Ben-Hur may not push many limits for filmmaking in a general sense, but for faith-based audience members, Ben-Hur is cinematically and creatively superior to most of the recent films marketed to evangelicals.
Ben-Hur’s first two hours hold up well, able to stand outside the shadow of the 1959 original film starring Charlton Heston. The film is even more notable when compared to recent releases with similar biblical settings and Christian themes. This year in particular has brought us several “unorthodox” yet fairly biblically faithful stories, such as Risen, The Young Messiah, Last Days in the Desert, and now Ben-Hur. All of these films are set in the New Testament era. But all of them push beyond retellings of the usual gospel accounts starring Jesus or apostles in lead roles (such as Son of God). Instead these films explore more speculative stories and often feature fictitious characters, such as Roman centurions, in the lead roles.Ben-Hur…shows me that we are getting a little closer to some invisible, unseen golden age in which “Christian movies” can creatively and naturally hold their own among good or even great films.
Like those earlier films, Ben-Hur offers little emphasis on the exact gospel or actions of Jesus. The story gives no sermons, parables, or miracles, and Jesus himself only makes a few cameos so that his story can affect Ben-Hur’s story.
The character of Judah Ben-Hur (played by Jack Huston) wrestles with very real injustice in one family. Ben-Hur, a member of a wealthy Jewish clan, grew up as close friends with his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Messala leaves to seek his fortune, returning years later as a Roman officer, straining their friendship. Then, when a zealot tries to kill Pontius Pilate from the Ben-Hur home, Messala must serve as the instrument of Rome’s wrath on the family. Judah is forced to take the blame for the attack and he is exiled into slavery. When Judah returns to his homeland, he seeks his lost family and seeks vengeance against the man who betrayed him.
I felt drawn into Judah’s struggle and his craving for vindication. Yet the film managed to avoid portraying the conflict simplistically, with Judah the flawed hero and Messala the villain. Instead, both men are understandable yet sinful. Despite my expectation of resolution, the story posed a sincere challenge: how could any conflict this bad be resolved to work out for good?
Some evangelical viewers may be expecting a character’s conversion to faith. Ben-Hur offers this, if you know what to look for — which is not an obvious conversion-to-faith sequence. Conversions are difficult to portray dramatically. After all, biblical conversion is a supernatural event that is usually unseen, involving an agonizing process of specific repentance from sin and belief in Jesus, a process that doesn’t always translate well to screen.
Instead of hearing Judah repent and pray a prayer, we watch as Judah achieves the victory over Messala that he thought he wanted. But in silence he finds this victory nothing like his expectations. Picked up by cheering throngs, Judah silently reaches out for the horse he had healed for chariot racing, but has now driven back to weakness or worse. Later you watch his conflict while his friends are celebrating. Why didn’t vengeance help? Then events do get more explicit, as he encounters Jesus on the way to crucifixion. “I give my life of my own accord,” Jesus explains to Judah. That’s vague, but it’s enough for this story. Judah silently repents. Later he visits Messala for a reconciliation that just manages to work in the film.
Alas, then the story attempts a victory lap. Judah, his family, and even Messala leave Judea. They join with Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who had trained Ben-Hur as a charioteer, to … spread Christianity? Help him race his chariots? I wasn’t sure, but more sure is the fact that Judah and Messala ride off very nearly into the sunset.
The end is simply awkward. It felt like an alternate finale that was filmed as part of reshoots, as if this were a last-minute fix in response to evangelical test audiences who wanted a glossier photo finish. But for a story about messy, grim, realistic themes like betrayal, murder, vengeance, and the clash of cultures such as the Romans and Jews, a Disney-style finale doesn’t work, much less a Kendrick brothers-style one.
I loved the story’s emphasis on Messala’s mixed motives and final redemption, rather than making him a simplistic villain. But I think we needed to see a little more counterpoint to Judah’s vengeance. To really dig deep into these themes, without spelling out the entire gospel, we needed to see consequences. And then, to ensure a hopeful ending nonetheless, we needed less and more than a ride-into-the-sunset moment. We needed hopeful glances, hints at the positive fruit of their reconciliation, and looks toward the future—an unseen future in which God both punishes evil for eternity and restores all originally good things.
So perhaps I can apply this same unseen future to films marketed toward evangelicals. Ben-Hur and other biblical-set films this year show me that we are getting a little closer to some invisible, unseen golden age in which “Christian movies” can creatively and naturally hold their own among good or even great films. Perhaps we may move beyond our notions of privilege (“I must see my values and self-reflecting icons onscreen”) and vengeance quests (“You must see this movie and send a message to Hollywood!”). Instead, we may close in on reconciliation: beautiful stories and biblical truth, together at last, riding off into the sunset.