Roma Downey: ‘We Get to Know Jesus’ in New ‘Ben-Hur’

Mark Judge | August 15, 2016 | 11:16am EDT
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"Ben-Hur" producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (AP Photo)

This is not you grandfather’s "Ben-Hur."

That’s the message from Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, the producers of “Ben-Hur,” a new version of the 1959 film classic. Both movies are based on the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace.

“It was a great movie in ’59,” Burnett told in a recent interview, “and it’s about time to update 55 years later. We reimagined changes from the original film where instead of a movie about revenge this movie is about reconciliation and forgiveness - and it still has a huge chariot race scene and a sea battle scene. So it provides all the values that theatergoers are expecting. In it Judah Ben-Hur encounters Jesus, and those encounters give him the understanding to forgive and teach him how to reconcile rather than seek revenge.”

Burnett has won eight Emmy Awards for producing series such as “Survivor,” “The Voice,” and “Shark Tank.” He recently began his tenure as president of MGM Television and Digital Group. Downey has earned two Emmy nominations, a Golden Globe nomination and TV Guide Award for her starring role on the CBS drama “Touched by an Angel.”

In 2013 Burnett and Downey produced “The Bible,” a 10-hour miniseries that ran on the History channel. The series was a success in the ratings and was nominated for three Emmy Awards. "Ben-Hur" is a production of “Lightworkers Media,” a division of MGM that emphasis faith and family films. 

The new “Ben-Hur” stars Jack Huston and will be released on Aug. 19. Downey says that the film, budgeted at $100 million and directed by Timur Bekmambetov, will both show more of Jesus than the original, which depicted Christ only from the back, and have top-flight special effects that are entertaining for general audiences. “The movie is big action-packed film, it’s not a preachy film,” she says. “It’s a very exciting film and yet it’s a very special and meaningful story. There seems to be so much fear and confusion these days and hopefully the movie offers a little bit film of healing.”

She continues:

We do see Jesus in this film. It’s different form the ’59 film and actually we see his face, we encounter him…We see him connect with other people. But we really learn about him, we learn about Jesus through the heart of Judah Ben-Hur. It’s the  journey of this one man, whose life is ripped from him, he’s thrown unjustly into a slave ship, where he somehow survives after five years on this ship. He survives a sea battle and gets washed up on the shore and his heart has heartened and he wants to come back and seek revenge. It’s probably the only reason he survives. It’s because of an encounter with Jesus that his life is transformed forever. It’s really that we get to know Jesus in this film through the characters that he touches.

When asked about the challenges and opportunities of being Christian filmmakers in Hollywood, Downey offers this:

I think that both Mark and I have been very fortunate that we’ve had a great deal of success in our careers, separately and in our careers together. I think that perhaps that success has given us a slightly different platform. We feel very fortunate that we haven’t met with too much resistance. I think initially when we were putting “The Bible” series together, there was some resistance to that. Many people that we work with here in our community in Hollywood told us, warned is, they said, "You’re going to be sorry that you did this, no one will go see it." Well we know that 100 million people tuned into that. I think that maybe in Hollywood there is an awakening that the Christian audience is a big audience, it is an audience that will come out and support quality, uplifting material. “Ben-Hur" I think is an opportunity even beyond that. I hope the Christian audiences will come out and support it. It’s not often you get to see Jesus on the big screen. It’s not often that you get to see a film with these sort of values. But also I think it’s a film that you can bring friends that aren’t churched, people who don’t know Jesus. It’s an opportunity perhaps to share the story with many many friends and we’re hopeful that’s what’s going to happen.


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