By S. Michael Houdmann, Got Questions Ministries
Confession: A few months ago, my small group had a riveting discussion on the 1959 Ben-Hur movie. I sat silent while people raved about the production. Why? I'd never seen it! All I knew about the Ben-Hur movie was that it contained a famous chariot race scene. A friend loaned us the DVDs and after sitting through the 3 hour and 44 minute movie from 1959, my wife and I were surprised at how Christian the movie was, especially the end.
Prior to watching the 1959 version, I did not know the movie was based on an explicitly Christian book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace (published in 1880). And, I recently discovered that the new 2016 release is actually the fourth version of the movie, with silent versions having been released in 1907 and 1925. Ben-Hur truly is a powerful story, definitely worthy of being retold to this current generation.
The 2016 version of Ben-Hur received mostly negative reviews. Interestingly, some of the reviewers did not like it because of how prominent the Christian themes were. But, after seeing the movie, I was generally satisfied with this rendition of Ben-Hur. I definitely appreciated that the movie was not 3.5 hours long. It lasted just over 2 hours.
On to the review... (minor spoilers ahead if you haven't seen any of the movies or read the book)...
Judah Ben-Hur and Messala are raised as brothers and best friends in early first century Jerusalem (Judah is a Jewish noble and Messala is a Roman who was adopted by Judah's family). Messala decides to join the Roman army to make a name for himself. After several years of successful battles, Messala returns to Jerusalem as a Roman hero and essentially Pontius Pilate's second in command.
At first, Judah and Messala reunite and resume their friendship. But, when Judah nurses an anti-Roman zealot back to health, and then that zealot attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate from Judah's house, Messala is forced to make a very difficult decision: protect the Ben-Hur family or protect his place in the Roman Empire. Messala chooses to protect his place in the Roman Empire. He has Judah arrested and sent to the Roman slave galleys and has Judah's mother and sister imprisoned to await execution. On his way to the galleys, Judah encounters Jesus when Jesus gives him a drink of water.
After five years as a galley slave, Judah escapes when his ship is destroyed in a naval battle. He is captured by an African-Arabian gambler, Sheik Ilderim, who, after discovering Judah's skill with horses, allows Judah to train to be his chariot driver for the upcoming games in Jerusalem. In the chariot race, Judah is victorious and Messala is nearly killed.
Then Judah encounters Jesus again, this time when Jesus is on the way to being crucified. Judah attempts to give Jesus a drink of water, but is beaten by the Roman soldiers for the attempt. Judah then witnesses Jesus' crucifixion and hears Jesus pray, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Witnessing the way Jesus forgave the people who had just crucified Him changes Judah's heart. Judah seeks out the badly injured Messala, forgives him, and the two are reconciled. Judah is also reunited with his wife, mother, and sister (with his mother and sister having been miraculously healed of the leprosy they were afflicted with while in prison).
At the end of the movie, the entire reunited family essentially rides off into the sunset together, Messala included.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie. I think the critics are being way too harsh on the movie's flaws. The critics who say the movie is too Christian should read the book on which the movie is based. The special effects were reasonably good. The acting seemed of sufficient quality.
My only complaint against the movie is one scene in which Jesus is protecting a man from being stoned in a marketplace. The words the actor portraying Jesus says are not the words of the biblical Jesus. Rather, they sounded much more like a hippie love/peace version of Jesus. But, later, when Jesus was on the cross, everything the actor said was a direct quote from the Gospels. I wish the producers/directors had used the biblical words of Jesus consistently throughout the movie.
In my opinion, Ben-Hur is definitely worth seeing. It contains a powerful message about forgiveness and about how God can take the most messed up life and restore it. While the details are significantly different, Ben-Hur reminds me a lot of the biblical account of Job.
"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4:32)
"Though He slay me, I will hope in Him." (Job 13:15a)
"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'" (Romans 12:19)