One can imagine that for director Timur Bekmambetov, the task of re-making Ben-Hur was an intimidating one. Originally a famous book, then a hugely influential silent film, then one of the most famed and acclaimed Golden Age Hollywood films ever, Ben-Hur is a powerful story that has remained in the public consciousness in one form or another for over a century. The 1959 film, starring Charlton Heston in the title role, won eleven Academy Awards and has been preserved by the Library of Congress for being a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” motion picture. It was, like the silent film that came before it, a tremendous undertaking; featuring the highest budget of any film made at the time, Ben-Hur (1959) is often lauded as one of the greatest films ever made. I cannot imagine being handed the reins of a remake for a story with such an impressive cultural legacy; surely, Bekmambetov must have felt the same, for he initially refused the job.
He accepted, however, after reading the script, and realizing, in his words, “this story is not what I expected. It’s not a remake, it’s an interpretation of the famous book.” And indeed, the story is reinterpreted, notably different from its predecessors; it is a shame that nearly all of these changes are clumsy and ill-advised, for in changing the plot beats of the story, they then created an incomprehensible mess that contradicts itself at every turn. The modifications to the story were foolish enough, but Bekmambetov must be held responsible for his absurdly clumsy directing. This film is a mistake, top to bottom.
In the time of Christ, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a prince of the Jewish people living in Jerusalem. He grows up alongside a Roman boy named Messala (Toby Kebbell, last seen as a likable Orc in Warcraft), adopted and raised by his family as his brother. Considering Messala and Judah’s biological sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia) have the hots for one another, having Messala be Judah’s adopted brother rather than his childhood friend strikes me as an odd decision, but that’s par for the course in this movie. After an irritating amount of setup, Judah is betrayed by Messala, sentenced to life as a galley slave, and Judah plans a revenge facilitated by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). Also Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is there.
There is a lot to talk about in this edition of Ben-Hur: Hot Mess Express, and we’re going to go into detail, so let’s get down to business. There will be some spoilers for this century-old story and its latest iteration.
There are so many unnecessary changes.
One of the more baffling decisions in this film is this choice to change the characterization of these figures to no apparent advantage. Judah Ben-Hur is frequently presented as a rich boy oblivious to the reality of the struggles of those around him, but the zealots he is contrasted with seem to be equally condemned by the script for their use of poorly-planned violence. This frequent reference to class strain never goes anywhere, and holds no particular weight after he is enslaved. “You spent five years enslaved after twenty of privilege and you think you know something about suffering?” asks Morgan Freeman’s Sheik Ilderim. Well, I don’t know about you, but I would say, yeah, five years of slavery sounds pretty shit.
And let’s talk about Sheik Ilderim a second: no longer a jovial Arab man, reaching out to Judah the Jewish Prince in solidarity, he is now a solemn Nubian motivated by greed, reaching out to Judah in commingled distaste for the Romans and desire to win the circus. For all that I commend casting an actual person of color in this role rather than a Welsh actor in brown face (and other equally valid criticisms as to the portrayal of the Sheik in 1959), the lost opportunity to show an Arab and a Jew working together in defiance of the oppression of Rome seems tragic. In its place, we have Morgan Freeman’s Sheik Ilderim, who exists as a deus ex machina for a plot hamstringed by the removal of entire plot points.
Yes. Entire plot points have been removed.
You heard that correctly: Sheik Ilderim is frequently used as a magic fix-it to contrive the plot into moving forward, because it turns out excising key plot points creates vacuums of cause and effect. For example, in the source material and 1959 film, when Arrius’ galley ship goes down, Judah, still noble of spirit despite his years of enslavement, saves Arrius’ life. Arrius then formally adopts Judah into his household, and there Judah learns to race chariots in the circus. This is important for Judah’s character arc, and further explains why Judah is a charioteer skilled enough to defeat the well-practiced and undefeated Messala.
In Ben-Hur (2016), Judah watches as Arrius is conked on the head with an oar and lets him drown.
