This is a copy of my article for the OCTOBER 2016 edition of the Billericay ‘Around Town Magazine’

Ben-Hur was released in the cinemas in September 2016. Bursting with action – including a new chariot race for the 21st Century – it tells the fascinating  story of Judah Ben–Hur, a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala, an officer in the Roman Army. Stripped of his title and separated from his family and the woman he loves, Ben-Hur is forced into slavery and despair. After years at sea working as a galley slave, a breathtaking turn of events sends Ben-Hur on an epic journey back to his homeland to seek revenge. Reviews have been mixed (I thoroughly enjoyed it) but that’s not surprising, coming after the 1959 Hollywood blockbuster starring Charlton Heston, and that chariot race, it has a lot to live up to.

Ben-Hur started life as a religious novel: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’ written by the American General Lew Wallace, a man whose adventurous life would merit a film on its own: he fought in the American Civil War, rapidly rising through the ranks to become a Major General on the Union side and negotiated with Billy the Kid while governor of New Mexico. Published in 1880, Ben-Hur soon became a million-seller, approved in pulpits worldwide and even blessed by the Pope.

With the dawn of cinema, Ben-Hur achieved legendary status with the 1959 film – now considered one of the ‘classic’ films of all time. Its costs were spectacular: $130 million dollars in modern currency!  Some of the facts about the film are quite unbelievable: there were 365 actors with speaking parts; 50,000 people in minor roles; 200 camels and 250 horses. The arena itself took 1,000 workmen more than a year to carve out.  This film was made in the days before CGI (Computer Generated Imagery).

The tale of Ben-Hur may be an astonishing epic, but the tale behind the writing of the book is even more extraordinary. After the American Civil War, Wallace became a lawyer and a writer and, though intrigued by the story of Jesus (as many people are), he wasn’t a believer. However, everything changed in 1876 when Wallace took a railway journey to Indianapolis with Colonel Robert Ingersoll, a man who had served under him at the Battle of Shiloh. Wallace suggested they talk about religion to pass the time on the journey. Ingersoll, however, was one of the most famous orators of his day, and used his finely honed skills to attack Christianity and, with extraordinary force, Ingersoll criticised, in every way possible, Christianity and the Bible.

Wallace found himself overwhelmed by Ingersoll’s arguments. Nevertheless, realising how little he actually knew about the Christian faith, he began reading the Bible and its account of Jesus and he became convinced both of the existence of God and that Jesus lived on earth as the Son of God and rose again from the dead. One result of Wallace’s new found Christian faith was the novel Ben-Hur. Carol Wallace, the great-great-granddaughter of Wallace, has taken the old-fashioned style of this classic novel and breathed new life into it for today’s audience. She has modernized the text, bringing this story of intrigue, romance, faith and tragedy into a more accessible format – drawing cinemagoers back to this time-honoured tale.

There’s no doubt that the presence of Jesus in Wallace’s life, and that of Ben-Hur, transforms them both, leading them to discover for themselves the Christian themes of faith, hope, grace, mercy, forgiveness and redemption. I wonder what impact the film will have on you when you go to see it – as you surely must!  I’m always willing to catch up for a chat if you do.