The story of Judah Ben Hur a wealthy, influential Jewish prince betrayed by his friend Massala as he seeks to climb the ranks of Roman power, first appeared as a best-selling novel in 1880 penned by an unlikely writer, retired Civil War general Lew Wallace and was subtitled “A Tale of the Christ.” And the tale, saturated with historical interest and Christian themes of redemption seemed ready made for the big screen. Hollywood wasted no time, producing two silent versions, including the 1925 classic with Ramon Novarro in the title role, and of course the spectacular 1959 William Wyler masterpiece starring Charleton Heston, which captured 11 Oscars—the first film ever to do so. One would have thought film-makers would have wisdom to leave perfection well enough alone—but Christian producers Roma Downey and husband, Mark Burnett saw an opportunity to make a faith-based film repackaged for a contemporary audience and managed to raise 100 million dollars in hopes of creating a block-buster.
This summer’s release stars Jack Huston in the title role and Toby Kebbell as his arch-enemy Massala. The film also features dread-locked Morgan Freeman as the wealthy Sheik Ilderim who owns the white horses Judah will eventually pit against Massala in the famous chariot race most identify with the story of Ben Hur.
In this film version Judah and Massala are not child-hood friends; instead an orphaned Roman Massala is adopted into the Hur household making Judah and Massala “brothers.” According to New York Times film critic Stephen Holdenaug, producers of the new movie wanted to avoid any suggestion of a gay relationship between Massala and Ben Hur which supposedly was evident in the 1959 movie—I kid you not! I’ve seen that movie ten times—somehow I missed it! This is only the beginning of several unjustified liberties the new Ben Hur takes with the original Lew Wallace story.
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Despite their brotherly affection, Judah and Massala are alienated by faith and culture. A serious rift develops between them when Judah refuses to act as an informant against his people when Massala asks him to turn over the names of members of the Zealots who are a threat to the safety of the Roman governor, namely Pontius Pilate. When Pilate enters Jerusalem, parading through the streets with his legion, an attempt is made on his life by one of those very Zealots. Ben Hur is blamed and Massala, to prove that his loyalty to Rome trumps family allegiance, has Judah and his household arrested, including his mother and sister Tirzah. His wife Esther manages to evade capture. When paraded through the streets as a criminal, Jesus gives him a much needed drink of water.
Ben Hur endures five years as a galley slave but eventually frees himself when his ship is rammed during a sea battle. He is befriended by Ilderim who provides words of wisdom to Judah that it is impossible to fight the power of Rome, but he can wound the pride of Rome by defeating his enemy in the upcoming chariot race of the circus. Back in Jerusalem Ben Hur is reunited with Esther who has become a Christian. She tells Judah that it was her faith that kept him alive while he says it was his hate of Massala that caused him to survive. This sets up the contrast between the love and forgiveness of Christ and the anger that drives Judah to seek revenge against Massala. He learns from Esther that his mother and sister are dead which increases his lust for revenge. However, he will soon discover that his mother and sister, left to rot in prison, are not dead but are lepers, a fate worse than death! Judah vanquishes Massala by winning the chariot race and then, with Ben Hur having succeeded in putting down his enemy, the film immediately shifts to the crucifixion of Jesus. As Christ once gave Judah water when he was dragged through the streets as a criminal, Ben Hur now seeks to return the kindness as Jesus carries his Cross. Judah follows Christ to Calvary, observes the crucifixion, hears Christ’s words “Father, forgive them they know not what they do” and is transformed to live a life of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Perhaps Ben Hur can be faulted for a rather CGIed, video-game look, but that is the least of this remake’s weaknesses. The film suffers from a number of bad decisions concerning its very narrative, the presentation of its themes, both political and spiritual, and the manner in which the conflict between Ben Hur and Massala is developed. Let’s start with the character of Ben Hur himself. It’s difficult to take him seriously as a person of stature and importance. Far from being a person of depth and wisdom he is introduced as carefree and frivolous—very different from the Ben Hur who in Wallace’s original conception and to which the 1959 film was true, is a person of responsibility, the head of his household, to whom others look to for stability and leadership, a person of privilege but also of compassion. He is not just likeable, but someone the audience can admire and respect. Huston’s portrayal of Ben Hur lacks a commanding stature, rather, to a certain degree, he appears trite and immature.
Too many film minutes, at least one fourth of a two hour movie, are gobbled up in developing the relationship between Ben Hur and Massala, dominated by a constant emphasis on how mean, nasty and awful are the Romans. The constant anti-Roman rhetoric is cliché and tiresome. Ben Hur actually becomes a more complex and interesting character in scenes outside of his relationship with Massala when for example he must struggle to survive on the galley ship and when he trains Ilderim’s team of horses.
