Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures will release its remake of Ben-Hur on Friday, August 19. The movie is a retelling of the 1880 novel by retired Civil War Union General Lew Wallace, and it follows Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (played by Jack Huston) as he is betrayed into slavery by his friend, Roman officer Messala (Toby Kebbell). The film is set in and around Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, and Judah encounters Christ at key moments in his life.
The best-known presentation of Ben-Hur is the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, which received 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The 2016 version follows the same general story line, with some significant differences. The modern version has a distinctly more Christian message, and unlike the 1959 version, Christ has a larger, speaking role.
That this version is more clearly religious is no doubt due to the influence of executive producers and husband-wife team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, known for their productions The Bible, A.D.: The Bible Continues, and Son of God. They describe themselves as “the noisiest Christians in Hollywood,” and admit that the new Ben-Hur engages in stealth evangelism, presenting Christ’s message of “love and forgiveness” to viewers who ordinarily would never darken the door of a church.
A classic story retold
The story opens depicting the close, adoptive-brother relationship between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala. In the opening scene the pair are racing horses for sport in the countryside, and Judah is thrown from his horse and injured. Messala leaps from his horse to care for his fallen friend, and ends up carrying him back to the city. During Judah’s recovery we learn that the house of Ben-Hur is a royal Jewish home, while Messala worships pagan gods.
Seeking adventure, Messala leaves Jerusalem to join the Roman army. He distinguishes himself as a soldier as he battles the Empire’s foes. He returns to Jerusalem three years later, and is happily welcomed home by Judah and his friend’s mother and sister. Messala is in love with Judah’s sister, which contributes to the animosity between Messala and Judah when their relationship sours.
Judah, meanwhile, enjoys the good life as a prince. In the new version of Ben-Hur, Judah’s wife Esther (portrayed by Iranian-born actress Nazanin Boniadi) has a larger role than in the 1959 film. Early on in the movie the pair first meet Christ while shopping in the marketplace. Judah is a pacifist, wanting nothing to do with the Jewish Zealots trying to overthrow Roman rule, but is clearly no fan of Roman brutality. Christ, while engaging in carpentry in the public square, introduces a novel concept to the pair: “Love your enemies.” It is an idea that Judah initially finds absurd.
Christ is portrayed by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro. He was chosen to play Christ, Downey said, because “he’s got strength, kindness, and depth.”
Santoro said, “Billions of people all over the world have a very personal and intimate relationship with this man, with his image, with what he represents. It’s a tremendous responsibility, but it’s also a unique opportunity to have a chance to explore and to have a deeper understanding of what he went through, and try to practice his teachings.”
The most challenging scene for Santoro was near the end of the film, during Christ’s crucifixion. Filming took place on a “bitterly cold” day in the historic town of Matera, Italy. “When I was up there on that cross it was so cold it was almost unbearable,” Santoro said. “I was on the top of a cliff looking over all those people and Matera in the background, just waiting.”
“When they took me down from the cross, my body was involuntarily shaking; I couldn’t stop,” he continued. “It was probably the most emotionally charged experience I’ve ever had.”
Live-action excitement in the age of CGI
When Messala returns to Jerusalem after three years of warfare, he is a respected Roman officer. He tells Judah that Pontius Pilate, the new Roman governor, will be coming into the city and requests his help in identifying and arresting the Zealots among the people. Judah, who secretly—albeit reluctantly—helped an injured Zealot named Dismas, refuses. Dismas—the “Good Thief” on the cross alongside Christ—attempts to murder Pilate as he enters the city. Judah and his family are arrested, and the relationship between Judah and Messala is severed. Judah is sent to be a galley slave, chained to his seat and manning an oar, and his mother and sister are imprisoned.
The second part of the film includes its two great action sequences. The first occurs after Judah has been a galley slave for five years. When his ship engages in battle and sinks, Judah narrowly escapes drowning. Unlike in the 1959 movie, in which Judah rescues the Roman in charge of the fleet (played by Jack Hawkins), in this version he is instead befriended and mentored by Sheik Ilderim, played by Morgan Freeman. Judah becomes his charioteer and heads to Jerusalem to compete in the great chariot race, the second epic action scene.
Huston spoke fondly of working with Freeman, the film’s most famous actor. “He’s so professional, and we had a great relationship during filming,” Huston said.
Director Timur Bekmambetov said, “Ilderim in [Freeman’s] interpretation is cynical, emotional, smart, and tricky all at the same time. He doesn’t show all his cards at once, but you get the sense that bringing characters from point A to point B was always part of his plan.”
As Judah plots to murder Messala for sending him into slavery, Ilderim convinces him the best way to do it is in the chariot race in Jerusalem, because “in the arena, there is no law. Racing is a blood sport.”
The chariot race is the film’s signature action piece, and was filmed in Rome over the course of 40 days. Filming involved the use 80 horses and 30 chariots. As audiences have grown used to computer-generated animation, the filmmakers tried to use as much live action in the sequence as possible.
Second Unit Director Phil Nielsen said, “We have horses running through crowds or taking falls, thanks to some CG enhancement. But for the most part, we did the race at high speed, with the actors in the middle of it. We wanted the audience to go on the ride with Judah and Messala.”
Both Huston and Kebbell were experienced horsemen, but driving a chariot was a skill they had to learn. While he is comfortable with horses, Huston said, “There’s something entirely different when you have to control four of them simultaneously. The sheer strength of them is incredible. You don’t just coast around a corner, you skid in that sand. It’s one of the most exhilarating adrenaline rushes I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
For Kebbell, there was “a big learning curve.” “What threw me at first was that no matter how many pushups and pullups I did, the parts I had to strengthen were my fingers,” he explained. “The fingers have to be able to divide your strength between four horses to control them.”
Producer Duncan Henderson said it was “truly a miracle” that no one was killed or seriously injured during filming. During one take, a stunt-double fell off his chariot in the path of an on-coming chariot, but at the last moment the team leapt over the fallen man and saved his life.
The new version is different enough from previous versions to keep audiences interested, Huston believes. He describes Wallace’s 1880 novel as the template and point of reference for the various filmmakers who have told the story, with each individual interpreting it in a different way for audiences.
“It’s like asking painters to paint a landscape,” he said. “While they’re all painting the same thing, the details of each will differ. I think that’s a great thing about art.”
Love, forgiveness, and reconciliation
The themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are woven throughout the story, said Keith Clarke, a screenwriter who worked on the film. “One of the last sentences Christ spoke was ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they’ve done,’” Clarke said. “With His last few breaths, He forgave those who were responsible for His death.”
Downey said, “If you watch this movie, and you’ve never read the Bible, you’ll enjoy the story, the action and the adventure. If you are a Christian, the film will mean that much more to you.”
Burnett added, “Ben-Hur doesn’t give you a message of faith overtly, but it is there to give you something to think about. It’s a message of hope that’s been part of this story since Lew Wallace wrote it in 1880. It’s a story that’s been told before, because it’s a story worth telling again and again, for this generation and for generations to come.”