A lot of new footage from the upcoming remake of Ben-Hur went live today.
First, the ShareBenHur.com website posted four clips from the film as part of a “faith-based” discussion guide. And then, a 20-minute montage of film clips was included in a simulcast hosted by Rick Warren and producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey that was streamed to churches and other venues across the country.
These clips give us our best look at the film yet, and they reveal some of the ways that this new version of Ben-Hur will differ from the versions that came before it.
Warning: there will be some major spoilers here.
So, first, here is a rundown of the four clips from the website’s ‘Discussion Guide’ (the clips themselves cannot be embedded here, but you can watch them at that site):
Clip 1 — ‘A New Message of Radical Love: Jesus the Carpenter’
Summary: Judah and Esther are in the marketplace when the Romans reveal that they are about to crucify a Zealot. “Damn the Zealots,” says Judah. “All they want is freedom,” says Esther. “And at what cost?” asks Judah. “If they have their way they’ll bring all of Rome down on us. Then where will our freedom be?” At this point, a nearby carpenter pipes up and says, “There is freedom elsewhere. Love your enemies.” Judah scoffs, “That’s very progressive.” The carpenter continues, “God is Love. He made us to share that love. . . . Hate and fear are lies. They turn us against each other. Those are the lies that make us slaves. He has a path planned for you.” Judah replies, “If he has a path planned for me, how am I better off than a slave?” Jesus looks at Esther (who was born into slavery) and says, “Why don’t you ask her?”
Comment: Based on this clip, the Judah of this film comes across as a privileged and even complacent member of society who scorns the upstarts who would disturb his way of life, which is a significant shift from the Judah of the 1959 film, who advocated non-violence as a man of principle. Meanwhile, the Esther of this film sympathizes with the Zealots, whereas I believe she was pretty solidly on the side of non-violence in the 1959 film too. It is also hinted here that Judah, as a slave owner, may be prompted to rethink his relationship with slavery, whereas the 1959 film never challenged the way Judah spoke warmly about “inheriting” Esther’s father. Judah’s remark that Jesus’ teachings are “very progressive” sounds a bit modern to my ears, and reminds me of how Jesus told Peter they were going to “change the world” in The Bible.
Clip 2 — ‘Love as Revolution: Jesus Protects the Leper’
Summary: Pilate, Messala and some other Romans are riding their horses down the street when they see some Jews throwing stones at a leper, trying to kill him. Jesus rushes out of the crowd and embraces the leper, and some of the stones hit him, too, as he shields the leper. “Love your neighbour as we love ourselves,” says Jesus. The stones stop. Jesus stands up, holding the leper, and tells the crowd, “Hate, anger, fear — those are lies they use to turn you against each other. When you set aside the hate they force you to carry, that’s when you know love is our true nature.” Pilate tells Messala Jesus is more dangerous than all the Zealots combined.
Comment: The biblical Jesus healed lepers on at least two occasions, but didn’t use the healings as an opportunity to teach others; in fact, on one of those occasions (Mark 1:44, Matthew 8:4, Luke 5:14), he explicitly told the leper not to tell anyone about the healing (except for the priests who were supposed to oversee the ritual of cleansing required by the Law of Moses). It is also striking to see the Jesus of this film physically attacked (albeit by stones intended for someone else) long before his crucifixion; most films, including most earlier versions of Ben-Hur, have imagined that there was something rather imposing about Jesus that caused people to back down when he confronted them. (Note, incidentally, that there is no indication in this clip that Jesus actually heals the leper being stoned; the clip’s primary focus is on social restoration rather than on physical or biological restoration.)
Clip 3 — ‘Mercy Triumphs over Justice: Judah and Esther at Camp’
Summary: Esther tells Judah that twenty people are being crucified in retaliation for Judah’s recent effort to kill Messala. (Said effort was glimpsed in the movie’s first trailer.) Judah says Rome is responsible for those deaths, not him. Esther mentions that her father was killed, too, and Judah says he won’t let Messala go unpunished. Esther replies, “There’s nothing here for you any more,” and walks away.Comment. It’s interesting to see how Judah blamed the Zealots for the actions of the Romans against the Jews in the earlier clip, but now that he’s consumed with revenge he blames Rome rather than himself for the deaths of those other people. Esther’s father was crucified in the 2010 miniseries as Judah was being led away to the galleys, but he was only tortured and crippled in the 1959 film. In the original novel, Esther’s father lived much longer and helped Judah to support the early church while Nero was persecuting the Christians in Rome, over 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Clip 4 — ‘Forgiveness and Healing: Judah Helps Jesus’
Summary: Jesus is being led through the street, forced to carry his crossbeam. He falls to the pavement, and Judah brings him a cup of water. A Roman soldier whips Judah, and Judah grabs a stone to throw at him — but Jesus takes Judah’s hand and says, “My life, I give it of my own free will.” Judah goes to Golgotha and sees Jesus crucified between the two rebels there. One of the rebels asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, and Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus looks at Judah and says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Judah has flashbacks to happier times with Messala, and then remembers how Messala’s battered body was carried after the chariot race. Jesus says, “It is finished,” and dark clouds appear as his head falls against his chest, lifeless. A soldier stabs his side with a spear. Judah falls to his knees and drops the stone that was in his hand.
Comment: Is that the same stone? Has Judah been carrying it in his hand all this time, as Jesus carried his cross, was crucified, and spent hours suffering up there? The example Jesus set by forgiving the people who killed him is, of course, meant to be followed by all who believe in him. But there’s something about the juxtaposition of his words with Judah’s flashback that reminds me of the 2010 miniseries, where Jesus walked right up to Judah while he was in chains and told him to forgive the Romans, “for they know not what they do.” Can the saying be generalized to that extent? Are all sins rooted in ignorance? What if the offender does know what he or she is doing?
You can watch videos of “church leaders” commenting on these four clips here.
As for the simulcast, it revealed a few other changes that have been made to the story — and I repeat, there will be some major spoilers here:
First, as I guessed last year, Judah gets in trouble in this film not because a loose tile slips from his roof, but because someone in his house shoots an arrow at the Romans — and if I’m not mistaken, the shooter in question is Gestas, who ends up becoming one of the two rebels who are crucified next to Jesus. (Traditionally, Gestas is the rebel who mocked Jesus, but it looks like he’ll be the rebel who repents in the film.)
Second, it looks like Messala sentences Judah to the galleys and condemns his mother and sister to their fate less because of the career ambitions he had in the 1959 film and more because his fellow soldiers think he had a hand in Judah’s alleged assassination attempt. The Messala of this film is insecure and needs to prove his loyalty.
Third, Messala isn’t the only person who tries to cheat during the chariot race; in fact, we see another charioteer whip him the way he whipped Judah in the 1959 film.
Finally, it looks like Messala will live long enough so that he and Judah can forgive each other at the end of the movie. I don’t believe there was any reconciliation in the novel, and there certainly wasn’t in the 1959 film, in which Messala dies right after the race and uses his last breath to stoke Judah’s hatred. But in the 2010 miniseries, Messala begs Judah for forgiveness — and gets it — just before he dies.
Burnett and Downey also offered some interesting tidbits about the production of the film. Downey noted that the horse trainer and makeup artist on this film were the sons of the horse trainer and makeup artist on the 1959 film, and she said the crucifixion scene was filmed on the same hillside as the crucifixion scene in The Passion of the Christ. Warren said 800 GoPro cameras were used in the chariot-race sequence, and Burnett mentioned in passing that the film cost $150 million to make.
No one commented on how long the film will be, though!