Movies based on Biblical stories and characters have been extremely successful in the past. However the 2016 motion picture treatment of Ben-Hur—a retelling of a best-selling novel, a long-running play, and one of the highest grossing movies in history—has met with poor box office receipts at its North American release this month. Why? In the 1950s, Biblical epics were among the most profitable movies released up to that time. And among these films are at least three in which Christianity is viewed through a positive lens. Has the appetite for ‘Jesus-friendly’ epics changed? I’ll argue that the audience for Christian-based films today is fundamentally different from sixty years ago, and this difference may be an example of a growing divergence between the secular and the religious in today’s society, especially when compared to the middle of the twentieth century.
In this piece I’ll take a look at three films, extremely successful in the past, and sympathetic to the Christian faith. They are Ben-Hur, The Robe and Quo Vadis.
Ben-Hur (1959 and 2016)
Judah Ben-Hur and Messala Severus were childhood friends in Judea. Judah is a member of a wealthy Jewish family. Messala is his adopted brother and a Roman citizen.
As an adult Messala leaves Judah’s family and becomes a successful Roman officer. He returns to Judea to quell a movement agitating against Roman rule, and asks for Judah’s help in rooting out the rebels. Judah refuses, and Messala leaves, now Judah’s sworn enemy. Days later, the Romans parade through the city. In the 1959 version Judah and his sister, Tirzah, observe the parade from the roof of their opulent home. As Tirzah leans over, a few tiles become dislodged and fall on one of the dignitaries, causing his horse to buck and throw him to the ground. (In the 2016 version a young agitator in the Ben-Hur household shoots one of the soldiers with an arrow.) Messala and his men break down the front door, arrests Judah, his mother Miriam and Tirzah.
As Judah is being marched through the desert with other condemned men, he reaches for a cup of water that is being distributed to the prisoners. A soldier snatches it away, takes a drink and casually spits it out. Moments later a stranger (whom the audience sees only from the back) hands Judah another cup of water, which Judah drinks rapidly. The soldier again demands that Judah not be given any water, but, being confronted with the silent stranger, backs down.
Judah is condemned to years as a galley slave (a rower on a large boat). The armada in which Judah is eventually a part of is attacked, and in the ensuing battle Judah gains his freedom. (How he does this is slightly different in the two versions.) He eventually ends up in the company of a horse breeder who is in search of a chariot driver to race the Romans. Judah proves his prowess with horses and is asked to compete against the Romans. It turns out that Messala will be his chief competitor.
Judah wins the race and Messala is thrown from his chariot and gravely injured.
Judah discovers that his mother and sister are alive but are now lepers.
At the same time the city has become consumed with the upcoming execution of a man who has claimed to be the son of God. The condemned man is led through the streets dragging the cross on which he is to be crucified. He falls under its weight. Judah recognizes him as the man who gave him water in the desert. He returns the gesture of kindness, but the cup of water is kicked away before the man can drink. Judah witnesses the man’s crucifixion, and the lack of rancor in his disposition, even to the point of saying, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’ This gesture of forgiveness, the ability to love in the presence of hate, has a profound effect on Judah.
The Robe (1953)
Marcellus Gallio is a ‘Tribune’ in a Roman legion. Diana is a beautiful young woman who has loved him since childhood. The emperor, Caligula, is smitten with Diana, and wishing to get rid of Marcellus, sends him to Palestine, the ‘worst pest hole’ in the empire. Marcellus travels to Palestine with his slave, Demetrius. When they arrive, a parade of people waving palms pass by, paying homage to a man on a donkey–a man who is central to the procession. As the man passes by he looks at Demetrius, who is immediately transfixed.
Days later Marcellus is ordered by the governor, Pontius Pilate, to execute ‘three criminals’, one of whom is the ‘fanatic’, Jesus of Nazareth. After the crucifixion Marcellus and his men gamble for Jesus’ robe and Marcellus wins. After taking the robe he is wracked with nightmares and believes that he is going mad.
Demetrius, furious with his master Marcellus for executing Jesus Christ, escapes with the robe. A doctor determines that Marcellus’ ‘madness’ is brought about by the robe which must be bewitched, and the only remedy for reestablishing his sanity is to find the robe and destroy it. The emperor, too, fearful of Jesus’ followers possibly threatening his rule, commands Marcellus to find the robe and destroy it, and to round up all of those who call themselves ‘Christians’.
Marcellus searches for the robe and the Christians. In so doing he meets a number of Christians who show an inordinate amount of piety, kindness and forgiveness.
Finally Marcellus meets Simon Peter, the ‘fisherman’, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Peter confesses his sin of denying Jesus three times, and Marcellus then confesses that he is guilty of executing Jesus. He is stunned to learn that not only had Peter forgiven him, but Jesus did too, on the cross.
