Like the majority of today’s mainstream moviegoers, I never saw the 1959 Ben-Hur movie with Charleton Heston. But as a modern 21st century Christian, I am captivated by the new Ben-Hur movie because its message resonates in my soul.
In a world suffering from racial tension and radical terrorism, I am hungry for hope and healing. I need reminders of God’s powerful grace and mercy. And I long for stories that champion Christian themes of justice, liberty and most of all, radical love and forgiveness.
Based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” the new Ben-Hur is a classic story with universal themes of betrayal, revenge, forgiveness and redemption. It tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army.
Stripped of his title, and separated from his family and the woman he loves, (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery and despair. After years at sea, a breathtaking turn of events sends Judah on an epic journey back to his homeland to seek revenge, where a chance encounter with Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro) transforms his life and leads him to discover grace, mercy and ultimately, redemption.
Not only does the film feature the legendary Morgan Freeman and a chariot race for the ages, Ben-Hur dramatically illustrates the power of the Cross, and the Christian values we hold dear to our hearts.
TOP 10 REASONS WE LOVE THE NEW ‘BEN-HUR’ MOVIE
1. A Fresh Approach to a Classic Story
“Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur is one of my all-time favorites,” says Executive Producer Mark Burnett. “It was truly an amazing spectacle, especially for the time in which it was made. As much as that film means to me and so many others, my own teenagers had never heard of it.”
“I realized there was a massive audience ready for a fresh approach to this classic story, and with all the advances in filmmaking since then, we can create a spectacle even more thrilling for a modern audience. It is an amazing story that needs to be seen by a new generation.”
2. A Great Screenplay
The Ben-Hur screenplay co-written by John Ridley, who won the 2014 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Ridley said “The most ardent fans of the 1959 film might find it blasphemous to revisit it in any form, but they forget these characters existed 80 years prior.”
Ridley continues “People only tend to remember Charlton Heston and the chariot race, but Judah Ben-Hur is such a rich classic character. He’s a wronged man seeking revenge and redemption. Compelling characters like Ben-Hur and Messala are the reason we can return to these stories again and again, so I wanted to make the personal conflict between these former friends just as tense and memorable as the climatic chariot race.”
3. The Role of Jesus is Expanded
In the 1959 version, Jesus is only heard but never seen, but in the new adaptation, His role is beautifully expanded. Actor Rodrigo Santoro (The 33, 300) was selected to play Jesus Christ, who crosses paths with Ben-Hur at several points in the story.
“As soon as I met Rodrigo, it was clear he was the right actor,” recalls Director Bekmambetov. “He has a God-given talent – Rodrigo can play this spiritual figure, while still coming across as the boy next door.”
“Rodrigo was a perfect choice to play Jesus,” comments Executive Producer Roma Downey. “He’s got strength, kindness and depth.”
Producer Duncan Henderson agrees. “Rodrigo just has an inner peace and strength. He’s inspirational in the role of Jesus because of the calm, regal presence he brings.”
4. Hollywood Royalty Jack Huston in the Starring Role of Judah Ben-Hur
“Finding the right actor to play Judah Ben-Hur was a process,” recalls Director Bekmambetov. “We needed someone smart who could create a character combining aristocratic irony and ability to truly care for other people. Jack proved to us that he is capable of doing that. It felt like he was born in that era. Ironic, well built, and an experienced horseman.”
“Jack Huston gives the most extraordinary portrayal of a man on a journey.” comments Downey. “Through the course of the film, we see him change physically and emotionally. Physically, we see him go from this handsome charming, debonair prince, to a man broken and brought to his knees. Through the years he spent on the galley ship, we see his body tighten and his heart harden. He knows that the only thing that will allow him to survive is his lust for revenge.”
“On top of that,” said Producer Sean Daniel, “Jack’s a Huston, one of the royal families of film. We shot the film at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, where John Huston directed “The Bible” in 1966, so it was exciting to have his grandson in our film all these years later.”
5. The Legendary Morgan Freeman
Morgan Freeman plays Sheik Ilderim, a greatly expanded role from previous adaptations of Ben-Hur. After Judah Ben-Hur escapes a deadly slave galley, Ilderim serves as his mentor and benefactor, eventually teaching him to race chariots.
“We wanted an actor of Morgan Freeman’s caliber to show the honor and dignity of the character of Ilderim, and make him integral to the story,” comments Ridley. “For me, as a person of color, it was extremely important to give this character a voice and make him more faithful to the era, and true to life.”
Indeed, Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman is one of the most recognizable figures in American cinema. His works are among the most critically and commercially successful films of all time. Freeman ranks 2nd among the worldwide top-grossing actors of all time.
