The first time "Ben-Hur" hit the big screen, the Cold War was raging and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. The film's themes of faith, social upheaval, and redemption resonated powerfully with the audiences of the day, who jammed into theaters to watch it.
On August 19, a new version of the film debuts nationwide. Filmmakers hope its story of betrayal, revenge, and grace will once again resonate with contemporary audiences.
The new film features Jack Huston in the title role. Like the 1959 version that starred the incomparable Charlton Heston, it is based the venerable Lew Wallace novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ."
"Ben-Hur" tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince betrayed by his best friend Messala, a Roman officer who enslaves him and sends his sister and mother to the dungeons. If Judah is to exact vengeance, he'll have to survive years of imprisonment, and a lot of divine intervention.
Judah is living out his pain-filled life while Jesus is living his, and their paths cross on several occasions. In the 1959 version, scenes with Jesus are short and his face is never fully revealed. But in the new version, Jesus is a much more visible figure. This is due in large part to the influence of producer Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey, the movie's executive producer. The couple call themselves "Hollywood's noisiest Christians."
Distributors Paramount and MGM have been screening the movie for influential Christian leaders, hoping to avoid the problems that plagued "Noah" and "Exodus," recent big-budget biblical films that took so much liberty with the source material that they failed to attract the faith-based audience they sought. That audience, after all, made "The Passion of the Christ" the most successful independent film in the history of cinema.
Last year at MegaFest, the four-day festival of faith and family created by Bishop T.D. Jakes, Burnett commented: "At its essence, Ben-Hur is a story of forgiveness with an underlying story of Jesus."
Paramount and MGM have boasted that, while filming in Italy, Rodrigo Santoro, the actor who plays Jesus, was blessed by Pope Francis. The film's marketers distributed photos of the event.
"Expectations of the faithful will be honored by this one," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore promised attendees at Purpose Summit, a conference for Christian filmmakers.
While Burnett is best known as the creator of reality TV shows like "Survivor," "Shark Tank," and "The Apprentice," he and his wife are no strangers to Christian films, as the creative forces behind "The Bible" miniseries and its sequel, "A.D. The Bible Continues."
Hollywood has enjoyed recent success with Christian-themed films like "God's Not Dead" and "Heaven is for Real." But "Ben-Hur" will be a test of sorts: Can Hollywood still make epic faith-based movies -- like "The Ten Commandments" in 1956 and "Ben-Hur"? And will modern audiences support them?
Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, an organization that encourages Christians to make "faith-conscious consumer decisions," says the film could launch a new era of faith-based films.
"This is a critical picture," Stone tells Newsmax. "Christians are suspect of Hollywood, and Hollywood is suspect of them."
He also suggests Christian audiences will welcome a film that reflects their values without attacking them for being politically incorrect.
"Christians are feeling disenfranchised," Stone says, "so it's an important time for a story that deals with that."
For decades, experts have said that a remake of "Ben-Hur" would be too expensive because of the thousands of actors needed. But thanks to digital technology, epics like "Ben-Hur" are once again affordable to produce. Trailers suggest the cinematic grandeur of the remake will easily exceed what audiences could expect in 1959.
The filmmakers were careful not to be overly reliant on special effects, however. Huston spent two months learning how to drive a chariot.
"We decided very early on that, every time you see us with those horses, that's us with those horses," Huston says.
Director Timur Bekmambetov, best known for directing "Wanted," says the film's iconic chariot race is hair-raising.
"There are no airbags. There are no brakes [on the chariots]. It's like today's NASCAR," he says. "People enjoy the speed, the tension -- and most of all, when someone will crash."
The new, reimagined version of "Ben-Hur" was co-written by John Ridley, a hot property in Hollywood since winning an Oscar for writing "12 Years a Slave." Morgan Freeman is perfectly cast as Ilderim, the sheik who trains Judah to be a charioteer.
So can the new "Ben-Hur" to live up to the 1959 classic that captured 11 Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Heston?
Huston says he and his colleagues have embraced the challenge and have given it their best shot.
"Judah Ben-Hur has one of the great journeys — where he starts, where he ends, and everything in between," he says. "You try to honor it as best as you can."
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