Review: Ben-Hur

ben hur 2016 movie poster one sheetThere’s no question that the epic 1959 Ben-Hur deserved its cavalcade of Oscars. People remember the chariot race scene for a reason: even all these years later it’s a breathtaking achievement in first person action cinematography and it’s hard to imagine how they managed to bring such realism to a scene without the benefit of computers, green screen and models. The story’s about more than a Gladiator-like tale of a rich person who falls to the status of slave and fights his way back to the top so he can wreak his revenge on the man who done him wrong, however. In fact, it’s based on the best selling book “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” by General Lew Wallace, published in 1880.

The story is as epic as it is timeless, about a man who is punished for a crime he didn’t commit, losing his family and home in the process. Focused on the burning fires of vengeance, title character Judah Ben-Hur dreams of but one thing, to kill the man that has done this to him. But it’s 33AD in Jerusalem and there’s a carpenter he bumps into a few times, a man who preaches of peace and forgiveness and assures Judah that the essence of humanity is love, not hate. A carpenter who eventually is found guilty of acting against the best interests of the Roman state and is crucified.

The modern retelling of Ben-Hur stars a charismatic Jack Huston as the Jewish prince Judah and for the most part manages to avoid much about Christ in about 90% of the movie, focusing instead on the gritty, moving story of Judah as he reluctantly helps the Zealots rebel against the heavy hand of Roman rule in Jerusalem, suffer the consequences of that decision and toil through years of brutal labor as a galley slave in the Roman navy.

The core story pits brother against brother, with Messala (Toby Kebbell) as the adopted boy who grows up as Judah’s brother and equal in all activities, whether racing horses or socializing with the women in their wealthy social circle. As they grow into their adult lives, Judah is in love with Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) while Messala is entranced by Judah’s sister Naomi (Ayelet Zurer). But brotherly bonds can be tested by outside forces and when a mishap almost befalls Roman dignitary Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), Messala must condemn Judah to death.

Judah spends five years under the top deck on a Roman galley instead, ending with a dramatic ocean battle where Roman vessels are attacked by one of their many enemies. Miraculously he survives, just to meet the worldly Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a gambler with his own herd of racing horses and the intention of entering the great Roman chariot races. Judah proves his mettle as a charioteer and soon there’s a great bet that pits Judah against his nemesis Messala in a great chariot race.

The most challenging scene of the entire film is to remake the original chariot race from the 1959 film, a scene that earned the production team more than one Academy Award, and the new team under director Timur Bekmambetov are up for the challenge. The new scene, which comes almost two hours into the movie, is exciting, furiously paced and has a number of scenes that’ll make you gasp and cringe.

Judah Ben-Hur (xx) rides his chariot into the track, "Ben-Hur"
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) rides his chariot into the track, “Ben-Hur”

Subsequent to the chariot race, however, the film turns from a story with a subtle undertone of faith to a veritable remake of “The Passion of the Christ”, complete with a tortured Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) being whipped in the streets, a somewhat incomprehensible crucifixion scene, and a wrap up that felt like Bekmambetov just didn’t know quite where to fade to black and end the story.

There are also changes in this new version that change the tonal nuances of the original beloved movie (SPOILER ALERT). For example, in the original it’s Judah’s sister Naomi who accidentally bumps a roof title loose and causes it to hit the Roman emissary and causes the arrest and downfall of the Ben-Hur family. In the remake, however, it’s a Zealot ragamuffin, a boy who Judah helps and lets stay at his home while the boy recovers from a wound, who tries to assassinate Pilate and inadvertently kills another Roman centurion. A much more serious crime but one that defuses the moral dilemma that Messala is thrust into when, as a Roman soldier, he must pass sentence on Judah.

Then there’s the presence of Ilderim (Freeman), who also serves as the narrator of the film in spots. His role is new and his live coaching of Judah during the chariot scene — and how he seems to be directing even the Romans in the stadium — makes no sense and is not only jarring, it’s stupid. If you’re in the midst of  a chariot race with 10 other drivers and 44 horses, surrounded by screaming crowds, you can’t hear yourself think, let alone hear the shouted tips from someone on the sidelines.

And yet, if the film would have ended with the culmination of the chariot race, it would be a great “swords and sandals” movie that people could enjoy whether or not they were interested in the faith elements of the story. Or if after the race it would all have been played in a more subtle, off-camera way with the shadow of Jesus being crucified on a far hill and Judah coming to his epiphany about hate versus love, that could have worked. But for viewers not interested in a Christian movie that ends with the in-your-face action of “The Passion of the Christ”, the remake of “Ben-Hur” fails to deliver in the final reel.

Perhaps there’ll be a directors cut, or two versions of the film, one for people who prefer the more faith-based tale and one for people who just seek a good action picture set in Roman times. Until then, however, you’d do well to exercise caution and restraint about whether to see Ben-Hur or, perhaps, whether to sneak out the back door once the chariot race ends.

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