His films have earned over $4 billion in cumulative ticket sales. Whether a role requires an air of gravitas, a playful smile, twinkle of the eye, or a world-weary, yet insightful soul, Freeman’s ability to delve to the core of a character and infuse it with quiet dignity has resulted in some of the most memorable cinematic characters committed to film.
6. The Love Story
Almost all great movies have a great love story, and the romance between Judah Ben-Hur and Ester is what loves stories are made of. Not only does the Prince fall in love with his life long friend, but she illuminates spiritual truths that light his path to the Savior. Superbly played by actress Nazanin Boniadi (“Homeland”, “How I Met Your Mother”) Esther shines with a quiet and inner beauty that comes from a woman who has spent time with the Lord. The onscreen chemistry between these two is sensual, playful and deeply romantic.
“I was drawn to the role of Esther because of her complexity,” says Boniandi. “As a Jew, she wants to resist the Roman occupation and advocate for the disenfranchised, but supporting the rebels could put the House of Hur and her own family in jeopardy. Later on, when she’s lost her home, family and the man she loves, she becomes one of the first followers of Jesus, the carpenter prophet who teaches her that freedom can be achieved through forgiveness and compassion.”
7. The Slave Ship
The horrific scenes of human slavery in the galleys of a Roman war ship are so vivid and terrifying, that one can’t help be shocked at the depth of cruelty and inhumanity. As the prisoners (many falsely accused) are chained by their ankles inside the rat infested belly of the ship, they are whipped and beaten, starved and forced to provide the manpower to propel enormous war ships into violent battles on the raging seas.
In this extraordinary segment, the galley slave master howls at the prisoners in a demonic voice, syncopating to the beat of a enormous drum “Rooooow! Roooow! Roooow!”
When the slave master roars “This ship is your body, that drum is your heartbeat, and your god is the glory of Rome” one cannot help but be amazed by the remarkable determination of the human spirit to survive.
I could not help but wonder if Ridley channeled his experience on 12 Years A Slave to illustrate the depth of anguish in this powerful segment.
Director of Photography Oliver Wood (the Bourne series) provided a grounded visceral style throughout. One of the most innovative tools used was a G4 camera. “The style of the camera works like your iPhone.” explains Bekmambetov. “It makes every seven feel as if you were really there, in the moment.
“Bekmambetov found visual inspiration on YouTube. Security footage from an actual bus crash in South Korea helped the crew create a convincing ship to ship collision between a Greek vessel and a slave galley ship,” said Wood.
8. The Action Packed Chariot Race
According to the director, the climactic moment of the deadly chariot race was shot over 32 days at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. “From day one, the decision was made to film the majority of the race in camera, requiring twelve weeks of intensive chariot training for Huston and Kebbell. Though both had previous horse riding experience, racing with a four horse team proved to be a completely new skill set,” said Bekmambetov.
“I’ve grown up with horses,” said Jack Huston. “I feel very comfortable and confident around them, but there’s something entirely different when you have to control four of them simultaneously.” The sheer strength of them is incredible.”
NASCAR footage helped Director Bekmambetov set the pace, speed and intensity of the chariot race. “The style of amazing camerawork by Oliver Wood is designed so that every scene feels as if you were really there, in the moment,” he explains.
“We wanted to catch the action as you would in reality, in order to achieve that we were looking for inspiration not in classic paintings but in photos on Instagram and videos on YouTube,” said the director. “It was epic not because of hundreds of horses, enormous amounts of extras and thousand feet sets of the Arena, but because of its idea. It’s style, editing, acting and cinematography–hopefully will appeal to the modern audience.”
9. Executive Produers Mark Burnett & Roma Downey
Often referred to as the “noisiest Christians in Hollywood” Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have brought extraordinary glory to God in their work. Combining their award winning talents, commitment to the faith, and unique Hollywood influence, they have exponentially increased the level of production value and artistry in faith based film and television.
In fact, when Burnett and his wife Roma Downey produced the 10-hour miniseries “The Bible” that premiered on History Channel in March 2013 – it was watched by over 100 million people in the US alone. This tremendous feat may have made this amazing couple two of the most effective evangelists of any generation.
10) The Message of Healing & Forgiveness
Forgiveness. We are living with a chronic undertone of tension in our society. There have been fierce racial tensions, violence, and a glaring division caused by differing beliefs. In Ben-Hur, family is against family, brother against brother. Judah is bitterly betrayed and spent years of his life in torment and slavery. He had reasons galore to harbor bitterness and plenty of time to plot his revenge.
But in the end, he chose differently. He chose forgiveness. It is the hope of this movie and its producers that this story’s message of restoration, reconciliation, and forgiveness might serve as both example and inspiration for our society, and that through the cross there will be forgiveness and healing in our land.
Ben-Hur becomes available on digital download November 30 and you can purchase it on DVD or Blu-Ray December 13th, just in time for Christmas!
To learn more about this film or to buy tickets visit Ben Hur Movie
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