Thursday, August 31, 2017

Ben-Hur and Me: 1957, 2016, and 1880

One thing I have discovered is that once I've seen one chariot race, I've seen them all. Luckily, there is much more to Ben-Hur than the famous chariot race.

1959 film
This is the one everyone has seen at least once. I've seen it numerous times and so have passed from wowed to blasé to appreciative over the years. Most recently I viewed it for a 2015 discussion at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast with Scott Danielson. That was the viewing where I was suddenly much more appreciative than I've been before. Yes, it's 3-1/2 hours and Charlton Heston can be pretty stiff sometimes, but this is the one you want to watch.

Then I watched the 2016 version with Rose recently. She'd only seen this version once so I simultaneously summarized the differences between the two films while we were watching. (Just for the record, this was at her specific request.) It made me appreciate this version even more and pat myself on the back for how well I recalled the plot.

2016 movie
By itself, without knowing the story in any other way, this 2016 version of Ben-Hur is fairly forgettable. To be fair, this director is known for great action (I loved Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter — as did Roger Ebert, so don't judge me!) and not for drawing great performances from actors. (I've never seen Morgan Freeman so wooden and stilted.) And a director is hampered if the script isn't good to begin with. So Timur Bekmambetov had a lot against him from the beginning on this project.

However, viewed as a companion piece to the classic 1959 movie, this movie lends itself to interesting reflections on the nature of mercy, forgiveness, redemption, etc. Make no mistake, it does reflect modern cultural views in many ways. For example, one must ignore some of the namby pamby New-Agey Jesus statements made early on in the movie. And Messala's angsty attempts of "can't we just all get along?" are completely out of place. But it is worth seeing once for the gorgeous visuals and the way the story treats Ben-Hur and Messala's relationship.

Be warned. Worst sea battle ever. You can't tell what's going on. And Bekmambetov loves shooting night scenes in the actual dark. So at one point we thought we were watching Ben-Hur sneaking around in a garden at night to meet his wife. Turns out it was Judas getting ready to betray Jesus. Talk about confused!

1880 book
After watching one movie while simultaneously summarizing the other, I decided to reread the book because my memory of it is muddled by the various film versions. I'm enjoying it so far and surprised by some of the book facts that the movies changed. Actually, make that a lot of things that both movies changed. 1959 changed a lot of Ben-Hur's motivations and internal thoughts. And then 2016 changed the rest.

I read this story many years ago, long before I was Christian. Certainly it long before I picked up the fact that the author was a Civil War General ... which somehow just makes the book that much more interesting. I also recently was in a conversation in which I learned that Ben-Hur was the Harry Potter of its day. Since people couldn't afford to travel, this was a great way to combine exotic travelogue and an inspiring tale.

I most recently read it in 2015 when we discussed it on A Good Story is Hard to Find and don't remember it much at all. Which says something about how little this hit me at that time. Now, with both movies specifically in mind, I find myself liking it much more.

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