Tuesday, July 17 , 2018, 8:58 am | Overcast 66º


Cinema in Focus: ‘Ben-Hur’

3 Stars — Inspirational

Recreating a film as classic as Ben-Hur is a task few would attempt.The comparisons with the new Ben-Hur are inevitable and the challenge of crafting a film that captures both the remarkable story and the emotional history that gave the original film its power is almost impossible.

Nevertheless, with this challenge before him, Mark Atkins wrote the screenplay and directed this worthy attempt to rise to the level of Charlton Heston’s 1959 classic portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur.

On the off-chance that you have never experienced either reading Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, or seeing the famous Charlton Heston chariot race, this is the fictional story of a princely Jewish family in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ. The family suffers a fall from grace in the Roman Empire and ultimately is redeemed both in society and in their spiritual journey.

Judah Ben-Hur (Heston in the 1959 version and Jack Huston in the 2016 version) is the son of a wealthy and respected Jewish family. Messala (Toby Kebbell), Judah’s adopted Roman brother (or “best friend” in the earlier versions), becomes a legionnaire in the Roman army and is forced by his rank and position to have the Ben-Hur family arrested and destroyed by command of Pontius Pilate.

The family goes into unknown circumstances, but Judah is sent to die as an oarsman on a Roman ship. Through a series of circumstances, his life is saved and he becomes a skilled horseman, leading ultimately to a challenge in the chariot races before Pilate and against Messala. Spoiler alert: Judah Ben-Hur wins.

The underlying story here is that Jesus, the Christ, interacts momentarily with Judah Ben-Hur, and changes the course of his life.

In the 1959 Heston classic, Jesus and Judah meet for a moment while Jesus is on the way to the cross. In this version, with no allusion to biblical reference, Jesus and Judah interact over a number of years, even if only briefly.

The effect is still the same — Judah Ben-Hur is transformed from a man of vengeance to one who offers grace to his brother for the evil he caused his family.

This new version doesn’t convey the same power as the 1959 blockbuster, which won 11 Academy Awards, but it is a worthy retelling of this classic tale. The interactions with Jesus seem somewhat confusing, since they are an obvious fiction, and the redemption of Judah at the end of the story is without depth.

Nevertheless, the drama of the chariot race is almost as good as the original, and is worthy of seeing on the biggest IMAX screen you can find! Needless to say, the 1959 race is considered one of the top three well-known moments in film history.

What makes this story different from the Heston spectacular is not the drama of the race, but the change of heart that occurs in Judah Ben-Hur himself. The 1959 version is often characterized as a story of deception and seeking revenge, with a tinge of redemption in the end.

In this version, Judah has always loved his adopted brother, feels betrayed, but in the end he seeks to heal the wound. In an almost cheesy conclusion that comes across as a parody of Hollywood, the two of them end the film riding off into the sunset happy as clams.

The moral of the story is not lost on the viewer, however: No matter how trying the circumstance, forgiveness and grace are the only balm for healing the spiritual wound. Justice deserves to be served and is an inevitable consequence of bad decisions, but carrying around past wrongs blocks your ability to transcend to a place of healing and peace.

That answer clearly is the “tale of the Christ,” the ultimate message of this inspirational story.


» Like other remakes in film, the progress made in cinematography allows the filmmakers to present the stories with increasing skill. Do you experience this progress as helpful to you as a viewer, or does it undermine the classic tales?

» The decision to make Messala an adopted brother rather than a close friend changed the internal dynamics of the film. Do you find this change helpful or harmful to the meaning of the tale? What does it communicate about an adopted child?

» The interaction with Jesus and the ultimate transformation of their souls is inspiring. Have you experienced an encounter with Jesus? How have these encounters changed you?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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