Adaptation of a famous fictional novel by Lew Wallace about a first century wealthy Jew, Judah Ben-Hur, and his pursuit of revenge against an adopted Roman brother who betrays his family.
Chances are, you have heard of the classic movie of Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston in the lead role. But if you’re young, you probably haven’t seen it. Look, for those of us who have seen the “original,” it’s pretty hard to live up to the grandness of it because Heston was so legendary. But the truth is, when I watched the old one again some years ago, the actual quality of filmmaking and acting, even the famous chariot race, was not as good as my memory of it. Modern filmmaking is simply more sophisticated on many levels.
Enter, the modern reboot
Judah and his family live in Jerusalem, but his adopted Roman brother, Masala, never feels welcome with his pagan ideas and desire to make his own name in life. So Masala goes to Rome and becomes a highly placed military leader, who ends up at Jerusalem aiding Pontius Pilate at the time of Christ.
Judah begins the story as a Jew who scorns the extremes of both the Zealots, who seek to rise up against Rome, and of the way of love that he sees a young carpenter preaching to his followers. Judah seeks to protect his family and stay out of trouble. Self-preservation. And isn’t that really the desire of most of us, if we are honest? (Zealots were kind of like ancient “Social Justice Warriors” or terrorists)
The problem is that the family gets falsely accused of a Zealot crime, and is punished accordingly. Rather than execute Judah, Rome prefers to enjoy him dying slowly by putting him as a slave on a Roman galley ship. I have to say, this part of the movie was the most excellent surprise of the experience. I remember that part of the Heston movie as being a bit boring: guys rowing in dirty sweaty grunge with the quartermaster pounding the drum and the slaves getting whipped and yelled at.
But in this version, the experience of the sea battle by the oarsman from their perspective was a powerful action sequence. It captured the experience of what it might feel like to be there, helpless in those cramped quarters being bashed and battered around and sinking during a battle. And only being able to see what is going on through cracks and oar windows as they row. It reminded me of the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan, how it made you feel like the first time you ever really got a true sense of real battle in a movie from the individual’s perspective.
More Bread and Circuses!…
I was pleasantly surprised by the chariot race finale with its hard hitting cinematic similitude.
Judah has experience with racing horses, and so, in a series of circumstances you will have to see the movie to find out, he ends up with an Arabian horse racer, played with perfect fit by Morgan Freeman. Judah gets the chance to face Masala in a race in the new Hippodrome built in Jerusalem. This becomes his obsession to get revenge on Masala and kill him in the drive. The problem is that Masala is out to kill him too.
And thus, the magnificent chariot race, that also kept me on the edge of my seat in a way the Heston movie does not (That one just doesn’t seem dangerous in its filmmaking anymore).
In this Ben-Hur, the camera work in the chariot race is intimate and live, right there with the riders. Upsetting, unstable, gritty. You feel the rumble and rattle of the chariots, the dirt in your eyes, the terror of four pounding stallions beneath the reins. The dangers and the crashes are frightening and brutal. (Yes, there is a bit of silliness when Judah falls off his chariot and is dragged through the arena until he manages to pull himself back up on his mount, without a scratch! But hey, it’s a movie, you gotta give it some slack for some entertaining action).
What Would Jesus Film?
And then there’s the Christ story. In the course of Judah’s journey, he interacts with Jesus a couple brief times and rejects him for being a pansy. But by the end of the story, Judah is consumed with bitter revenge that a final encounter with Christ forces him to face.
This really is a timely movie dealing with forgiveness in a time of violence, hatred and oppression against Biblical faith. Not unlike today. At the end of the race, Pilate loses a bet and is told, “I am sorry for your loss.” Pilate responds, “Loss? Look at them (the circus mob of Jews). They want blood. They’re all Romans now.” One of my favorite lines in the movie. The lust for blood turns you into the monsters you hate (reminds me of recent mobs whose violent protests make them the racist monsters they accuse their opponents of being – They’re all Romans now).
So the theme of survival versus sacrifice, love versus hatred, and forgiveness versus revenge hits home with particular poignance.