The appearances of Christ in the movie are forced, gratuitous and without context. Apparently just hanging out in Jerusalem with no viable ministry as the Son of God, he is wedged into certain scenes. The first time we see him, Jesus is actually occupying a booth in the market place of Jerusalem making something out of wood. When a Zealot is about to be taken off to crucifixion by the Romans, he preaches to Ben Hur,: “Love your enemies. God is love—we are made to share that love.” In another scene absolutely disconnected from anything happening in the story, Jesus defends a leper being stoned by a Jewish mob. The pivotal scene is when Jesus, after staring down a Roman opposing his gesture, gives Ben Hur that drink of water when he is being dragged through the street. Later Judah knowing who he is, and remembering that this man came to his aid, seeks to do the same to Jesus on the Via Dolorosa. With the high action drama of the chariot race over, the crucifixion scene is simply rather perfunctorily tacked onto the end of the movie.
In the original Ben Hur the crucifixion of Jesus is actually woven into the fabric of the story. When Ben Hur discovers that Tirzah is dying, Esther suggests that they take her to Jesus so she may be healed. It is then that they come upon Jesus who is now on his way to Calvary. Ben Hur recognizes that this is the man who gave him water when he was condemned as a criminal—a realization that is moving and climactic. This is where it may be justified to compare this film with the 1959 version. In the Heston movie Jesus gives Ben Hur water in the desert when he is literally dying of thirst and about to give up on life itself. Thus the gesture is not simply an act of charity, but serves the spiritual message that Christ himself will provide the life-giving water from the cross that spiritually rejuvenates mankind by washing away the sins of the world. All that is lost in this remake.
Furthermore, it is the liberties that the film-makers took with the original story that makes Ben Hur less compelling than the book and its 1959 cinematic predecessor. Yes it is legitimate for a movie to take liberties with the text upon which it is based, or deviate from previous film versions. Such liberties are justified if they serve the pace of a film, its focus, emphasis on a theme, enhancement of character and plot development or actually improve the original story. But the liberties taken here provide no enhancement. Indeed, this movie makes an unforgiveable mistake. In the original story Ben Hur enters the chariot race believing that his mother and sister are dead. All that’s left is for him to do is get his revenge against Massala—believing that the worst has already occurred. But when he bests Massala in the chariot race, the victory is snatched away from him when Massala, with his body broken and before he breathes his last, utters a secret. Judah’s mother and sister are not actually dead, but as lepers they are the living dead! Thus the race is not over! This means that Judah’s revenge was empty and the chariot race as his vehicle of revenge, filled with a terrible irony. But, as already noted, in this movie Ben Hur learns that his mother and sister are lepers before the chariot race, robbing the narrative of one of its greatest lessons: if you live by hate, someone can always do you better!
Undoubtedly the film-makers have Ben Hur discover his mother and sister’s leprosy before the race to quickly get to the crucifixion scene and simply shorten the length of the film. After all, if Ben Hur finds out all this after the race, well then something still must be resolved—namely Judah’s continued hatred for Massala and his anguish over the plight of his family! But this movie wanted to just quickly wrap things up—indeed so fast that the miraculous cure of his mother and sister comes off as a hasty afterthought.
The strongest section of the movie is the galley ship episode. Here Ben Hur reaches a depth of cinematic creativity and gravitas in its depiction of the horrors Ben Hur must endure as a condemned slave on such a hellish vessel. Attention is paid to lighting, close-ups, camera angles and sound to produce a four star episode in a two and a half star movie. And also to its credit Ben Hur pays close attention to historical period detail in costumes, settings and props. The march of Pilate’s legion into Jerusalem and the grandeur of the circus maximus make an impression. But if the galley ship episode is the most compelling that means the climactic chariot race is not! Moreover, even after 57 years of advances in film craft, this scene is still outdone by the 1959 William Wyler version. The problem is three-fold: 1) though the actors are really driving the chariots, the race has a certain animated feel; 2) the race is dominated by numerous (count them! 12) accidents that decreases the excitement that should be generated by the race itself. After all, this is a race and not simply a collision course for chariots. Finally, the race is constantly interrupted by Morgan Freeman serving as Judah’s coach on the sidelines! His endless tips to a racing Ben Hur are nothing more than a needless distraction.
Despite its flaws, Ben Hur possesses entertainment value. Those who want to support a Christian-themed movie should go see it. Those who have never seen the 1959 movie may still be able to enjoy this newer attempt. Those who don’t know the superior story will probably not know what they are missing. However, the filmmakers certainly knew that superior story, but in choosing to tinker with it, made this Ben Hur far less than what it could have been.