Few films cast a longer shadow in his history of cinema than 1959’s William Wyler epic Ben Hur. Its haul of 11 Academy Awards not equalled until 1997’s Titanic, and its legendary nine-minute chariot race was something George Lucas felt obliged to try to better in the first of his Star Wars prequels.
Following the success of their 2013 mini-series The Bible, it probably wasn’t surprising that Paramount Pictures and MGM turned to Derry’s Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett after deciding to make a fresh version of the film.
“Jesus was going to be on screen,” Roma tells The Irish Catholic, “and as we learned from our experience on The Bible, if you’re going to be tackling biblical characters, specifically Jesus, then you need to make sure the portrayal is respectful and accurate and so forth. While we were involved in other elements of the film, we were really there specifically to ensure that the Jesus element in the film was done with the right tone.
“We brought in Rodrigo Santoro, a Brazilian superstar, to play the role of Jesus – fantastic in the part, I think he hits all the right notes,” she continues.
Explaining how she and Mark came to be brought on board as executive producers for the film, she says, “other people had already moved forward with the project, primarily MGM studios, and we were approached by chairman Gary Barber who asked Mark and I if we’d like to join the producing team, and he sent us the script, which had been written by Keith Clarke and rewritten by John Ridley.
“John, of course, won the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and we were very impressed by the script,” she continues, “and we loved how it took the story of vengeance but spun it in a way where the emphasis was placed on forgiveness and reconciliation, things that I just feel are important in the world that we live in.
“We decided that we would participate and it’s been an incredible journey – here we are this weekend, galloping towards the finish line, and it’s very exciting to share it with the world.”
The film opens in Ireland on September 7, and although critics have compared it unfavourably to the 1959 film that won Charlton Heston a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar (which was a second attempt at filming the 1925 silent epic), Roma feels the new film was a worthwhile project in its own right.
Describing the 1959 version as a “a beloved classic”, she nonetheless says: “That film was almost 60 years ago – arguably there are people under the age of 40 who not only have not seen it but not even heard of it. I think the world has changed over those 60 years – certainly cinema has changed in that time and I think that our expectations are different.
“What we can achieve through CGI etc. and modern technology is different. Our editing expectations are different. That was a very long movie – so long it had an intermission,” she observes.
In a summer packed with remakes, reboots, and sequels, Roma stresses that the new Ben Hur should be seen less as a remake of the Charlton Heston vehicle than as a fresh interpretation of the novel that has already inspired two films.
“I think that the story is timeless, and certainly our Ben Hur probably relates closer to the original novel by Lew Wallace which was written towards the end of the 19th Century, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” she says.
“That book was written in 1880, which wasn’t that long after the American Civil War, so you can imagine the state that America was in at that time, with so much hurt and division and chaos and confusion. The book was a huge bestseller, the bestselling Christian book ever at that time.”
As a timeless story, it has an enduring relevance, she argues: “And here we are in 2016 when we look at that country, and there’s a great deal of confusion and division, so we’re just hopeful that the message of mercy and love and indeed reconciliation will resonate – it feels very relevant to the times we live in.”
Given the film explores the impact of western interference in the Middle East, it is hard to avoid wondering whether it has obvious contemporary overtones, which invites the question of whether the film’s theme has a specific relevance to that traumatised part of the world. “Absolutely,” Roma says, continuing, “I think that the message is needed now more than ever.”
The film’s plot might not be familiar to younger viewers, but everyone should recognise its basic themes, which are almost mythic and archetypal in their way, reminding us of stories as diverse as the biblical tale of Joseph and the classic 19th-Century revenge novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.
“We tend to identify with this character Judah Ben Hur because he’s living a normal, happy, contended life, a little bit of an unexamined life, but suddenly he’s in a household with his adopted brother who decides he needs to go off and make a life for himself, and he chooses to go off and join the Roman army,” Roma says.
“Years go by,” she continues, “and suddenly these two meet up again and while their love for each other is very clear, through a series of incidents they find themselves at extreme ends – Judah Ben Hur is thrown unjustly into a series of events that destroy his life. He’s thrown into the belly of a slave ship, he’s chained to the ship, and his life starts to fall apart in extraordinary ways.”
“The only thing that keeps him alive through those years of imprisonment is a hatred – a growing hatred in his heart – that he will survive and he will be revenged,” she explains, “that’s sort of the driving force through a third of the movie, the tension of that, that somehow he’s going to get back and he will kill his brother for ruining his life and destroying his family.”
Just as with the Count of Monte Cristo, Ben Hur succeeds in his plan, but realises the pointlessness of a life driven by vengeance, she explains.
“Of course, he does return and it looks like the revenge will be realised in the arena of the Circus through the great chariot race in front of thousands and thousands of people, and the story inevitably takes us to a place where triumph is his, and yet he’s not filled with a feeling of triumph – indeed, he’s filled with absolute emptiness,” she says, explaining that it will take an encounter with Christ, and his witnessing the Crucifixion, to convert his hardened heart and send him back to his brother in a scene she calls “profoundly moving”.
“It’s very powerful,” she says, “and it’s our hope that anybody that comes to see it will come because it’s a big, epic, entertaining film and yet it has woven through it the deeper and more meaningful message of forgiveness and reconciliation.”