Analyzing Power and Privilege in ‘Ben-Hur’

This year has been big for Jesus on screen. There was Risen and The Young Messiah in the months leading up to Easter. Then there was the Ewan McGregor-as-Jesus art film, Last Days in the Desert (read my TGC review). The Coen brothers even made a Jesus film of sorts with Hail, Caesar! which is in part a send-up of the 1959 Ben-Hur epic.

And now we have a new version of Ben-Hur, a film that’s about Jesus while not exactly starring him. 

The full title of the 1880 novel on which the film is based is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. That the subtitle is absent in this most recent cinematic remake isn’t surprising, jittery Hollywood marketing logic being what it is. Nevertheless, the film very much tells “a tale of the Christ,” one that’s occasionally insightful but often disappointingly cheesy. Paramount Pictures

Produced by faith-based entertainment power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (Son of God, Little Boy, Woodlawn), it seems reasonable to ask: Why was Ben-Hur made again? The 1959 Charlton Heston version, directed by William Wyler, was a box office and critical bonanza. This version, directed by Timur Nuruakhitovich Bekmambetov (of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter fame), is neither. Yet one could argue the film’s themes, supported by a story that seeks to understand Jesus by examining the politics and power structures of the Mediterranean world, have never been more relevant.

Indeed, setting aside the fact that Ben-Hur suffers from many faith-based genre pitfalls—on-the-nose dialogue, unsubtle “cross” imagery and parallelism, saccharine endings—it’s worth considering how Ben-Hur presents some of the religio-political dynamics of Rome-occupied Jerusalem in the days of Jesus, and why those dynamics could be important for us today.

Jesus on the Margins

The story follows a wealthy Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), and his longtime friend Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman Gentile. Both men seek honor for themselves and stability for their people. But when the interests of Rome clash with the interests of Roman-ruled Jews in Palestine, their bond is strained. Ben-Hur and Messala’s friendship, tested by betrayal and revenge and a climactic chariot deathmatch, provides a symbolic test case for how the gospel of Jesus can bring reconciliation to the charged identity politics and cultural pride of the day.

However clunkily, Ben-Hur captures aspects of Christianity’s birth rarely seen in popular culture. Jesus cannot be understood apart from his religious and political context of Second Temple Judaism, and Ben-Hur recognizes this point. The film realizes that the Roman occupation mixed with Jewish messianic hopes like oil and water, even culminating in violent, zealot-led rebellions. It also places the values of honor and glory in their proper cultural forefront. All of these details, in the film’s world, provide keys to understanding Jesus. Though he’s decidedly on the margins if we’re talking simply in terms of screentime, Jesus looms large, and his countercultural message is amplified by its juxtaposition with the cycles of violence, revenge, and injustice that dominate the plot.

Heavy-Handed, Yet Appreciated

Despite spending most of his time on the margins, when Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is present, he’s present through his teaching; this perspective contrasts rather obviously with the original, in which Jesus’s face is never even seen. Instead, Bekmambetov has given his Jesus several scenes and one-liners that intersect with the primary plot. All seem to happen at convenient moments, capturing a sort of “greatest hits” of Jesusy sentiments (“love your enemies”) and actions (coming to the defense of would-be stoning victims). This is doubtless heavy-handed, yet I couldn’t help but appreciate the freshness to the film’s context-minded perspective on Jesus.

For example, I appreciated the extent to which Ben-Hur captures the bloodlust and violence that pervaded ancient Roman culture, albeit in a PG-13, heavily CGI sort of way. This helps audiences grasp just how revolutionary Jesus’s vision of “blessed are the peacemakers” and “turn the other cheek” really was. To be sure, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was memorably bloody, but the cultural role of violence in the world of Jesus wasn’t foregrounded.

Power and Privilege

One way Ben-Hur offers relevant commentary on today’s world is in its analysis of power and privilege. Characters betray relationships and communities and convictions out of a desire either to accrue more power or not lose existing power. As a wealthy Jew seeking to maintain his comfortable life in Jerusalem, Ben-Hur struggles when others around him seek to overthrow the Romans. He doesn’t want to jeopardize his privilege by critiquing the Romans’ tactics or undermining their authority, even when he knows it’s wrong. In fact, he only does so after he’s lost everything anyway. His position is contrasted with Jesus, whose cross-bearing suffering is chosen rather than forced on him. Jesus redefines power as voluntary service on behalf of the weak and helpless.

Do we celebrate power this way today? Do we have a “maintain your privilege and protect your comfort” view of power? Or do we have a “forsake your privilege and humbly wash the feet of others” view? If nothing else, this American political season should especially lead us to reflect on these questions, as our Christian witness often rises or falls based on how it intersects with power.

Though I’d recommend Last Days in the Desert for a superior recent “Jesus film” (on a much smaller budget too!), Ben-Hur is worth seeing and discussing, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the story and will realistically never watch Heston’s four-hour version. It doesn’t have the striking visuals of Exodus or the auteurist vision of Noah, and it lacks aesthetic sophistication (the saccharine ending is especially egregious), but Ben-Hur does offer a perspective on Jesus worth contemplating.

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