Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Writers: Lew Wallace (based on the novel by), Keith R. Clarke & John Ridley (screenplay)
Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk, Sofia Black-D’Elia, and Morgan Freeman
Genre: Action/Adventure, Christian, Drama
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and disturbing images)
As a child in public schools, I find it strange, in light of our politically-correct times we live in, that I watched the 1959 Charlton Heston-led Ben Hur in fifth grade. I haven’t seen it since then until recently, as I recapped that adaptation in preparation for this review. While known for its length even by those who’ve never seen it, I was struck then as a child by the absolute grandeur of the production.
The film is a textbook-definition of the concept of the Hollywood epic. That word ‘epic’ has been thrown around loosely in recent years, but at one time, it almost exclusively evoked the larger-than-life tales that delighted moviegoers for hours (and hours and hours). In that particular film, Charlton Heston commanded the screen, as was often the case in his films, and audiences were expected to buckle up for the long haul. As typified by the William Wyler-directed film, the story flowed on at its own pacing. The only break was in the middle to keep audiences from being purely exhausted without time to breathe. No films now have an intermission, but that film did in that era. That’s reason enough to see that differences would be had when adapting the Lew Wallace novel for modern audiences.
At one time, Ben Hur: A Tale Of The Christ was the most popular novel on the planet. Few books have captivated as large of an audience as it has over the decades. Even prior to film, there was high demand for adaptation, spreading its message beyond the page. As the book’s title states, Jesus Christ figures heavily, weaving throughout the background of the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman who finds his life turned upside-down.
Lew Wallace openly opposed adaptation, as he knew no way to properly feature Christ. In his view, no actor was worthy of playing the part. When the idea to feature him as light on stage as opposed to a walking, talking figure was proposed, he then allowed his story to be translated to the stage. Building on that enthusiasm and appreciation for his tale, the story was made into the most expensive silent film ever in 1925. Decades later, the aforementioned Wyler film took audiences and critics by storm, displaying the story with a visual grandeur that is still effective today. Until recent years, its record eleven Academy Awards were unmatched until the release of Titanic (1999) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2004). Each could only tie that number, not surpass it. Since then, there has been an animated adaptation and a miniseries a few years ago, but nothing to match that spectacle in the hearts and minds of moviegoers.
Now, here we are in 2016, with the release of the Timur Bekmambetov-directed feature, produced by the husband-wife team of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey and co-written by John Ridley (12 Years A Slave). Coming off the television miniseries success of The Bible several years ago, the couple felt that sharing the journey of Judah Ben-Hur was not only helpful, but necessary, in today’s politically and religiously divided state. They enlisted talented filmmakers to help them bring the story to modern audiences, and they knew comparisons to the old film were inevitable. In light of that, how does the new movie fare?
Violence/Scary Images: Being made for a modern audience, the violence in the film was ramped up, compared to past interpretations. There is a grit and edge to the proceedings throughout. This was no issue with me, personally, but some viewers may take issue with excessive violence, so know that while there is no gore to speak of, you will see blood spilled, inside and outside of the arena.
Language/Crude Humor: How refreshing it is to say that a major live-action release had no language to speak of. The phrase “O-M-G” is said by Judah Ben-Hur early on, but I saw it as a way to highlight his lack of seriousness for the things of God at that point in his life.
Spiritual Content: Having recently re-watched the 1959 Charlton Heston film and knowing of the original source material without actually reading it, I knew that this remake is centered around a tale that runs parallel to the Gospel narrative. If there were a movie to feature Jesus while not being directly about Him, this is one. I was greatly pleased to see that in our modern times, Jesus was not cut out of the movie in any way. In fact, the film goes so far as to make him an actual speaking character, as effectively played by Rodrigo Santoro. Audiences, regardless of their particular beliefs, will hear Scripture quoted openly, so if anything, I can clearly say this is the one film of Summer 2016 that quite directly addresses matters of faith.
Sexual Content: It is also refreshing to say that there is no sexual content to speak of, either. Two married characters kiss and embrace, and then, they speak to each other lying down. There is nothing inappropriate on display here.
