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MOVIES: Ben Hur & ‘Hollywood’s golden age’

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) — Over the years I’ve found the employees of my favorite video store to be knowledgeable concerning “vintage” movies. But during a conversation one day with a newbie employee, I was dismayed that he didn’t know the work of director John Ford.

As I named off several of the auteur’s hits, including “The Quiet Man,” “The Searchers,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and “How Green Was My Valley,” the employee greeted my enthusiasm with a blank stare. He had never seen them … nor heard of them.

It’s a sad reality that, as a whole, this newest generation is unfamiliar with movies from the past. But why should they be? They are bombarded by entertainment that neglects Hollywood’s golden age.

An exceptionally well-made film like William Wyler’s 1959 “Ben Hur” has to be remade in order to preserve the story for future generations.

For those unfamiliar with the saga, the tale of the Christ serves as the backdrop for the epic action/drama about nobleman Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) forced into slavery. He becomes a bitter man motivated by hate until he opens up to the effect Jesus has on a willing heart.

This screen adaptation of Gen. Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel won an unprecedented 11 Oscars for actor, director, score, cinematography, picture and other categories. It was a blockbuster. It was full of action and pageantry, but exuded a nuanced sensibility while dealing with tyranny, injustice, hate — and what defeats hate.

With taste, attention to detail and artistic agility, the screenwriter and director emphasized the personal conflicts as well as the political and social events when Rome ruled the world. The filmmakers also brought a pomp and spectacle to a production that simply would not be affordable today without the overuse of computer-generated imagery.

The chariot race is considered one of the finest action sequences ever filmed, and the ending uplifts viewers through the figurative dialogue of the newly converted Judah Ben Hur: “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”

But that was 1959. Since re-releasing best pictures of the past draws a limited audience, Hollywood remakes cinematic classics. Now there’s a new Judah Ben Hur in the coliseum. Executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey brought another version of this period actioneer to motion picture screens in 2016.

Husband-and-wife producing team Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “Son of God,” “The Bible”) and Downey (“Touched by an Angel,” “The Bible,” “Son of God”) are two professing Christians. And they appear to have seized the opportunity to serve Christ through the motion picture and television mediums, and have helped countless people find their way to God through Jesus. While the team’s end results may not be the stuff that dreams are made of for those of us who critically analyze movie product, it cannot be denied that the pair’s spiritually infused endeavors have been entertaining, inspiring and thought-provoking.

My complaints with the Ben Hur remake mainly have to do with the television-style production values. Burnett and Downey have experienced most of their success on TV. They are TV people, often failing to use a cinematic language. They look at a narrative through TV eyes. But no matter how wonderful television can be, it’s a different medium than cinema.

Like “The Robe” in 1953, the Ben Hur of 1959 presented Jesus through the use of long shots and camera angles that focused attention not on an actor portraying Christ, but on the people who came into His presence. This method was effectively used, giving the production a great dignity.

That said, some may prefer actually seeing an actor portray Jesus in a story meant to be about the Savior of the world. This was the decision of the makers of this newest presentation of Ben Hur.

The recently released Blu-ray combo pack of the newer Ben Hur contains an hour of behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes and more — plus a bonus DVD with over 55 minutes of content, including “A Story of Christ.”

Ben Hur from 1959 can also be found in a re-mastered, four-disc collector’s DVD edition from Warner Home Video. The film has been reformatted and includes new features such as a commentary by Heston, documentaries on the making of the film, a DVD of the 1925 silent version, and an incisive Bible study guide.

I admit to preferring Heston’s interpretation. But that’s not to say the newer version won’t be favorably embraced by others. Adventurous people may find both renderings satisfying. And there’s always the 1925 silent version with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. Then, of course, there’s the 1907 version.

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright