I sat down to watch director Timur Bekmambetov’s (NIGHT WATCH, 2004, DAY WATCH, 2006) remake of the historical epic BEN-HUR (2016) with little preconceived notions about the story. I’ve never seen the original 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, even with eleven Academy Awards under its belt. It’s a badge of shame I hope someday to remove, now that I’ve seen this version and enjoyed it a lot. I was impressed with the scope and authentic feel of the film, among many other facets.
As an aside, I was struck that no one in opening night crowd (and it was a pretty good crowd) was under the age of forty. The name Ben-Hur mustn’t resonate with young people. Too bad, it should.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, AMERICAN HUSTLE, 2013, OUTLANDER, 2008) is a privileged Jewish prince during the Roman occupation of Israel in the early first century. “Prince” meaning he is a member of the upper crust of Jewish society. He is wealthy and lives in a spacious home with his parents, sister Tirzah, and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell, WARCRAFT, 2016, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 2014). Judah and Messala are as close as any brothers could be, though Judah is high-born and Messala the orphaned son of a Roman soldier taken in by the Ben-Hurs as a child. Messala is treated, for the most part, as a regular member of the family, but he never quite fits in.
The young men also have complicated love lives. Judah’s sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia, PROJECT ALMANAC, 2015) and Messala are in love. He does not feel worthy of her, so leaves to make a name for himself as a Roman soldier in order to stand on his own reputation and accomplishments. Judah loves one of the family’s servants, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi, HOMELANDTV Series, IRON MAN, 2008). The filmmakers could have elaborated a little on what Mom & Dad think of all this, but BEN-HUR isn’t a three-and-a-half-hour epic like the 1959 film, so they simply smile a lot and aren’t fazed by this. Besides, they’re rich, have good standing in Jewish society, and aren’t overly burdened by the conquering Roman machine ruling over everything.
The Romans are smart but brutal rulers who deal diplomatically with the wealthy elite, but control the poorer masses with violence and fear. Crimes are answered with brutal punishment, especially death. Crucifixions are common. One group of Jews in particular has been a thorn in the Romans’ side for years: the zealots. After hundreds of years of oppression, the zealot rebellion has gained traction, using guerilla tactics, hiding in shadows to attack roman soldiers and garrisons with quick and violent results. To stem the rebellion, punishments have become more severe. Oppression over the population is at its worst.
Why the history lesson? It’s what this film is about, on the surface. BEN-HUR does a good job showing this, albeit mostly from the perspective of the wealthy population, who are the least affected group.
Judah knows what Rome is capable of, so doesn’t make waves. Until the night his sister brings home a wounded young zealot named Dismas (Moises Arias, ENDER’S GAME, 2013, and the HANNAH MONTANA TV Series). Judah reluctantly helps the boy and takes him in until he’s recovered. He learns about the Roman occupation from another perspective, and though he does not condone their violence, he starts to understand a little better the why of it all.
Messala returns home as a captain of the Roman guard, held in high esteem by his compatriots, especially the incoming governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek, LUCY 2014). Messala has been hardened from years of bloody warfare. Rome and its mission means everything to him. His reunion with Judah is happy, but tense.
When the Dismas tries to kill Pilate from the Ben-Hur rooftop, the entire family is arrested. Judah’s father is killed, and though Judah pleads with Messala for mercy, his mother and sister are arrested and given a death sentence, though his Esther escapes. Judah is sentenced to a life of slavery aboard a Roman warship, where he will spend years as a rower, below deck. Never knowing the fate of his family, he spends these years sitting in the same seat, rowing and rowing, holding on to his new-found hatred of his brother and the Romans, in order to survive.
With a PG-13 rating, depicting the brutality of Roman occupation and the subsequent affliction of Judah Ben-Hur was a far cry from the Gibson-esque bloodbath of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), but the filmmakers do a decent job. This is especially true in the bowels of the Roman ship. It’s very claustrophobic, and the eventual—and fateful—battle the ship finds itself in one day, viewed only through cracks in the hull through which Judah can watch, is quite good and frightening.
The tagline for BEN-HUR pretty much tells the overall story arch: “Prince to Slave to Rebel.” When Judah escapes slavery, he vows to learn what happened to his family and, more importantly, seek revenge on Messala.
His view of his world began as apathetic, not wanting to make waves, to live his life as comfortably as possible. After his enslavement, hate drives him on. When he returns home, this emotion is all he has left, even after finding Esther, who has spent the time on the street helping people in need and becoming a follower of a man claiming to be Messiah, Jesus.
What might come as a surprise to some, Jesus plays a significant role throughout Judah Ben-Hur’s life, though has far less emphasis in this current incarnation of the story than the blockbuster 1959 film, and much less than the original novel.
Like the previous films, including a silent version in 1925, BEN-HUR is based on one of the biggest selling novels in American history. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written by Lew Wallace, was published in 1880. I did some research, and was surprised (since I’d never heard of it) that it was so popular for its time and throughout the twentieth century. In fact, until Gone with the Wind was released in 1936, it was the largest selling book in America next to the Bible. Like its later adaptions, it intertwines the fictional story of Judah Ben-Hur with the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. The book itself opens with the Three Wise Men visiting baby Jesus when Judah Ben-Hur is just a boy. Though Judah and Jesus do not grow up together, their lives are forever entwined from that point on, and the book tells the story of the Christ through the eyes of Judah. The 1959 film has more room, and I assume more social acceptance of religious themes in movies, to delve deeper into the Jesus storyline. In the 2016 version, Jesus appears in three significant scenes. First, when Prince Judah gets into a debate with Esther about Roman occupation. Jesus (played with silent intensity by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, THE 33, 2015) is still a carpenter and overhears their conversation. He interjects that God has a path for each of them. And “if God is righteous, then we should do righteous things.” This statement affects Esther, though Judah waves the comment off.
When Slave Judah is dragged through the streets, bound and bloodied, Jesus gives him water. Very little is said, but a connection is made, one that comes arounds much later in the film when Jesus himself is dragged through the streets of Jerusalem. Though the intertwining of these two storylines is somewhat downplayed, it is a critical component, mostly as the film comes to a close. The reason being the underlying story of BEN-HUR: how his view of violence changes over time. From apathy, to hate and the need for revenge, to seeing another way. It’s this other way which eventually is the redemptive path he must find.
The big highlight of BEN-HUR is, of course, the chariot race. If you’ve never seen the movie, or know little about it, you still know that there’s a climactic chariot race somewhere in there. The movie opens at the start of the race, with Judah and Messala posturing with each other from their respective chariots before tearing out onto the “circus,” a huge oval stadium built specifically for these deadly competitions. That’s the teaser, before we are brought back seven years earlier to tell the whole story.
I’d been enjoying the film up to the race, but kept my enthusiasm in check until I was able to see how this pivotal scene played out. Knowing how critical it is to the story, it had to be good. And it was. In fact, it was amazing, full of all the action and drama one would expect from a large scale epic. One aspect I thought was well-done was the lack of CGI. Granted, they probably used a lot of computer-generated effects. But there’s a good mix of live action blended in, so one does not notice the special effects. A good comparison would be the original LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (2001-2003), which used this mixed-effect technique so bloody well, and its prequel THE HOBBIT (2012-2014) where the CGI was obvious and so prevalent it was almost sad, especially in the final installment. The action and adrenaline of the chariot race never fell into cheesy overkill, allowing the viewer to truly enjoy the experience.
The sets and cinematography throughout were gorgeous. I assume much of the film was shot in locations to reflect ancient Israel, with effects used to compliment rather than overpower the sets.
The acting was good as well, with a cast culled from around the world. For example Ayelet Zurer (MUNICH, 2005, MAN OF STEEL, 2013), who plays Judah’s mother, is a popular Israeli actress. Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus) is Brazilian. Danish actor Pilou Asbaek portrays a unique, and much less sympathetic, Pontius Pilate than is depicted in other films. From the home front, what story revolving around God doesn’t have this man: Morgan Freeman (nearly every movie ever made) as the wandering and wealthy Arab Sheik, Ilderim, who takes on Judah as his chariot driver after convincing him that beating Messala in the circus would be more satisfying revenge. With such a unique (and unknown, to me, at least) cast, I wondered if Freeman’s star image and voice might stand out (in a bad way), but he isn’t in this many movies because he can’t act. His Ilderim is a strong side character and anti-hero.
To wrap this up, I need to throw in some spoilers. If you don’t want to know how it ends stop reading now and know I enjoyed the film, with a couple of qualms about the ending.
Yes, some aspects of the ending bothered me, and I’m guessing might have really irked other reviewers, since general reception to BEN-HUR has been meh at best.
The chariot race is the lynch pin of Judah Ben-Hur’s tale, but it’s not the end. Moving from disinterest to rage, there was one more change he needed to go through before out story was finished.
Before the race, he discovers his mother and sister are alive, rotting in a jail cell where they’ve contracted leprosy and live in squalor. This only fuels Judah’s hate. After defeating Messala in the circus and earning his freedom, Judah becomes involved in the zealot movement. Esther has become an apostle of Jesus and is present in the garden when he is arrested. Judah finds Jesus on the road, bloody and falling under the weight of the cross. He gives him water, then grabs a rock to attack the soldiers. Jesus stops him, calling him by name and explaining he does this of his own free will. There is another way towards redemption besides violence. Something about this moves Judah to later collapse at the foot of the cross when Jesus dies as he understands letting go of hate, offering forgiveness to others, is the only true path to redemption.
The phrase “something about this,” however, is where I think this year’s BEN-HUR falls a little short. His exposure to Jesus is scarce and scattered. Aside from one moment of kindness, there was no connection between the two. Yes, Esther is a pre-Christian follower, but his epiphany at the cross, as well-done and dramatic as it was, seemed too much without cause. Even most of Jesus’s disciples did not understand his teachings until three days later. Somehow, Judah understands the basic tenants after three brief encounters during his lifetime. The cause-effect would be more believable had there been more interaction between them, aside from Esther. (Yet another reason for me to check out the Heston version to see if they managed to accomplish this). At its core, BEN-HUR is a spiritual movie, but you can’t cram all religious elements into the last ten minutes!
Lastly, this may sound odd coming from an optimist, but the final scene is too happy. As in the book and 1959 movie, Judah’s mother and sister are healed miraculously of their leprosy. In the book, Jesus heals them at the side of the road before his arrest. In the previous film, they were healed with Judah at the foot of the cross. Here, it rains as Jesus dies and the rain leaks into their prison cell, and they are cured. Of the three, being at the cross works best for the plot. But that’s not my issue, really. In the very last scene, everyone reconciles with everyone else (including Messala and Judah’s sister), and every face has a big smile. The movie is somber and at times quite dark—so this many smiles at the end simply does not work. Hollywood insists that every film end with the main character smiling, to send the viewer home smiling, too (don’t believe me? Just try not to notice it in every film going forward). The film’s predominantly somber tone should have continued until the end, just more hopeful in tone. The Hollywood Rule backfired here, big time.
My issues with the ending scenes notwithstanding (unfortunately, these are what every viewer will leave remembering the most), BEN-HUR is an excellent, big-scale production and well worth the price of a ticket.
I give it three and a half racing chariots.