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Ben-Hur: From Good Book to Great Movie?


Biblical performances: the righteous and the irredeemable...

 Biblical characters have been portrayed on film many times; who did it best?

Biblical epics have been box-office fodder since the dawn of film, and now that filmmakers can produce a cast of thousands using CGI technology, they’re taking yet another look at the biggest book of them all.

In 2014, Russell Crowe portrayed the angsty title character in Noah, while Christian Bale stepped into Charlton Heston’s sandals as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Last year, Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) took on another classic Heston role in a somewhat unjustly overlooked Ben-Hur that features convincing performances and spectacular locations.

Numerous biblical characters have been portrayed on film many times before; who did it best?

Best Movie Jesus

When Mary Magdalene opens this year with Rooney Mara in the title role, Joaquin Phoenix will join the more than 600 actors who have played Jesus Christ on film as far back as 1897. They run the gamut from pious to provocative: Saturday Night Live has cast Casey Affleck, Jason Sudeikis, Phil Hartman, and Will Ferrell as Jesus, with Kenan Thompson as Black Jesus and Christoph Waltz as “Djesus” (in a particularly irreverent sendup of Django Unchained). Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar) and Victor Garber (Godspell) gave us musical Jesuses. We’ve even seen Zombie Jesus.

The standouts? In 1961, Jeffrey Hunter (the original Captain Christopher Pike in the Star Trek pilot) gave an affecting performance in King of Kings. The heartfelt portrayals by Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) and Willem Dafoe (The Last Temptation of Christ) are unforgettable. But the outstanding movie Messiah might be the robust and engaging Max von Sydow in 1965’s dramatic The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Best Movie Moses

With only about 50 screen versions, this is a less hotly contested category. Ben Kingsley took the part in the 1995 made-for-TV Moses. Christian Bale did it in Exodus: Gods and Kings; Christian Slater also did it in the animated 2007 remake of The Ten Commandments. Oddly enough, Val Kilmer has done it twice: in 1998’s animated The Prince of Egypt and 2006’s The Ten Commandments: The Musical.

Mel Brooks was the funniest Moses, in 1981’s History of the World: Part I (spoiler alert: he breaks the tablet containing five of the original 15 commandments). But few would dispute that Charlton Heston was the greatest of all, in Cecil B. DeMille’s almost four-hour The Ten Commandments. Heston’s manly physique, resonant voice, and compelling air of righteousness earn him top honours.

Best Old Testament Figure

Even leaving aside the tale of Moses, the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) presents lots of scope for cinematic adaptation, with its dramatic stories and larger-than-life characters. Besides the Russell Crowe version, there have been several screen Noahs. Ben Cross played the royal title role in the 1997 TV movie Solomon; Stewart Granger was Lot in the 1962 Sodom and Gomorrah, while Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward starred in David and Bathsheba (1951).

The 1949 Samson and Delilah is an entertaining watch, in which Samson (Victor Mature) is torn between Philistine beauty Semadar (Angela Lansbury) and her sister Delilah (the lovely Hedy Lamarr, whose Austrian accent is, however, inexplicable in the context).

But perhaps the greatest guilty pleasure in this category is King David (1985), played by a bearded Richard Gere with puppy-dog eyes and earrings. He fights giants and romances Bathsheba when he’s not tossing his tousled ’80s locks on the battlefield.

Best New Testament Figure

Although the Gospels of Jesus are full of great movie material on their own, screenwriters often can’t resist writing in extra characters. The 1951 Quo Vadis merely touches on the death of Saint Peter (Finlay Currie), concentrating instead on Roman commander Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) and his Christian sweetheart, Lygia (Deborah Kerr). Similarly, 1953’s The Robe is about Roman senator Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), who in a dice game wins the robe worn by the crucified Jesus.

There are several movies featuring Barabbas, the prisoner set free by the Romans in place of Jesus — most notably 1961’s Barabbas with Anthony Quinn. Although he is mentioned in the Bible, it’s only in passing, so scriptwriters had to make up the rest. It’s the same with Salomé — the girl John the Baptist loses his head for — who has nonetheless been portrayed by such leading ladies as notorious vamp Theda Bara in 1918, Yvonne De Carlo of The Munsters fame in 1945, and Jessica Chastain in 2011.

But the best of these Hollywood inventions must be Judah Ben-Hur, who originated in a novel by Lew Wallace. Filmed first as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1925, then in 1959 and 2016 as Ben-Hur, there’s something about the tale, with its Roman galley combat, its chariot racing, and its moving redemptive finale at the foot of the cross that makes it probably the best movie of all time almost based on the Bible.

Sarah B. Hood is a Toronto writer and editor.