Drug/Alcohol Reference: None I can recall. Even as many historical movies tend to focus on the debauchery of Rome through the excess of wine, there was none of that on display here.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Ben-Hur has always been a story of redemption, and this version, with its various changes to the narrative presented in the 1959 classic, actually does its best to present that arc more effectively than its predecessor did. The ‘faith’ angle of the story is as clearly seen here as it has ever been. While always a novel, Ben-Hur was on page and is here on screen a fable illustrating the Gospel as it was being lived out.
(HEAVY SPOILERS in this section) Before giving my thoughts on the film, I will give a brief synopsis of the plot in this film, as it is distinctly different from the Wyler film. Judah Ben-Hur lives a life of comfort in Judea, raised by his widowed mother alongside his sister and adopted brother, Messala, a Roman orphan. Judah is also raised around a beautiful servant in his home, Esther, whose father also is a servant there. As it is not customary to wed servants, Judah cannot bear for her to belong to another and throws custom aside in search of love and marriage.
The bond between the Jewish Judah and Roman Messala is a tight one, even if Messala feels pulled away from the family and towards the call of his conquering people. After enlisting in the Roman army and fighting his way across regions all over the world, he returns home, eager to advance in the powerful empire that occupies the civilized world. Messala approaches Judah to give up the Zealots that are causing havoc in the Judean region. Despite disagreement with their rebellious ways, Judah cannot give up his own people. Disappointed, Messala turns his efforts back to Rome, placing himself alongside the recently installed governor, Pontius Pilate.
In full regalia, Pilate and Messala parade through Jerusalem, when an attempt is made on Pilate’s life by a Zealot on the rooftops. By all accounts, due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Judah and his family are implicated as traitors to Rome. Judah is stripped of his title and wealth and sentenced to row in the galleys of a Roman warship, torn away from his wife and family to never see them again or know of their fate.
The whip-scarred back of fellow rowers appears to be all that Judah will ever see, until his ship is destroyed and he washes ashore. An African sheik named Ilderim finds him. He knows that while many allow Rome to rule, their sway lies within the arena. Charioteers hold the fascinations of the populace, and Messala, known for his skill and ability in the circus as well as the battlefield, will be best dealt with there. Judah rises as a hate-filled, vengeful challenger to Messala in Pilate’s inaugural race before the people of Jerusalem, amongst riders of various nations. The blood sport leaves few alive, but Messala is left mangled by the encounter.
Filled with the emptiness of his victory, Ben-Hur wakes to hear the cries of the crowd for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter who, on various occasions, spoke hope and encouragement into Judah’s life, despite the hate that ruled him. With a family stricken with leprosy and an emptiness in his life, Judah, standing before the cross, receives the message of forgiveness Jesus offers with his words. Vengeance compelled him for so long, but now, forgiveness frees him and restores the bonds broken in his life.
With the film opening with glimpses of the chariot race, we immediately know that the structure of the film will be different than its predecessor. The differences only begin there. As I previously stated, Jesus is an actual character here, not just a presence. That creates a distinct difference in the narrative. With this version, Judah marries early, an intentionally-fired arrow from a Zealot flies at Pilate instead of a rock slipping from the rooftop, Ilderim becomes a composite of many different characters, and, ultimately, Messala lives.
Esther’s sheltering of Judah’s family from him is completely abandoned here, but as a result, I found that their transformation came less as a result of being in proximity to Christ (as was shown in the earlier film) and more as a result of Judah’s changed heart. She is also a Christian voice throughout, almost a mouthpiece guiding the narrative, rather than growing as a piece of it. Those are big differences, but each is working towards a streamlining of the plot that is necessary for today’s audiences and realizing the intention of the original story.
Seeing the plot unfold reminded me of another adaptation that charted its own course in small ways, The Count of Monte Cristo (2001). While very different from the source material in many ways, I understood many of the decisions made by the filmmakers there, as I could also see the reasoning here. Wyler’s film had so much room to breathe. Shots linger on far longer than films do now, and even the dialogue is delivered as if all the world will wait until it is said.
