Fifty-seven years ago, Charlton Heston starred in the epic production Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The three-and-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 launches 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 answer was yes, although the new film draws more on the original 1880 novel than it does the better-known film.
The man tasked with taking on the ambitious project of remaking Ben-Hur is Timur Bekmambetov. Given that his last film was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the Russian director wasn’t perhaps an obvious choice. Nevertheless, he has delivered a pacey, entertaining and surprisingly moving production that the whole family can enjoy.
Following the plot of the 1959 epic, with only minor alterations, the new Ben-Hur tells the tale of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), who 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, Ben-Hur 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.
Aesthetically, the film is on point. Two lengthy sequences in particular – a battle on the seas and the famous chariot race – deliver nail-biting action, and the special effects are impressive. But the the real treat is the relationship between the two brothers.
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. Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro’s portrayal of Jesus is pitch-perfect. He 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 the 2016 film is integral to the film’s plot and overall meaning.
In re-imagining Ben-Hur for a modern audience, the filmmakers have ticked all the right boxes
The acting from Huston and Kebbell, especially in the early scenes, isn’t as convincing as it should be. The film may also struggle at the box office given that (unlike other summer blockbusters) it lacks A-list actors. The biggest star is Morgan Freeman, but he plays a bit part – Sheik Ilderim – who doesn’t enjoy as much screen time as the two brothers.
In re-imagining Ben-Hur for a modern audience, the filmmakers have ticked all the right boxes. The film has a broad appeal. It is big budget and action-packed enough to draw a mainstream audience, while also bringing out spiritual themes that will delight Christians.
While clearly inspired by the Heston epic, the film is not bound by it. Mercifully, it is shorter, for example. Ultimately, it’s the message of forgiveness that will wow and move audiences. And with that message clearly being inspired by Jesus’ life and death, Ben-Hur is a must-see for Christians this autumn.
Damaris Media has produced free, official resources to engage churches and youth groups in the themes of the movie. For more information visit benhur.damarismedia.com