Those who want the portrayal of Jesus to be mysterious like the “original” (Where the face of Jesus was never shown) will be disappointed. I was not. Not showing Jesus’ face was an interesting creative choice, but seems too Docetic to me. Jesus was very human, and quite earthy, not some faceless phantom. In this Ben-Hur, he looks very plain and blue collar, not pretty or charismatic. He is an everyman in the crowd, which is what he was (Isaiah 53:2). And the moments stress his protection of those upon whom society inflicts suffering. He is a suffering savior who speaks of loving both one’s neighbor and one’s enemy.
No doubt Christian Zealots and other Inquisitors of theological correctness will criticize the presentation of Jesus in this movie as being a “lovey dovey” pacifist Jesus who talks about generic love of one another, and “can’t-we-all-get-along” forgiveness, but has no content of “the Gospel.” They will not find a detailed systematic point-by-point explication of Christology and hypostasis or soteriological exegesis of substitutionary atonement. They may say it is an empty portrayal of Christ without much content.
But such artistic ignorance is wrong. Because the fact is, I write stories for a living, and I can tell you that a movie has a simple thematic focus. You can’t have systematic theology in art. You cannot explain your entire theology in a story. It doesn’t work that way. Yes, you can have layers of meaning, but art shows the truth that is relevant to its particular theme or message. By necessity it must exclude other material for time, space and focused meaning. So, since the theme in this movie is a contrast of power and revenge versus love and forgiveness, that is the element of Christ that the story delivers. The spiritual reality of the atonement on the cross comes though, visually and emotionally, if not intellectually. It draws people to Jesus, not to indoctrination.
So, yes, thou Christians who are never satisfied with anything less than sermonized art, this movie communicates a mysterious Christ who radiates compassion and unearthly forgiveness that will draw people to read the book and find out more about him.
That’s the way it should be for this story.
Hollywood isn’t always Anti-Christian
Ben-Hur is a movie that is what Christians have been asking for. A real Hollywood epic movie with a Christian worldview. So go see it and they will make more of them. It isn’t a perfect movie. It’s got its flaws. The acting ain’t Oscar-worthy, but it also AIN’T “Christian movie” acting either. Thank God for Roma Downey and Mark Burnett bringing an authentic quality Christian vision to Hollywood movies. I see it as a miracle.
The ending was a bit too quickly wrapped up and, while emotionally moving, not all it could have been if they had given it more time to play out. This is one of those rare cases where I wanted the movie to be longer than it was, in order to play out its deep and profound themes with the time they deserved.
I admit that I wished for lead actors of star quality like Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in Exodus: Gods and Kings (an otherwise abysmal anti-biblical failure of a movie). Jack Huston, who plays Judah, does not quite have the magical presence required for such a robust identity. But in a way, this movie was more authentic in being less reliant on star power and more upon story and filmmaking. Still, there’s something that A-listers can bring to a story to make it transcend just that much more.
I welcome the opportunity to praise Paramount Studios for redeeming themselves with a movie that the Christian audience will love. Ben-Hur is that movie. I had criticized them, and the Christian useful idiots who threw God under the bus, for making that atrocious abomination, Noah. I usually don’t take it all that personal, but Noah was a blasphemous attack on my God, which means I am going to speak the truth to power. But this time, I will bless them for getting it right. Thank you, Paramount for listening to the Christian audience and responding with respect this time.
Well, it’s nice to see that sometimes, Hollywood does actually care about making money by respecting Christians instead of losing money by insulting them. Imagine that! Paramount was wise to let Roma Downey and Mark Burnett produce Ben-Hur, since they are among the few Hollywood producers who have a devotional approach to the material.
Go see it. For whatever reason, we are in a time of quality Christian worldview in Hollywood movies that we must support in order to bring a voice of truth to a truth-starved world.