While that story dealt with Judah’s personal loss, it had the time to build him up as a character, even allowing him to reinvent himself as the son of another man. In that telling of the story, relationship upon relationship point Judah to the glories of Rome, and then, he is directed back to Jerusalem. We don’t get that here. The structure is built specifically to allow the narrative speed and momentum, leading to that inevitable clash between Judah and Messala. We begin the film with Judah Ben-Hur in name, and he stays himself the entire time. There’s no room for alter-egos, just a man driven from the galleys to the games of Rome. Still, these differences may completely turn off many who hold a special affinity for the William Wyler film (END OF SPOILERS).
Knowing that Timur Bekmambetov was directing, I didn’t know what to expect from the final product. Having directed Wanted (2008) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), his films exist with a knowing nudge and wink, hardly enough to actually move someone with a story filled with gravitas. At film’s end, I felt that it is possible the movie might have benefited even more from someone with a defter hand with dialogue.
Action is a-plenty and handled superbly by the director, but nothing said between characters will warrant awards consideration, which is a shame. Still, I must point out the great performance of Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur. He won me over as a fan with his hauntingly effective portrayal as Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire, a role that should have made him a household name. Here, we see him as leading man, and he’s filling the impossibly large shoes of Charlton Heston, a man who played characters larger than life. I identified with Huston’s portrayal here, and I believe he proved himself able to lead a film. Regardless of the box-office performance, I want to see more of Huston.
Alongside Toby Kebbell as Messala, I found the two conveyed a better kinship and rivalry than Charlton Heston and Steven Boyd did years ago. While the characters in that film were never brothers, I found the choice to work for this film, as portrayed by Huston and Kebbell. Ayelet Zurer, as well as many other actors/actresses, don’t get much to do here, but their work is effective. Morgan Freeman could also be within this group. He provides a few laughs, and as his voice is often used to do, a few words of inspiration, but his character could have been more effective (we won’t talk about the hair…the less said, the better).
The film’s music did its own attempt to emulate the old score, but nothing about it felt grandiose, just adequate. The visual effects of the film worked, for the most part, but there were a few shots that stood out, such as when a horse trampled through the stands.
Visual metaphors of Christ were sprinkled throughout, and Bekmambetov never made them feel out of place. I was expecting to find a watered down presentation of Jesus and the culture amidst the time of His earthly ministry, and what I got was much better than I anticipated. I heard of Him offering a different path to a man whose circumstances bred hatred, even for one so close to him. I saw Scripture stated with clarity, amidst beautifully shot scenes. I saw an unfolding of the Zealot rebellions that made it difficult to find establish clear-cut good guys and bad guys.
Bekmambetov is a visual director, just like I would classify Zack Snyder. Here, he and the cinematographer use color and angles to accentuate the story. The chariot race is worth the price of admission alone, and I guarantee I’ll be seeing it again sometime for that. The visual effects are a sight to see here, with various settings captured amidst the Roman battles and places the narrative took us on land and sea. To our modern sensibilities, well-captured visuals don’t carry as much weight as they did in 1959. Therefore, even though there is nothing wrong with what we see here, it just doesn’t ‘wow’ us like it used to.
I have to say that, by and large, I find many film critics to be overly critical of “faith-based” films, seemingly at the outset prior to viewing them. Now, some are overly-sappy, and I admit: many are preaching to the choir, out of intent. I have found the consensus of this particular film to be largely negative. I’ll give some credence to criticisms of the editing.
The story clips along at a fast pace, and so much narrative is squeezed into just over two hours. That consolidation of plot comes at a loss of connection to characters. This film won’t be a classic in the same vein as the earlier film (and let’s be honest: it never could have been, as a victim of comparisons). There were moments when this film was great, many more when it was just merely adequate, and there were times when it clearly showed its issues.
Still, the point of the novel was said by many at the earlier film’s release to have been entirely lost, even as that film collected accolades and renown. In that film, revenge is Judah’s sole motivator. Yes, Christ is alluded to, but never fully featured. Here, we see the journey of Ben-Hur led to the Cross, leaving him changed as well as the others in his life. With all of its flaws, some inherited by being a “remake” (of a remake, mind you) and some entirely developed on its own, the point is still made clear: Ben-Hur is about forgiveness. This film shows that to audiences who haven’t already made their mind up when they walked in. I cannot review the film without acknowledging its various flaws, but I hope that I don’t take away from how wonderfully the end gives us a necessary message.
The Bottom Line