Ben-Hur, 2016: A classic tale for a new generation

An interview with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, executive producers of the new big-screen adaptation of Ben-Hur.

Mark Burnett is an award-winning television producer and president of MGM Television and Digital Group. He has produced a variety of well-known television and cable shows, including Survivor and Celebrity Apprentice. He is married to Roma Downey, an actress perhaps best known for starring in the television series Touched by an Angel (1994-2003). The pair are prominent Christians in Hollywood, and have produced successful religious-themed projects such as The Bible, A.D.: The Bible Continues, and Son of God.

They are serving as executive producers for Ben-Hur, a remake of the classic 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston. The 2016 movie stars Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, who is betrayed into slavery by his former childhood friend (played by Toby Kebbell). The story takes place 2,000 years ago during the life of Christ, with much of the action taking place in Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur encounters Christ at key moments in his life.

Ben-Hur is based on a best-selling 1880 novel by former Civil War General Lew Wallace. It has been brought to the big screen multiple times, the first being in 1907. While the 2016 version follows the same general story line as the famous 1959 version, there are significant differences between the two, including a larger role for Christ and stronger Christian message in the new version. There are new characters, too, including Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, who becomes a friend and mentor to Judah.

Ben-Hur is scheduled for release on August 19.  Burnett and Downey recently spoke to CWR about the film.

CWR: Why did you want to be involved with Ben-Hur?

Roma Downey: We wanted to impact our culture with a message of love and forgiveness.

Mark Burnett: (Laughing) We like to joke that we’re the noisiest Christians in Hollywood. It’s our fourth project of this kind, and it took a massive army of people to make.

CWR: Although Christ is not a major character in the movie, he still plays a key role.

Burnett: Yes. Ben-Hur is a big action epic, with a through-line of Jesus interacting with the major characters in our story. It blends an exciting action epic with a message of love and forgiveness coming from Jesus. We knew that many viewers would not show up if we billed the film as having a message of love and forgiveness, but hopefully they’ll come to see a great action film and be exposed to the message as well.

Whoever you are, I think you’ll enjoy the film. It has some great action sequences, most notably the chariot race. Our two lead actors, Jack Huston (Judah Ben-Hur) and Toby Kebbell (Messala), are experienced horsemen and actually drove the chariots. And, although it looks otherwise on the big screen, no horses were injured in the making of this movie.

CWR: How did you get recruited to be executive producers?

Burnett: Gary Barber, chairman and CEO of MGM, had seen our Bible series and Son of God. He knew that Ben-Hur has a Christian message, and asked Roma and I to be involved. We’ve since formed a partnership and merged our companies, and soon we’ll be launching a faith and family channel.

We came in during Ben-Hur’s script development, and worked with the movie’s writer, John Ridley. We were involved in the production each step of the way. We shot the movie at locations in Rome and Matera, Italy. It’s a great story, and after nearly 60 years since the Charlton Heston version, we think it’s ready to be retold for the next generation.

Downey: There are many bad things going on in the world today. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. But our perspective, and one we bring to Ben-Hur, is that it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.

Ben-Hur’s message is one of reconciliation, mercy, and love. If we want to be happy and at peace, we must let go of ugliness and hatred. My favorite scene in the movie occurs when Judah Ben-Hur encounters Christ as He is carrying His cross to Calvary. He wants to give Christ water, as Christ had done for him earlier in the film. A Roman soldier, however, won’t let him. Judah Ben-Hur, in anger, picks up a stone to strike the soldier. But, at Christ’s urging, he drops the rock and lets go of his anger. I can think of times in my own life where I’ve held on to anger towards others, but I bring it to the foot of the Cross and I let go of my anger.

There is such division and anger in our country. I hope this film contributes to efforts to build bridges between us. We have to remember that we are all children of a loving God.

CWR: Many younger people may be unfamiliar with the story of Ben-Hur.

Downey: Yes. The 2016 film is a story for a new generation. In one of our recent screenings, we had an older man attend with his adult son. The father had emotional memories of the 1959 Ben-Hur, but for the son it was “Ben Who”? We have a great opportunity to reach our young people with the story of Jesus, and bring them to the foot of the Cross.

Burnett: Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur is one of my all-time favorites. 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.

CWR: How does Judah Ben-Hur change over the course of the film?

Downey: Jack Huston gives the most extraordinary portrayal of a man on a journey. 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 spends 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 to harness his lust for revenge.

CWR: And Toby Kebbell plays Messala, his friend turned rival.

Downey: Toby sizzles on screen. Physically, he just brings it. He’s good-looking. He’s grounded. He’s strong, and he inherently has such intelligence and depth. 

We believe he loves Judah, and the thing that drives him through the second half of the movie is that love and disappointment.

CWR: What was the budget for Ben-Hur?

Burnett: I don’t know that MGM is releasing any specific numbers, but I will say it is a very large-budget movie. One of the big-ticket items is special effects, which younger audiences have come to expect. But we have to have them, because it is important that our movie be able to attract an audience. There is a lot of competition from other movies, and people are only willing to spend so much going to films.

CWR: You’ve brought in a number of religious consultants from a variety of Christian denominations.

Burnett: Yes. When we started working on The Bible, we brought in some faith consultants to advise us. We started with several, but over the course of the production we wound up with 40. They included Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Our purpose was to find common ground, which would help us in telling the story. It was also a sound business approach, as we wanted to appeal to multiple audiences!

We continued this practice with A.D., Son of God, and Ben-Hur.

Downey: Since both Mark and I are Christians, we wanted to be sure we got the life of Christ right. While Judah Ben-Hur is a fictional character, his story is interwoven with life-changing moments as he encounters the real historical person of Christ Himself.

If you look at biblical stories that did not accurately portray what was in the Bible, they weren’t well accepted by audiences.

CWR: Do you and Mark work well together as a couple?

Downey: Yes, although we spend more time together than most couples we know. We often joke that it is a miracle that we’re still speaking to one another. My girlfriends tell me they can’t even do yard work with their husbands! But, we respect one another and love what we do.

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About Jim Graves 235 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.