NEW YORK (CNS) — The horses have been harnessed and the chariot wheels greased for the new take on the classic film “Ben-Hur” that will roll into cinemas early next year.
This fourth big-screen adaptation of Civil War Gen. Lew Wallace’s epic 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” is produced by the husband-and-wife team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. Their faith-focused production company, LightWorkers Media, has already scored a number of notable successes — including the two blockbuster television series, “The Bible” and “A.D.: The Bible Continues,” and the 2014 feature film “Son of God.”
Downey, a Catholic, was in New York recently to talk about “Ben-Hur” at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, a new forum for discussion and the arts run by the Archdiocese of New York.
Set in the Holy Land during the time of Jesus, “Ben-Hur” tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), a gentile officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is condemned to the tortured life of a galley slave.
After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge. Instead he finds redemption as his life intersects, in surprising ways, with that of the Savior (Rodrigo Santoro).
The film also stars Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, the man who teaches Judah the art of chariot racing.
“People are going to come because it’s an action movie, and it will deliver on all of that. It’s exciting, exhilarating, beautifully performed and shot,” Downey said. “But at the heartbeat of it is a deeply profound message. The potential for this film to open hearts is important. I certainly know that, in my life, when hearts are opened, grace moves in and all things are possible.”
A joint production of MGM and Paramount, “Ben-Hur” was filmed over six months in Italy, using many of the same locations as 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the film is slated for release Feb. 26.
The enduring affection for the 1959 film version — itself an update of the 1925 silent classic starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman — has not been overlooked by the producers. Directed by William Wyler, and with Charlton Heston, of course, taking the title role, the Eisenhower-era epic garnered a then-record 11 Academy Awards, though it’s best remembered today for its thrilling chariot race.
“It was so exciting — and terrifying — for all of us in some ways, to tackle something that’s engraved in the minds and memories and hearts of people,” Downey admitted. “The 1959 film is one of those films that people remember who they watched it with or the feelings that it evoked.”
Noting, however, that when her children, who range in age from 18 to 22, heard of her new project, they responded, “Ben who?” Downey said the time was right to bring Wallace’s novel to a new generation.
“It’s a great story and it needs to be told again,” she said. “And if you thought that chariot race was amazing, wait ’til you see this chariot race! It’s gonna knock your socks off!”
Downey noted that casting the role of Jesus was a particular challenge. “This is my third crucifixion sequence as a producer,” she said. Santoro was chosen after many actors were turned away.
“He has a depth and intensity, a soulfulness and spirit,” Downey said, but acknowledged, “I always think the Holy Spirit is casting these things. I just have to pay attention.”
Also present at the Sheen Center was author Carol Wallace Hamlin, the general’s great-great-granddaughter. She is writing the novelization of the film’s screenplay by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley. The latter penned the Oscar-winning script for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.”
Hamlin noted that Wallace’s own life story was not unlike Judah Ben-Hur’s fictional biography. The youngest general in the Union Army, Wallace made a tactical error at the 1862 Battle of Shiloh that tarnished his reputation, leading to his resignation.
“His life was torn away from him,” Hamlin said. “He used writing fiction as a way to escape a dreary existence and as a way to work out issues in his life, including the question of belief.”
Wallace became one of America’s first blockbuster novelists. “Ben-Hur: A Life of the Christ” was blessed by Pope Leo XIII — an unprecedented honor — and endorsed by pastors around the world. It was adapted as a successful stage play in 1899, and pirated for a silent short in 1907 — with landmark consequences for the law of copyright as applied to movie adaptations.
The novel’s sales remained unrivaled in America until 1936, when Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” was published.
Downey is gratified that faith-based films have gained a new foothold in Hollywood. “It has opened the doors for other projects to come through,” she said. “You see the hunger in the audience. It has brought so much conversation around the water cooler, people talking about subjects of faith and values — all the things we would hope for our families.”
McAleer is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.