By George D. Escobar
“Ben-Hur,” the 2016 edition, is a modern film telling a very old-fashioned story set in biblical times from an 1880 novel by Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace. It’s such a compelling story that it’s been retold many times by successive generations. Since the novel became a national bestseller in the late 1800s, “Ben-Hur” has been performed on stage, complete with chariots and live horses running on treadmills.
It was a black-and-white silent screen marvel in 1925 and a widescreen color epic in 1959, winning 11 Academy Awards. In 2016, “Ben-Hur” can be seen in 3D glory and unsurpassed visual effects.
With every retelling, each generation has claimed “Ben-Hur” as its own. During the “Gilded Age” when the novel was published, Americans read it through the lens of the era’s popular theme of “achieving prosperity through piety.”
In the mid 1920s, despite the abounding prosperity of the “Roaring Twenties,” the story’s still-raw issues of slavery (of Jews and Christians) and colonization (by the Romans) remained resonant with audiences worldwide.
By 1959, seen by audiences who fought and survived the horrors of World War II, “Ben-Hur” transcended into a masterpiece, depicting themes of betrayal, conviction and redemption told with gravitas and power, and with a revenge plot that leads to love and compassion. The world wanted to heal and “Ben-Hur” showed us how.
What about 2016’s “Ben-Hur”?
After nearly 140 years since Wallace penned his mighty “Tale of the Christ” the world has come full circle. We’re living in an age of a “prosperity gospel” dividing the rich and the poor in an ever-widening gap. We’re also in an age in which slavery has taken on new forms in human trafficking and slave labor, masked by the guise of low-wage-earners.
Finally, we are in an age of colonization in our politics, theology and mass migrations, fought most visibly within inner-city plantations.
In an interview with WND, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, producers of “Ben-Hur,” revealed the biggest difference in their version of the story from the others.
Downey explained: “In our movie, you get to meet Jesus and look into his face, hear his words. You get to follow the journey with Judah Ben Hur, whose heart had been hardened by a desire for vengeance. He comes back from being a galley slave on a mission to avenge. And it isn’t until he encounters Jesus that his heart is opened.”
Downey recounts the powerful scene when Jesus Christ is crucified.
Downey said: “We prayed that in that moment, when Judah Ben Hur’s heart is healed through grace and his life is transformed, that audiences around the world too might be healed. That’s our biggest prayer for the movie.”
Probably more than at any other time, a film such as “Ben-Hur” is needed.
Does it deliver the power and drama of its predecessors? Mostly. Is it relevant for our time? Definitely. Should you go see it? Absolutely.