Godawa’s Quibble Corner
It would not be a proper Godawa analysis if I did not mention a minor philosophical/political quibble. At one point, Jesus says to love your neighbor, and Judah, the “rich conservative,” says in response “that is a progressive idea.” The reference to modern politics is obvious, and completely false (even the audience laughed at it). I have been studying the ruling class of first century Judea and they were definitely NOT conservative. They were mostly progressive and liberal, and they teamed up with Rome (i.e.: Big Government Empire) to protect their entrenched power (like Google and Amazon do today). Progressivism does not love neighbors, but it sure has a lot of hatred to spread around. Just look at how they treat the conservative followers of that Jesus now. Progressive causes are all about creating binary oppositions and hating or demonizing their opponents. Progressives smear and want to imprison scientists who disagree with catastrophic global warming alarmism. Progressives create racist hatred and foment violence by feeding false racist narratives, like Ferguson (crybully Zealots). Progressives support the enslavement of minority masses through the welfare society, and hatred for the so-called “1 percent,” while demonizing capitalism, the only economic system in history to lift masses out of poverty. Progressives are now seeking to bankrupt and imprison those who follow that Jesus simply for believing in traditional Biblical marriage. That ain’t love.
So actually, Judah should have said to Jesus instead, “Don’t let the progressives hear you talk about loving your neighbor, they’ll crucify you.”
One other little gem of silliness I spotted, was another moment where a Roman laments about Rome, “We crushed the freedom of other civilizations simply because they were different.” Uh, no, Rome did not conquer the world for postmodern “fear of the other.” It wasn’t about modern day immigration policy. Rome wanted to rule the world for power, the most primal of all traits in sinful human nature.
But of course, don’t let a couple of silly lines discourage you. They’re just a few of the holes in an otherwise fine movie.
And of course, don’t forget to check out this epic novel, Jesus Triumphant, that shows Jesus’ spiritual warfare as an epic action adventure. I kid you not. It is unlike anything else out there on Jesus, but it is VERY Biblical as a theological novel.
5 comments on “Ben Hur: An Epic Movie of Christian Forgiveness in an Empire of Hate”
I’m glad to hear that your review lends credence to my hunch from the trailers that this will be yet another well-received “Jesus movie,” with overall higher quality acting than the typical Christian movie. However, I was nervous about the Downey connection, considering how unwatchable I found her “Bible” mini-series to be.
As a confessional Calvinists who is basically fudging on his confessional commitment to the prohibition against images of Christ–even in entertainment media–I wasn’t expecting this reboot to handle the Jesus character the same way they did in the Heston classic, but I confess that what you call Docetic, I call a nice, albeit envelope-pushing compromise with a culture that still largely affirmed that Calvinistic prohibition against images of Christ in entertainment media.
I very much appreciate your explanation of the necessity of boiling the Jesus character down to one central dramatic theme which is the kind of thing which always leaves the Christian Media Inquisitors unsatisfied. I hope it helps to better inform our contemporary movie-going brethren who go into the theater with a theological–not to mention political–chip on their shoulder.
One question: given your explanation above that one central spiritual theme must be highlighted in any given Christian story, and that a more comprehensive systematic-theological approach must of necessity take a back seat for a story to qualify as quality art, how is it, then, that you seemingly attempt to thread that needle yourself to more or less success in your Nephilim novels (I haven’t finished the series, and as you know, I demur on some of the theology, but very much affirm the effort)? Can you give us a little more of the secret to making quality Christian stories and films without simply telling us to buy your other books and DVD’s which go a long way toward answering my question?
John Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Ken Gentry, who is a very conservative Reformed scholar has good articles on Jesus and images here: http://postmillennialism.com/christ-and-visible-representations/ and here: http://postmillennialism.com/images-of-christ-re-visited/
Your question is too general for me to be able to do anything but refer you to my material like Hollywood Worldviews for good Christian storytelling. The general problem is that Christians prioritize message over craft and that is why the tell worse stories. But how to give equal ultimacy to both message and craft, to both image and word, is a complex issue with many aspects. The power of story is through incarnation, not sermonizing. But of course I write about that in The Imagination of God. The very structure of storytelling is the structure of redemption or conversion, so it incarnates the thought process, but that is in Hollywood Worldviews. We must use the narratives and imagination of this generation and subvert it by retelling their stories through a Christian worldview, but that is in God Against the gods. 🙂