Marcellus vows to follow Jesus.
The emperor Caligula hears of Marcellus conversion and has him arrested. At Marcellus’ trial, in front of Diana and a large contingent of Roman elite—senators, Tribunes and many others—Caligula offers Marcellus the opportunity to save himself–if he pledges his life to the emperor and renounces Jesus. Marcellus refuses and is sentenced to death. Diana, holding the robe, pledges her life to Marcellus, and to Jesus Christ. She too is condemned to death.
Qoo Vadis (1951)
The year is 64 A.D. Nero is the Roman emperor. Marcus Vinicius, commander of a Roman legion returns from war against the Britons and the Gauls.
Marcus visits a retired General, Plautius. Plautius has adopted a daughter, a beautiful young woman, and a former ‘hostage’ named Lygia. Unbeknown to Marcus, Plautius and his household have converted to Christianity.
Paul of Tarsus, visits, and is introduced to Marcus as a ‘philosopher’.
Marcus is smitten with Lygia, but she rebuffs him, turned off by his warlike character and thirst for blood. Nonetheless Marcus is determined to have her, and through his connections with the emperor, and as a successful Roman commander, has her brought to him–essentially as his slave, his property–as a reward for his success in battle. The emperor’s mistress, Poppaea, who clearly finds Marcus attractive, notices his infatuation with Lygia.
With the help of her protector, a ‘giant’ named Ursus who is also a Christian, Lygia escapes and reunites with a group of Christians who are in hiding. Marcus and one of his men track her to a hiding place where Paul is preaching and baptizing converts. Then, a gray-haired Simon Peter, the disciple whom Jesus loved, appears and preaches to the followers.
After the group disperses, Marcus confronts Lygia again—an effort to retrieve his property. However her protector intervenes. A fight ensues and Marcus’ man is killed. Marcus himself is thrown to the ground hits his head against a brick wall, and loses consciousness.
When he awakens he realizes he has been taken care of by the Christians, and the Lygia’s protector asks for his forgiveness for killing his fellow officer. Marcus cannot understand these Christians—why they allowed him to live, why they have asked for his forgiveness?–but gives up trying to have Lygia for himself. This change in Marcus allows Lygia to display her true love for him, but they cannot become one because Marcus refuses to accept Christ.
Concurrently, the egomaniacal emperor Nero, who prior to the story had both his mother and sister murdered, seeks to rebuild Rome in his own image, and to call the new city ‘Neropolis’. He orders the city burned to the ground and blames the Christians for the act. As punishment the Christians are to be led to the arena and fed to the lions.
Marcus, clearly affected by the Christians’ piety and repulsed by Nero, refuses to carry out Nero’s orders and is arrested with the other Christians and thrown into prison.
The Christians are marched into the arena and are devoured by lions. However Nero’s mistress, Poppaea, has special plans for Lygia. Lygia is tied to a stake in the centre of the arena with only Ursus to protect her from the horns of a bull. Marcus is brought to the emperor’s box, chained next to Poppaea and is forced to watch his beloved meet her fate. Through superhuman strength however Ursus defeats the bull and saves Lygia’s life. Marcus breaks free, jumps into the arena and tells the audience that has filled the arena, the truth about the burning of Rome.
Quo Vadis was based on a novel of the same name by the Polish writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz . It was published in 1896 and sold over 50 million copies worldwide. A film version was made in 1913 and another in 1925. The 1951 treatment was one of the first Bible-based films of the fifties, and the conventional wisdom is that its success was at least in part responsible for the slew of Biblical epics that followed.
The film had an estimated budget of $7 million and went on to gross $45.8 million worldwide –that’s $65 million and almost $425 million respectively in 2016.
The Robe was based on a novel by a former minister-turned-novelist named Lloyd C. Douglas. Released two years after Quo Vadis, the film was crucial to the survival of 20th Century Fox, according to the DVD commentary. The film did not disappoint. Budgeted at an estimated $5 million, the film would go on to gross $36 million in the U.S. alone —that’s over $45 million and almost $325 million in 2016. It was the fourth highest grossing film of the decade .
The DVD version is introduced by Martin Scorsese who reveals that it was the first film ever to be released in Cinemascope, that is, a widescreen format. The commentary also reveals that it was the first feature ever to be released in stereo .
