Along with this summer’s star-crossed remake of Ghostbusters, 2016’s remake of Ben-Hur failed to challenge its predecessor(s) for the title of “best version” of a revered work. I admit that when the movie was announced, I was in the “no, thanks, not interested” category of movie-goer, being a huge fan of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur – my favorite movie of all-time. When the trailer for the new film came out in early 2016, my position was unmoved. I was discouraged by the amount of CGI work in the trailer, and figured this would be a Ben-Hur for the short-attention-span crowd.
I viewed the movie last night, and I admit that I was wrongly arrogant to think that the movie could not be told another way, or updated for modern audiences. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. It’s not perfect of course. In fact, I thought the writing was a little too loose with modern phrasing, including some particularly groan-worthy lines about being “progressive,” “fighting the good fight,” and “keeping the faith.” But the movie differs from the 1959 version in a couple of key ways, and that’s what I want to write about.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now, because I’m going to talk about the ending of the movie. In the 1959 movie, Messala is mortally wounded in the chariot race, and dies cursing Judah. He spits out the fate of Judah’s mother and sister (they are lepers) as he fights for his last breath. It is a dagger of malice that holds up after repeat viewings. Messala goes to the Underworld with hate in his heart for Judah, who only learns to forgive Messala through the example of Christ. This is true meaning of the story. Judah learns to forgive, after years of hatred for Messala. “… I felt his voice take the sword from my hand,” says Charlton Heston’s Judah, as he reflects on the lesson learned through Jesus. The sting of this revelation is that Judah, in the 1959 film, did not learn to forgive quickly enough. His best friend-turned-enemy, Messala, dies before he can forgive him. As human beings we know this particular pain. We have all lost someone at some point, before we could say what we wanted to say to them. But Judah had a lot to say. The moral here is to be quick to forgive, even if your enemy doesn’t want to be forgiven.
The 2016 version of Ben-Hur takes a different approach. In this version, Messala lives.
I was surprised to see that he does not die. I expected the same scenes as the 1959 version. In this most recent film, Judah is inspired to seek out Messala after viewing Jesus’s death. He forgives Messala, who is physically broken, and who initially resists him at sword point. Messala eventually breaks and drops the sword as he embraces Judah, also forgiving him for their years-long conflict. When you look at this scene closely, it is actually a throwback to the 1959 quote “… I felt his voice take the sword from my hand.” But what makes this scene so powerful is that it is not Jesus who takes the sword from Judah’s hand, but Judah, following the words of Jesus, who takes the sword from Messala. In this way, I think that this remake actually improves upon the 1959 version, because this is not God taking the sword out of a mortal’s hand. This is a man taking the sword from another man, through the example of Christ. God is all-powerful. If He doesn’t want you to have a sword in your hand, He can and will see to it that you don’t. What makes forgiveness the most powerful of all human acts is that it requires humility and vulnerability from both sides. Forgiveness doesn’t originate from a position of power. The lesson of this movie is not just to forgive quickly, but to forgive totally.
What follows in the 2016 film is nothing short of incredible, as Messala is welcomed back into Judah’s family, who all forgive him. Esther forgives Messala for killing her father. Judah’s mother and sister forgive Messala for throwing them into a prison, where they contracted leprosy. To be honest, I felt that this part of the movie, which carries the right message, lacked the dramatic tension of the earlier scene between Judah and Messala. I think this was a missed opportunity for Messala and the others to show their renewed love for each other, and how that came about, rather than have it told to us via Morgan Freeman. Still, it’s rare to see something like this in a movie for modern audiences. I applaud the choice.
After watching the movie, I had a thought related to medieval history, and I’m going to start exploring it. We all know the influence of the Christian faith on medieval Europe. Or do we? The central tenet of Jesus’s teaching is forgiveness, and treating others as you would have them treat you. So why was medieval Europe plagued by cruelty, violence and friction among classes, races, and religions? How could a faith spread like wildfire across a continent, with its central message taking a back seat? Who is actually being faithful, and who is just doing it for show?
If there’s one thing that can be said about the 2016 version of Ben-Hur, it’s that the characters aren’t just going through the motions. The pace might be accelerated, the writing might be a little cringe-y, the ending might be close to ridiculous – but as Mother Angelica once said, “Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.” I choose to see the miraculous in 2016’s Ben-Hur, and I hope you do, too.
Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC