RELEASE DATE: 23 August 2016
The saddles first caught my eye. Ben Hur opens with a spirited race between the protagonist Judah and the antagonist Messala, two happy brothers destined to become determined enemies. However, as they raced gleefully around what passed for the 1st century Judean outback, I couldn’t help noticing the saddles their horses were wearing were of a type that wouldn’t be invented for hundreds of years. Sadly, as the story unfolded, so did the anachronisms, and the worst emerged from the mouth of Jesus.
This story of a Jewish prince who encounters Christ and finds his way into a Roman circus is a remake of the 1959 classic directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston.
The current version is an MGM co-production with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the Christian couple behind 2014’s Son Of God. Director Timur Bekmambetov is clearly reaching for the epic proportions of its predecessor, delivering engaging sea battles and exciting chariot races. However, the longer Ben Hur went on, the more it became clear that history had been reduced to a shoddy back-drop for 21st century morals.
Sadly, as the story UNFOLDED, so did the anachronisms …
Messala, played by Toby Kebbell, longs to visit Greece, though his character would have certainly called it Graecia or Achaea. The film’s chaste Jewish heroine Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) walks around Jerusalem with her head uncovered and hair streaming in a way that looks natural to us, but this is actually the appearance of a prostitute for that period. Her love interest, Judah Ben Hur (Jack Huston), is forever touching her in a way that would have got them both stoned. Together they meet Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), who has apparently forgone Nazareth to set up a carpentry shop in Jerusalem. And when the pair turns up riding through the streets – Judah wearing jeans and Esther some form of slacks – I was personally ready to throw in the toga …
Burnett and Downey have worked hard to move the character of Jesus from a figure on the margins to a fully fledged character in the current release – but factual errors like these undercut that choice. If the goal was to emphasise Jesus as a real, historical figure who had a tangible impact on his time, then it doesn’t help to place him on a fantasy background. It gets worse, too, when you modernise his words. The original film holds Jesus at a distance; the reboot of Ben Hur draws Jesus in close to preach certain gospel truths, particularly ‘Love your enemies’. However, the command is dumbed down to an unhelpful moralism when Jesus explains what he means:
‘When you set aside the hate they force you to carry, you discover that love is your true nature’.
It’s relevant language that will ring true to modern viewers, but not Bible students. Jesus gave us this goal to show just how far our hearts are from our heavenly Father, and how much his listeners would need his help to bridge that gap. Put this way, though, it presents Jesus as a wise teacher who wants to help us realise our inner best. In the end it’s only one more of Ben Hur’s historical problems, but it will leave filmgoers thinking Jesus is as happy with their inner selves as they are.
This review comes from The Lutheran September. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.