When the music says everything: The “Lepers!” scene from Ben-Hur (1959)

(yes I do indeed have Ben-Hur on the brain still)

Film music serves many purposes: it can set the scene, influence the audience, dictate the flow of an action sequence and so on. Occasionally, composers will even use no music at all simply to make a point. On the flip side, however, composers will also use film music when a visual is simply not possible.

A good case in point is the “Lepers!” scene in Ben-Hur. For those not familiar, I’ll explain. In the 1959 version of the film, after Ben-Hur’s mother and sister were unjustly arrested and imprisoned for over three years, the titular character makes his miraculous return to Jerusalem and demands their release (or he’ll have his former best friend’s head on a platter). The order is given to retrieve them, but once the cell is opened, a horrifying discovery is made…

Lepers (part 1, toward the end of the clip)

Lepers (Part 2)

Even before the dreaded word is uttered, you KNOW something terrible has happened, the music and the jailkeeper’s expression say everything. This was a moment that HAD to rely on a combination of music and expression to carry the severity of what was going on, because leprosy was (and still is) a very awful disease. While leprosy is treatable today, back in the ancient world, contracting leprosy was a slow death sentence, and those who suffered from the disease were condemned to live out their lives in isolation, shunned by the world. We could not see Ben-Hur’s mother and sister because the images would have been too graphic for late 1950s cinema (Google pictures of leprosy and you’ll see what I’m talking about).

I love Rozsa’s music for this scene. The shock chord that coincides with the jailer’s face being illuminated gets me every time. The underlying tone set by the music is “they have leprosy, this changes EVERYTHING.”

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