Not only does this make the entire galley destruction sequence pointless beyond “welp, Judah escaped slavery I guess,” it also necessitates the Sheik teaching Judah in an extremely haphazard and silly training montage. Moreover, it misses a rich opportunity. Messala was not originally Judah’s adopted brother, but they made him so in this film; keeping this plot point with Arrius would have created an interesting foil. Messala, a Roman raised as a son in a Jewish household, and Judah, a Jew loved as a son in a Roman household. But as this comparison would have been thematically strong and emotionally moving, it was of course not included in the film.
More time is spent humanizing Messala Severus, the traitor, than Judah, the protagonist. This iteration of Ben-Hur very much wants to make Messala into someone sympathetic, and manages to succeed via an opening with Messala and Judah in their youth more needlessly drawn out than high school baccalaureate. This makes it all the more jarring when the moment of betrayal comes; Messala, up to this point portrayed as a young man buffeted by social forces beyond his control, is not forced into betraying Judah so much as he morphs into a vindictive, raging asshole. It’s completely out of left field, and so too is his contempt when Judah reappears in his life years later.
This humanizing in the opening is meant to set up the changed ending: reconciliation and pleas for forgiveness between the brothers rather than Messala’s death. This is the only change of any substance, this notion that cultural forces need not tear people apart, and it might even have worked had not literally every other event in between painted the both of them as utter dickheads drowning in hubris. A moment that should have been powerful instead feels forced, and the audience collectively sighs and checks their watches. Is the movie over yet? This film is fundamentally muddled in its message, unable to communicate a single point. Perhaps it is trying to tell us to turn the other cheek?
Which brings us to Jesus.
You may know Jesus as the Messiah, whose life, death, and resurrection established a new covenant with God for humanity. Jesus is the epicenter of faith for many millions of people. Even for those who are not Christian, the influence of Jesus Christ in western culture is undeniable. You would think that any portrayal of him would be carefully considered.
In Ben-Hur (1959), Jesus is a figure depicted rarely, treated with some reverent distance. He deigns to bring water to Judah, he speaks (unheard) on a hill to many followers, and at the end he is crucified. His passing brings a mighty storm, and this cleansing rain heals lepers and washes all vengeance and bitterness from Judah, humbling him and making him a devoted follower of Jesus’ teachings. Judah remarks to his beloved Esther, “Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“Even then?” Esther asks.
“Even then,” Judah replies. “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”
Judah is reunited with his family, and the film ends, his arc completed. Parts are a bit cheesy, by contemporary standards, but there is sincerity.
By contrast, in Ben-Hur (2016), Jesus is first seen working as a carpenter, trading words with a cheeky Judah who stands above him. Judah Ben-Hur, Jewish Prince, being cheeky to Jesus. To Jesus. Later the Son of Man brings Judah water by staring down his Roman guard, who does not seem cowed but moves out of the way because that is what the script requires. Jesus stops a stoning by throwing himself onto the victim and shouting “This man is your neighbor! Love thy neighbor!” God reborn as man on Earth flinches under the stones thrown by onlookers who seem confused and disinterested, and not terribly invested in the whole stoning thing to begin with.
The movie treats Jesus with no deference and no distance. This version of Jesus is very human, very grounded. It’s easy to see why he would be so discounted by the Romans. This is not wrong unto itself, but it does mean that the supernatural elements, the evidence of him as incontrovertibly divine are nonexistent; as such, when the healing rain washes Judah’s family clean of leprosy, it is not miraculous, it is silly. When Judah kneels before Jesus on the crucifix and experiences hammy flashbacks of memories of his adopted brother, it is comical. And afterwards, when Judah solemnly approaches his knife-wielding brother, smiling quietly and insisting their conflict is over, inspired by a dude he met a couple times, it is absurd. There is no moment of reflection on the teachings of Jesus, on his selflessness, on his example inspiring Judah, we just watch the dude bleed a minute and suddenly rain. Jesus’ crucifixion is used as the ultimate deus ex machina to make this final plot thread tie itself up into a bow. Messala lost a leg, but no biggie, right?
