The mainstream media is doing such a fine job of heaping coals on the new Mark Burnett and Roma Downey epic, "Ben-Hur," that it might want to be careful. The intensity of their vituperation might just induce movie-goers — particularly faith-oriented ones — to go see what all the fuss is about.
Rolling Stone branded the film "a remake disaster of biblical proportions."
ABCNews.com dismissed it as "a miscast remake that will only appeal to a specific [read Christian] audience." Others were less kind.
If film lovers ignore those reviews and go anyway, however, what they'll see is a picture far different from the one being portrayed in the media as a flop — which explains why some are extolling it.
"I love 'Ben-Hur,'" host Glenn Beck remarked on his program recently. "It is great."
One of the highlights of the film, arguably, is its sweeping depiction of the hippodrome, or horse-racing arena, that provides the central venue for the film's most pulse-pounding scenes.
Any devotee of the 1959 epic directed by William Wyler, which won 11 Academy Awards — including the one Charlton Heston took home for Best Actor — can never forget the gut-wrenching experience of watching the life-or-death chariot race.
Historians generally agree that King Herod did build a hippodrome in Jerusalem. But the Roman destruction of the great city in 70 A.D. was so complete that no one has ever found its remnants.
If Herod's horse track looked even marginally like the Ben-Hur vision, its majesty was second only to the Second Temple as Herod the Great's grandest achievement. The red-stoned magnificence of Petra, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the labyrinthine halls of Minos — none of these marvels of antiquity can rival what Hollywood's digital mythmakers can do with computers.
But of course, every great story is really about the characters. In this regard, the Ben-Hur remake unflinchingly serves up daring new takes on the timeless characters seen in the original film based on the great Lew Wallace novel, which was published in November 1880.
The greatest shift involves the historical figure of Jesus Christ. In the original, the presence of Jesus was felt throughout the film, but the visage of the Messiah was never actually seen. In the remake, Christ is seen in the flesh pursuing his early calling as a carpenter, and appears several other times as the Romans carry out the biblical timeline of persecution and crucifixion.
Morgan Freeman is characteristically iconic as the desert-hardened Sheik Ilderim. A mentor to the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), Freeman gives him a chance to take vengeance in the Hippodrome over Messala (Toby Kebbel), a childhood friend who grows up to become a Roman officer persecuting the Jews.
Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro turns in one of the more credible performances of Christ, "the man of sorrows" in the Bible who was "rejected of men." The film perhaps over emphasizes the loving side of Christ's character, without dwelling on the redeemer's role in the Book of Revelation as the final, sword-wielding arbiter of good and evil.
But at least the Burnett/Downey treatment doesn't invent biblical narrative out of whole cloth as Hollywood treatments are so apt to do. This alone is a welcome respite for those who see the Bible as something more than a hidebound, religious version of, say, Grimm's fairy tales.
Thus in watching "Ben-Hur," you won't have to worry about being inundated with thinly disguised references to global warming, or the mystical "watchers" from the film Noah called Nephilim — walking rocks that appear to have wandered off the set of the next Lord of the Rings sequel.
Nor will its lead actor ever suggest that cherished biblical characters should be seen as "schizophrenic" or "barbaric," as was the case in the Christian Bale's description of Moses in the publicity run-up for Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Evangelicals trust Burnett and Downey to handle their cherished biblical narratives with care, and in this respect Hollywood's No. 1 power couple does not disappoint in "Ben-Hur."
If the film's director and producers are guilty of anything, it is their soaring ambition in trying to boil down a story that took three hours and 32 minutes to relate in the 1959 version — clearly too long for modern audiences – to a little over 2 hours in the remake.
The result is a bit of a breathless ride at times, without much chance for the story to breathe, or for some characters to develop beyond whatever action they are involved in during its rapid-fire, fast-paced scenes. But such is the state of current-day cinema, and many moviegoers will no doubt appreciate the film's more contemporary pace.
Cavils aside, "Ben-Hur" is an epic account of how forgiveness and love overpower the animus of hate. And it accomplishes much more than merely avoiding the thousand scriptural pitfalls that Hollywood's adaptations are heir to.
More importantly, the film brings the Ben-Hur tale of liberation from slavery and spiritual redemption to an entirely new generation, one that otherwise would have skipped over the 1959 version on Netflix without ever experiencing it.
For that generation the remake of "Ben-Hur," even in the face of all its critics' wrath, could be a tale of redemption.
David A. Patten is Senior Editor of Newsmax magazine.
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