MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo By Paramount Pictures
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell
I was not expecting much from this 2016 remake of Ben-Hur. The 1959 film is a classic of the highest order and practically the template for every big budget Biblical spectacle that would follow in its wake. The older film still holds up, due to the talent of everyone involved. It’s well directed by William Wyler, well cast, and featuring great wide-screen cinematography as well as a memorable Miklós Rózsa score. It’s also 3½ hours long.
This remake comes from Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, whose previous films include Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Wanted. It’s produced by husband-wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, whose Roman Catholic faith has led them to create many Bible-themed programs for television. I expected a cheesy and heavy-handed experience. I was pleasantly surprised.
This new Ben-Hur is very entertaining and often quite thrilling. Although it takes about 45 minutes to settle into a groove (moving briskly to cover a lot of plot in a short period of time), it is a well-done action movie with its religious values nicely integrated into the storyline.
When the film begins we meet Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) and his best buddy/ adopted brother Messala (Kebbell) who grew up together under the roof of a Jewish family of nobility and privilege. Judah is Jewish and Messala is Roman and – as you can imagine – the political climate of Jerusalem, with Jews under Roman occupation, has tested their friendship. When some anti-Roman Jewish zealots get into the mix, brother turns against brother and Ben-Hur is stripped of his prestige and sent to row an oar in the galley of a warship. Judah’s anger against Messala grows and he longs for the opportunity to seek vengeance against his betrayer.
This story gets played out alongside the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace was subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” and designed to be evangelically persuasive. Jesus makes several appearances along the way and it is to this film’s credit that it imagines Jesus in scenes that are not simple recitations of familiar gospel stories. Judah’s wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) will in time become a Jesus follower and God’s hand will be at work to bring about forgiveness and love.
The two big action scenes in the 1959 movie are both here – a sea battle and a chariot race – and they are both well done. I was initially disappointed that so much of the chariot race (filmed in the same studio as the earlier version) was supplemented by CGI wizardry until I realized that the treatment of horses in the 1959 film would be considered animal cruelty today.
Morgan Freeman turns in another good performance as the Arabian horse trader/gambler Ilderi; his magisterial voice and calm presence certainly livens up the proceedings. The one major flaw in this version is the costume design with some clothing looking as if it came off the rack at J. Crew.
There are more scenes of Jesus in this newer, shorter version, but the 1959 film is no slouch in the faith-based film department. With shorter attention spans these days, parents may want to introduce their kids (age 8 and up) to this movie as their first taste of Ben-Hur. If they enjoy this version, they may be up to taking the 212-minute chariot out for a spin.
Four halos: An entertaining remake that also tells a story of forgiveness and redemption.
Two pitchforks: Scenes of slavery; violence and death in battles, crucifixion, and chariot races, although non-graphic.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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