Which brings us to the final point.
At a guess, the film seems to be pushing some idea of pacifism, likely inspired by an oversimplified approach to the teachings of Jesus (I would suppose the Romans did not crucify Jesus because he was a harmless pacifist). This contrasts with the inclusion of the violent zealot plotline, which goes nowhere. (The zealots only exist to levy an actual assassination attempt against the new Roman Governor of Judea, rather than the unfortunate accident of the ‘59 version, yet another change which serves no purpose.) It also contrasts with Judah’s apparent burning need for revenge, which makes up most of the film. This preference for pacifism is exemplified by the aforementioned example of Jesus running in front of stones to insist the man is not harmed. Violence = bad.
But how, how can this possibly be the message, how can reconciliation and a spurning of violence as a means to address conflict be the thematic center of a movie that has more 3D blood spray than Final Destination? The gore in this movie is schlocky, grim, and omnipresent. Judah cauterizes a wound on a child with a hot knife. A Roman is found crushed under a giant, boulder-like burial marker. There’s an entire series of flashbacks where Messala recalls the horrors of war. The spear entering Jesus’ side is shown in relished detail, and his blood oozes down the cross.
If you see this movie in 3D, there is a moment in the galley sequence, where a ship approaches on a collision course with Judah’s window in the belly of the slave ship. A man is tied to the front of this approaching ship, and when it bursts through, a shower of CG blood spray spurts forth over the audience like the popping of a macabre water balloon.
My God, the Chariot Race.
This is brought home in the chariot race. The CGI in this movie is downright atrocious, which would be offensive enough, but this chariot race is nigh disturbing in the use of gore as titillation. In a film littered with unnecessary side character deaths and injuries, the chariot race approaches new levels. The trampled bodies and brutalized horses in the film’s climactic setpiece seem better suited to a B horror film than an adaptation of a story whose subtitle is “A Tale of the Christ.” How could such a film expect to impart a message of compassion and forgiveness when it so revels in the violence it ostensibly disdains?
Perhaps one could move past this series of thematic contradictions, past the contrived plot and obliterated message and stilted dialogue, if the manner in which this climactic sequence was filmed was enthralling. It is not. It is the cinematic equivalent of seasonal affective disorder. While the image plays out in front of you there is not enough warmth and light to bring you any solace. Never outside of high school film projects has the GoPro been so abused. Found footage horror films can but watch in envy as the shaky cam rocks the screen, rendering any sense of what the hell is going on unattainable.
Bekmambetov has said he wanted the film to feel “grounded and real.” Instead, all he has proven is that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the best that he can do.
Yikes. Y’know? Yikes.
I have no issue with adaptations differing from their source material, but these changes should be made for a reason; those made here only cause the story to suffer, and serve no greater purpose. There is much that could have been done to contemporize an adaptation of Ben-Hur. The heavy-handed nature of the story might be difficult to deliver in a way that isn’t cheesy, but there’s nothing wrong with being a little cheesy. There’s nothing wrong with being sincere. And there’s nothing wrong with maintaining the plot structure in a way that doesn’t require Morgan Freeman to swoop in and fix it.
One can’t help but pity Jack Huston, his voice gone gravelly a la Christian Bale’s Batman after Judah’s years as a galley slave. I would never have expected an actor to match the quiet dignity of Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, but it is a shame Huston wasn’t even permitted the chance. Who could be expected to rise above this material? Morgan Freeman didn’t even try.
Politically confused, thematically contradictory, and muddled in almost every way, Ben-Hur (2016) is an utter waste. That the box office seems to agree is little consolation in light of what might have been. Perhaps the next time the story of Ben-Hur graces the public consciousness, it will be accorded the time, attention, and quality that it deserves.
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