Ben Hur is a movie with a clear moral and thematic center. The very first words we hear are those of a voice-over narrator (he turns out to be Belthasar, one of the Three Magi):
In the Year of our Lord, Judea - for nearly a century - had lain under the mastery of Rome. In the seventh year of the reign of Augustus Caesar, an imperial decree ordered every Judean each to return to his place of birth to be counted and taxed. The converging ways of many of them led to the gates of their capital city, Jerusalem, the troubled heart of their land. The old city was dominated by the fortress of Antonia, the seat of Roman power, and by the great golden temple, the outward sign of an inward and imperishable faith. Even while they obeyed the will of Caesar, the people clung proudly to their ancient heritage, always remembering the promise of their prophets that one day there would be born among them a redeemer to bring them salvation and perfect freedom.There are two groups of characters: the Romans and the Jews. The clash between them is consistently depicted as a clash between ideas: the Romans represent power and the Jews represent freedom. The main dramatic conflict is between two former friends: the Roman Messala, whose first lines declare that he is "in command," and the Jew Judah Ben Hur, who eventually tells Messala, "I tell you the day Rome falls there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before!"
Power and freedom are connected in this film with other ideas. The Roman Governor Sextus tells Messala of a carpenter's son who "teaches that God is near, in every man." Messala replies with the authentic Roman view, that "there is divinity in only one man." Power means inequality, while freedom rests on the equalizing effects of Christian love.
Power also rests on fear. When Messala unjustly condemns Judah to the galleys and his mother and sister to a dungeon, he does so as a power play: "By condemning without hesitation an old friend," he says, "I shall be feared." In addition, just as freedom comes with love in this film, so power uses hate as a resource. As Quintus Arrius says to the enslaved Ben Hur: "Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength."
Such are the ideas expressed in Ben Hur. What about Avatar?
To tell you the truth, I wrote the above paragraphs six weeks ago, and didn't know how to go on. Since the Academy Awards are tonight, I thought I should force myself to finish this post. The best I can do, though, for Avatar, is a sort of laundry list of notions:
- One should love one's planet (or, as in the case of Pandora, satellite).
- Greed is bad.
- Hunter-gatherer tribes are good.
- Business corporations are bad.
- Military forces are bad.
- One should not take the property of others, at least if it is the collective property of a hunter-gatherer tribe.
I am not saying that communicating ideas is something that any movie has to do. But if its makers do choose to do this, then standards of intellectual clarity, originality, and profundity come into play. Measured by these standards, obviously, Ben Hur kicks Avatar's butt.