Saturday, August 27, 2016

Ben-Hur - More Therapy than Religion

Like so many in my generation, I can well remember waiting on line (in my case, outside the incomparable Loews' Paradise on the Bronx's Grand Concourse) to see the 1959 epic film version of Ben-Hur, which then had the largest budget of any film produced at that time ($15 million plus). The movie itself - directed by William Wyler and produced by Sam Zimbalist for MGM and famously starring Charlton Heston in the title role - was, of course, itself a remake of a famous 1925 silent film, both based on Lew Wallace's best-selling 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ, which was considered one of the most influential Christian-themed religious books of its time. 

Apparently, it is now time for a remake of the movie, which., however, unlike the more famous earlier version, has opened to more negative reviews. Inevitably, a remake has a lot to live up to, on the one hand, while, on the other, we live now in a more negative time. That said, I went to see it today. And, while I wouldn't go out of my way to discourage anyone from seeing it, my reaction to this remake is mixed at best. 

Bearing in mind that I was only 11 when I saw the 1959 epic and was therefore presumably more easily impressed than I am now,  even so I feel compelled to conclude that this remake cannot quite compare. And it is impossible to avoid the comparison. The only thing the remake really has going for it over the earlier version is that it is mercifully shorter (123 minutes as opposed to 212). I just don't have it in me to sit through a movie of such length anymore!

Perhaps because it is shorter, the remake also leaves out memorable features from the earlier version. The 1959 film began - as does the book - with the Nativity, which clearly sent the message  that, whatever else we were going to be treated to in the film, its frame is the gospel story. In the remake, the Nativity story is completely absent - as is the whole Quintus Arius sub-plot, which is also a loss to the full sense of the story in my opinion.

There is no getting around the miraculous in the healing of judah's mother and sister from their leprosy in the cleansing rain that accompanied Jesus' death. But, beyond that, the supernatural dimension of the movie seems somewhat flat. Judah's wife Esther does her best to evangelize her husband, but Judah's conversion seems in the end less about the new world-altering religion of the Christ than it is about an (admittedly) life-changing but humanistic acceptance of the psychological and social value of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation over the dead-end of violence and vengeance. It is not that the film isn't trying to witness to the gospel story. It seems rather that it is confused about how to do so in a way that isn't ultimately more therapeutic than religious.

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