Bible epics have always been a favorite of mine.
From the 4-hour Moses fest that is 1956’s The Ten Commandments to the animated Moses musical that is Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt. My love for the genre never came into contact with my faith, i.e. while my attitude towards religion changed and is constantly doing so, how I feel in regards to Bible stories has pretty much remained the same.
When the first Ben-Hur trailer dropped, my level of excitement was unnecessary.
Thoughts of the whether or not the Michael Bay-zation of an ‘epic tale or the Christ’ was shameful or if a remake would just desecrate the ‘holy ground’ the original stood didn’t really cross my mind. My first thoughts concerned how totally epic the trailer looked and Jack Huston’s face and chariots.
After watching the trailer an embarrassing number of times, I finally got around to taking some time to think about what was being put before me.
Over the past few years, there has been an influx of mainstream films taking on the realization of the Bible. And when I say ‘Bible story,’ I don’t mean movies like God’s Not Dead or Miracles from Heaven. Those films act as more of a persuasive essay dealing with the topic of faith. A Bible epic to me is a story taken directly or built around stories taken from the Bible. So something like Ben-Hur or Noah, or a little mainstream, but still within the scope of Hollywood, Risen or Last Days in the Desert.
These movies are like a sort of comeback from the days of Old Hollywood.
So, I’m finally giving Ben-Hur thought beyond simple aesthetic pleasure.
The Bay-zation of the 1959 classic isn’t surprising. When Ben-Hur came out in 1959, it was closely following the trends of the day. Epic films reigned supreme with the larger-than-life stars, insane production value and conventional narratives. Today, action-packed is what the people want. For as much as the public complains about Michael Bay, his films continue to make big bucks.
Ben-Hur like many modern blockbuster Bible epics before it, sticks to the equation. It gives the people a very attractive leading man, a story the will create lots of feelings (the typical breaking and then reunification to the familial unit) and for good measure, there’s Morgan Freeman who never fails to please. Noah had Russell Crowe, Emma Watson and visuals meant to mystify and Exodus: Gods & Kings did about the same thing, except it was Christian Bale.
And like Bay films, diversity remains a major problem.
For example, how the actor portraying Ramses, Joel Edgerton, is a white dude who got a bit of a tan. But if the films failed to make money, the studios would stop making them. I think the appeal of a Bible story, or a story derived from most religious texts from throughout the ages, comes from the uniqueness of the tale being told. Religious texts teach lessons through story and while the lessons are more or less universal through most religions, the stories themselves are complex, nuanced and above all interesting.
Whatever your faith is, it’s hard to deny that hearing another religion’s tales can be fascinating. And when they’re put on the big screen, the possibilities are even more engrossing and awe-inspiring. Personally, I would love to see this trend continue, but maybe studios could branch out to other religions. Growing up, going to church rarely made me feel connected to my faith, but every time I saw The Prince of Egypt, I was seriously moved.
A deeper understanding was created within me and if these films included other texts, people’s understanding of a religion outside of themselves could be enhanced.