Lew Wallace was a lawyer, a judge and a governor of what was at the time the territory of New Mexico. He published the novel Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ, in 1880. According to the DVD commentary of the 1959 version, sales were initially sluggish but the audience gradually grew. A stage version was first produced in 1899 and ran for 22 years. In 1925 a feature length silent film adaption was produced and became financially successful. According to the commentary, the success of MGM was riding on Ben-Hur in 1959. At the time, the film was the most expensive ever made . It had an estimated budget of almost $16 million, and went on to gross almost $147 million worldwide . That is $132 million and $1.2 billion in 2016.
Why the need for spectacle, why the need for such epics? The commentaries all suggest the same answer. Television. Television was beginning to take hold in the 1950s, and filmmakers had to find ways to get audiences out of the homes and into the theatres. So they had to provide an experience that they could not get on a twelve-inch black and white screen at home. These epics seemed to be a safe choice. They were based on books that had solid track records—not just in religious circles—but in mainstream ones as well. They also provided the spectacle–massive scenes with thousands of extras, lots of action and romance. And, not least of all, a subject matter—religion, a Judaeo-Christian sensibility–that was pretty much accepted by much of the movie-paying West.
These were the spectacles of their day. Large casts, big budgets. They were the Titanic and Avatar of their time. The studios had to believe that the subject matter was commercially viable enough to risk the exorbitantly large budgets on films that not only had strong religious themes, but as in the case of the films examined here, strong Christian themes in particular.
Has the movie-going public changed in the past sixty years? The types of films that Hollywood tends to spend the biggest budgets on suggests that they have in a very significant way. The biggest budgets in the last ten years have gone to sci-fi franchises or to stories based on comic books, young adult fiction and video games. From the mid-sixties to 2004 films sympathetic to Christians themes were practically non-existent. Then Mel Gibson shocked Hollywood insiders with the box-office smash, The Passion of the Christ. The film was budgeted at $30 million and brought in $84 million in the U.S on its opening weekend. The film would go on to make $604 million worldwide. In 2016 this translates to a $38,218,000 budget and a $769,459,000 worldwide gross . The film’s success inevitably sparked some studio interest in Bible-based films, such as The Nativity Story in 2006, ($30 million budget, $38 million U.S. gross) . Noah, released in 2014, which some argue takes the Biblical story and interweaves the director’s ideas on morality and on the environment, was produced for an estimated $125 million and grossed $359 million worldwide. Reaction to the movie was mixed , .
The difference between Noah and what I refer to as ‘Jesus-friendly’ films illustrates perfectly the change, not only in the production and marketing of films, but more importantly in the views of the audience, and what they are prepared to support. Noah, I’ll argue, is a sounding board for the director’s ideas on human behavior–the environment and other contemporary themes–framed within the Biblical story. Its intention is not a simple, faithful retelling of the Biblical tale. It is a mainstream film aimed at a mainstream audience, unlike The Passion of the Christ where acceptance by a Christian audience was seen as important. Noah was given a large budget and delivered at the box office, unlike the box office failure, Ben-Hur, which I’ll argue was more sympathetic to the religious themes of the original novel and previous film treatments.
This brings us full circle to the original question of this piece: why the apparent failure of Ben-Hur? The experts at MGM, Paramount and the other companies that produced the film, had enough faith in the project to put up $100 million, so they obviously thought it was a good bet. I’ll submit that anyone who claims to know what happened is simply engaging in ‘Monday morning quarterbacking.’ I do believe however that one can ask questions, suggest hypotheses. Audiences, like society, have changed dramatically from the 1950s. Films like Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis and The Robe were undoubtedly considered mainstream back then. Religion, especially evangelical Christianity was not as divisive an issue as it is today. Sixty years ago, a mainstream actor pledging his life to Jesus Christ in a big-budget film, was seen as safe, uncontroversial, even positive. I argue that’s no longer the case. Ben-Hur, 2016, tried to straddle the growing secular-Christian divide. Could it be that that ‘divide’ has become some vast, that, instead of straddling it, the film was consumed by it instead?
© Weldon Turner 2016 All Rights Reserved
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American actor Charlton Heston (1923 – 2008) as Judah Ben-Hur in the chariot racing scene from ‘Ben-Hur’, directed by William Wyler, 1959.
(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
© 2012 Silver Screen Collection.
Used with permission.
 Commentary, Quo Vadis, Warner Home Video, DVD Release, November 11, 2008
 Commentary, The Robe, 20th Century Fox, DVD Release, March 18, 2014
 Commentary, The Robe
 Commentary, Ben-Hur, Warner Home Video, DVD Release, September 27, 2011
 IMDB Pro, https://pro-labs.imdb.com/title/tt0335345/?ref_=sch_int
 IMDB Pro, https://pro-labs.imdb.com/title/tt0762121.
 IMDB Pro, https://pro-labs.imdb.com/title/tt1959490.
 Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/noah.html