Centered in a biblical worldview
|Faith and/or Biblical Relevance|
|Faith-compatible Depiction of Characters and Character Relationships|
|Faith-compatible Depiction of Situations|
|Family Viewing Suitability|
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While any attempt to remake the 1959 Academy Award-winning classic version of BEN-HUR starring Charlton Heston is a risky proposition, this 2016 update offers a new generation of moviegoers a well-executed and action-packed story that successfully balances the expectations of both the faith-driven and secular audiences it seeks to reach. And while the 2016 BEN-HUR story line sticks close enough to Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, to not distract, it also clearly takes into account today’s postmodern culture and gently presents Jesus in the context of love—but without an overt call to repentance or faith in Him for salvation.
Produced by Lightworkers Media (Mark Burnett and Roma Downey) in association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures, BEN-HUR is directed by Timur Bekmambetov (DAYWATCH, NIGHTWATCH) and boasts a strong screenplay by Keith R. Clarke (THE WAY BACK) and John Ridley (12 YEARS A SLAVE). It features impressive sets and creative cinematography as well as an able and diverse cast including: Morgan Freeman (MILLION DOLLAR BABY, DRIVING MISS DAISY, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, INVICTUS) as Ilderim; Jack Huston (AMERICAN HUSTLE, OUTLANDER) as Judah Ben-Hur; Toby Kebbell (WARCRAFT, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) as Messala Severus; Nazanin Boniadi (ZOOLANDER 2, “Homeland”) as Esther; Ayelet Zurer (LAST KNIGHTS, LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT) as Naomi Ben-Hur; and Rodrigo Santoro (THE 33) as Jesus.
Overall Faith and/or Biblical Relevance
Although the story line of BEN-HUR is extra-biblical, it is nevertheless plausible and touches on aspects of the biblical narrative about Jesus in a creative and engaging way. Through a series of redemptive encounters with Jesus, Judah Ben-Hur comes to see that the world’s way of anger and revenge is not what we were created for and that God’s love—which hits home with him at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross—is liberating and transformative. Here, as Judah falls on his knees and releases the stone in his clinched grip, moviegoers will be challenged to consider the things that they, too, hold onto and keep them captive. And while BEN-HUR doesn’t beat viewers over the head with the Bible, scenes from Jesus’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane and His journey on the Via Dolorosa en route to the Crucifixion move the story forward and gently share aspects of the Gospel with viewers.
Beyond this, the conversations between Esther and Judah about godliness and righteousness are commendable—as is the repeated emphasis on Jesus’ love. However, BEN-HUR avoids biblical teaching on confession, repentance and salvation, and the “happily ever after” redemptive rain that pours forth healing on the characters when Jesus dies on the cross will seem strained for some viewers.
Faith-compatible Depiction of Characters and Character Relationships
BEN-HUR tells the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother, Messala, an officer in the Roman army. After surviving years in slavery, Judah seeks revenge in a chariot race, but is changed after a series of redemptive encounters with Jesus.
Set in this context, BEN-HUR presents a largely faith-compatible depiction of characters throughout. The central relationship between Judah and Messala shows a brotherly bond of love, trust and respect. Although he initially takes a pacifist stance regarding the uprising of Jewish zealots against the brutal Roman occupation of the land, Judah eventually must take a stand. Although Judah heroically takes the fall for a young man who attempts to assassinate Pilate in order to save his whole family from implication in treason to the empire, Messala is forced to punish them all. It is in these circumstances that each brother’s heart hardens into anger, mistrust and hate—ultimately governing their actions and moving the story line forward.
Other relationships between Judah and his wife, Esther, are loving and respectful. In fact, theirs is the only on-screen kiss, and Esther becomes a follower of Jesus—repeatedly sharing the “grace of Jesus” with an unreceptive Judah. Similarly, the relationship between Messala and Tirzah Ben-Hur is loving and respectful—albeit unrequited.
Faith-compatible Depiction of Situations
Throughout BEN-HUR there are faith-compatible depictions of situations—with the film ending on strong themes of hope, healing, reconciliation and forgiveness. Clearly, the “better way” of Jesus is contrasted with the dominant and violent “first to finish, last to die” worldview. Before Judah’s transformation at the foot of the cross, even his victory over Messala in the brutal Circus chariot race leaves him empty and hollow.
Along the way, there is much biblical truth presented in BEN-HUR. The Jewishness of the historical context is emphasized with elements like Jewish feasting and dancing, and a distinction is made between the Jewish God and the hundreds of Roman gods. Esther points to God’s sovereignty and says it is God who punishes and God who forgives. Jesus stops the stoning of a man and tells Judah that He gives His life of His own free will. And on the cross—before saying “it is finished”—Jesus calls upon God the Father to “forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Historically, the increasing tension between Jews chafing under the oppression of Rome is consistently presented, and although much violence is depicted, it is handled well and not gratuitously. This being said, there are numerous battle scenes involving the Roman army and rebels throughout the empire, as well as whippings and beatings on slaves in the galley of a ship. After a battle at sea between Romans and Greeks, Judah is the sole survivor—depicted on a cross-like mast floating in the Mediterranean until he eventually washes ashore.
Finally, BEN-HUR depicts the agony of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa and the storm clouds that gather at the moment of His death. However, there is no accompanying earthquake or darkening of the sky as presented in the Bible and the redemptive rain that falls afterward is an ineffective overreach that will leave many scratching their heads as being overly rosy.
Family Viewing Suitability
At 124 minutes in length, BEN-HUR is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images. For children who are used to seeing action movies with moderate levels of violence, BEN-HUR will likely not present a problem. However, some elements associated with Jesus’ crucifixion, various land and sea battles, and the climactic 10-minute chariot race—although historically justified by the context—may be difficult for some children and adults to watch.
Having said this, however, the overarching theme to BEN-HUR is redemptive and restorative—emphasizing love for one’s neighbor as the Bible teaches.
Although BEN-HUR starts out slowly, it soon picks up steam and ultimately delivers an action-packed, historically consistent ride that culminates in a spectacularly staged and well-executed chariot scene involving several creative camera angles and very little computer generated imagery. Here, the size and scale of the Roman Circus gives an authentic taste of the historical grandeur of Roman engineering—many examples of which remain to this day throughout the Mediterranean.
Although not directly biblical, BEN-HUR offers high production values and a well-written and engaging story line—with solid direction and a cast that mostly rises to the occasion. Without being preachy, BEN-HUR shares enough biblical truth to satisfy faith-driven audiences—yet should resonate well with secular moviegoers as well.