Fifty-seven years ago, Charlton Heston starred in the epic production BenHur: A Tale of the Christ. The threeand-a-half-hour film had the largest budget of any movie at the time, involved 50,000 extras and won a record-breaking 11 Oscars. It is still considered one of the greatest films ever made.
As a new version of the film releases in the UK on 7th September, the million-dollar question was whether Ben-Hur could retain the spirit of the original, while also being updated for a modern audience. Thankfully the new Ben Hur is a pacey, entertaining and surprisingly moving production that the whole family can enjoy.
While clearly inspired by the Heston epic, the film is not bound by it. It is mercifully shorter, for example. Nevertheless, Ben-Hur follows the plot of the 1959 epic, with only minor alterations. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell) and sentenced to a life of slavery. After enduring years in the galley of a Roman ship, he escapes. But in a surprising twist on the original storyline, Ben-Hur’s quest for revenge is dramatically halted by an encounter with Jesus. The original movie ended with an emphasis on miracles, but the remake takes a very different direction in its final quarter, leaving the audience with an exceptionally strong message of forgiveness.
Two lengthy sequences – a battle on the seas and the famous chariot race – deliver nail-biting action, and the special effects are impressive. The spiritual component of the film is integral. Paramount was heavily criticised after releasing 2014’s Noah as many Christians objected to a plot that contradicted the biblical account. There are no such problems with Ben-Hur. Rodrigo Santoro avoids the common pitfall of making Christ seem far too ethereal. His performance is compelling, earthy and gritty as he portrays a saviour who is full of love. And while Jesus’ appearance in the 1959 epic felt like a strange, almost random cameo (especially as he never spoke), his presence in this film is integral to the plot.
The film may struggle at the box office given that (unlike other summer blockbusters) it lacks A-list actors. The biggest star is Morgan Freeman, but he only plays a bit part – Sheik Ilderim – who doesn’t enjoy much screen time.
In reimagining Ben-Hur the filmmakers have ticked all the right boxes. It is big budget and actionpacked enough to draw a mainstream audience, while also bringing out spiritual themes that will delight Christians and a moral message that will appeal to all. All this and more makes Ben-Hur a must-see for Christians this autumn. SH
For free resources based on the film visit benhur.damarismedia.com