington was or if he even was an actor. But director Wyler insisted on the best, that he be tracked down, and paid whatever he wanted. Hilarious. Happy Easter:

    Willy’s convictions about the actors he wanted and didn’t want in even very small roles could have repercussions. The part of the Roman decurion (non-com) leading the slave train that stops in Nazareth on the way to the galleys was a nice bit part, but nothing more; mainly one crucial line: “I said, no water for HIM!” when Christ gives water to an unconscious Ben-Hur. The casting on parts like that is usually undertaken by the first assistant director, who interviews ten or twenty candidates and picks the likeliest four or five for the director to choose from.
    The village selected as Nazareth was a cluster of stone huts some sixty miles north of Rome, perfect for the scene, but it was a good ninety-minute drive over bad roads, the kind of location that puts you on the road at 5 a.m. and gets you back home fifteen hours later. No fun at all. Still, we were shooting by seven, long shots of the village, the slave train, the well, the watching villagers. We set up a medium angle of Judah, parched with thirst, reaching for a gourd of water and collapsing when the decurion knocks it aside. Willy lowered his viewfinder. “That’s not the guy I cast in this part last week,” he said.
    “Ahh, no, that’s right,” said Gus, the first A.D. “But this guy was your second choice, remember?”
    “What happened to my first choice?”
    “Well, he…uh, he was holding us up on salary,” said Gus in an Oh-God-why-didn’t-I-check-with-him tone. “But remember you did like this guy. The setup’s all ready to shoot.”
    “Send back for the first guy,” said Willy, picking up his script.
    “Oh, gosh…they’d have to find him, make a deal, bring him up from Rome. Could take three, four hours.” Gus’ voice was ragged with anxiety.
    We’ll wait,” said Willy. And we did. Gus had goofed badly, of course. You don’t try to slip something like that past a director, especially not Wyler, not if you’re as good a first A.D. as Gus was.
    Willy relented a little; we picked up half a dozen small setups in other coverage on the scene while we were waiting. Willy was more than right; his first choice was well worth waiting for.
    I have no idea whether the man was an actor at all, but his harsh, burly ugliness was perfect. Sweating and sullen in the brass helmet, he was the picture of a Roman legionary. We never see Christ’s face in the scene, but the decurion’s brutish, stunned awe looking into the eye of divinity was indescribable. It’s one of the best moments in the film.
    The scene also gave us our tag line. On most pictures, especially the long, tough shoots, the company, usually by instant consensus, seizes a line of dialogue as the slogan for the whole shoot. On Ben-Hur, after the Nazareth scene, when anyone screwed up, someone (often several in chorus) would proclaim, “No water for HIM!!”

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