Since 1959, the movie Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as Messala has been a beloved classic. The Oscar winning film's iconic chariot race scene, the stage for the final, deadly confrontation between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala captured the imaginations of theatre-goers in way unheard of at that time. This summer's release of a new adaptation doesn't quite measure up to the 1959 classic but Ben-Hur is still a good effort and better than most "swords and sandals" movies.
For those who might not know, Ben- Hur is actually based on the 1880 novel of the same name written Lew Wallace. In this year's adaptation, the movie begins by focusing on the close relationship between a prince of Israel, Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted Roman brother, Messala. Messala lives in Jerusalem in the house of Ben-Hur as an equal. The two love to race horses but their kinship can go only so far. Messala is in love with Judah's sister, Tirzah but because he is not a Jew, Judah and Tirzah's mother, Naomi disapproves. This leads Messala to leave Jerusalem to make his fortune in the Roman Army. While he is gone, Judah marries Esther but Tirzah remains unmarried. Messala makes a name for himself in the Roman army fighting in Germania and other Roman territories. Just prior to his return, three zealots are found hiding in the Ben-Hur stables by Judah. One of the zealots, Dismas, has been seriously injured. Judah treats the wounded young man, orders the others away and informs Dismas he can stay until he heals but he must not fight against the Romans.
Messala returns to Jerusalem as head of the Roman garrison and reunites with Ben-Hur. Instead of brutally killing the Jews opposed to Roman oppression, Messala has tried to be lenient. But when a group of Roman soldiers are attacked in a Jewish graveyard, he seeks out Ben-Hur and tells him he needs help. Messala wants Judah to provide him the names of the zealots who are involved in the insurrection because Pontius Pilate will be arriving in the city and he does not want trouble. Judah refuses to name names but assures Messala that the Jews have agreed to not cause problems. As Pilate makes his way through the city an attempt is made on his life. That attempt comes from the rooftop of the Ben-Hur house and is made by Dismas. Dismas manages to escape in the ensuing confusion, allowed to by Ben-Hur who knows he will be crucified if caught. The Roman soldiers capture Judah, Naomi and Tirzah but Esther manages to escape. Messala rails against Judah, whom he accuses of treason, sentencing him to the galleys and ordering Naomi and Tirzah to be crucified. On his way to the galleys, Judah has his second encounter with the teacher, Jesus who brings him water, a foreshadowing of their later meeting when Jesus is on his way to Calvary.
Judah survives five years in the galleys, fueled by his hatred. His galley is destroyed (along with all the other Roman ships) in a battle against the Greeks who have been plundering Roman ships in the Aegean Sea. Judah washes up on the shore near the tent camp of Sheik Ilderim who recognizes that he is an escaped galley slave and threatens to take him to the Roman garrison. However, Judah saves Ilderim's sick horse and is allowed to stay in the encampment. Judah accompanies Ilderim's entourage to Jerusalem where he meets Esther who is now a follower of the prophet Jesus. She tells Judah she does not know what has happened to his mother and sister and that he cannot be seen in the city. Judah decides to confront Messala, luring him to the abandoned Ben-Hur home but is almost captured.
Recognizing Judah's desire for vengeance, Sheik Ilderim tells Judah that the best revenge is to be obtained in the coliseum by challenging Messala to a chariot race and humiliating him and Rome by winning. Sheik Ilderim arranges with Pontius Pilate for Judah to race and that if he wins all Roman claims against Ben-Hur will be void. Pontius Pilate agrees and so Judah begins training as a charioteer. Judah eventually learns that his mother and sister are lepers having been spared crucifixion by a Roman soldier further fueling his anger against Messala. This leads to the chariot race in Jerusalem and Judah's victory over Messala. However, Judah realizes winning the race does not give him the peace he longs for and after witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus he seeks out the broken Messala and the two forgive one another. Meanwhile, Naomi and Tirzah are cured of their leprosy after the death of Jesus and reunited with Judah.
Although the story line in this adaptation varies considerably from both the 1959 movie and the novel, Ben-Hur still manages to capture the essence of the story: a Jewish prince is made the scapegoat for a crime he didn't commit by a beloved adopted brother, his family is destroyed and he sets out to seek vengeance only to discover revenge is never the answer. This adaptation misses many important parts of the novel such as the details of what happens to Naomi (Miriam in the novel and the Charlton Heston movie) and Tirzah, and their conversion from Judaism to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Also missing are Judah Ben-Hur's rescue of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, from drowning in the Aegean battle. In the novel and the 1959 movie, Arrius adopts Judah and gains him his freedom. In contrast to the 1959 movie, this new adaptation sees Judah Ben-Hur married to Esther (in the novel he married at least five years after the race with Messala) but their romance is a minor point throughout the movie. This new movie differs significantly in that Messala does not die as a result of his injuries, so one of the most famous death scenes in cinema is not recreated. Overall, the 1959 movie more closely follows the story line of Lew Wallace's novel as much of the middle of the story is missing from the 2016 adaptation.
Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur reasonably well, but lacks the passion that Charlton Heston brought to the role. Toby Kebbell as Messala manages to capture Messala's troubled nature and desire to fit into the Roman world. The only actor who seems out of place is Morgan Freeman who has the part of Sheik Ilderim. Freeman's interpretation of the Sheik, wise yet willing to make his fortune off of the Roman games is overshadowed by his trademark sonorous voice. It's been suggested that Freeman might have been better narrating the film and I agree. At times the screen writing is shabby and the dialogue, delivered with a hint of British accent, most definitely modern. The last scene, a recapitulation of the opening scene with Judah and Messala racing on horses is set to a thoroughly modern tune that seems woefully out of place.
The main themes of the novel, betrayal, redemption and forgiveness are not overshadowed by the amazing special effects. The galley battle scene and the chariot race are amazingly well done and the cinematography with it's sometimes unique camera perspective make for fascinating viewing. The crucifixion scene is short but lacks the drama that the 1959 movie was able to convey. Judah Ben-Hur's conversion to Christianity is quick and clean; there's little of the struggle which was so well portrayed by Heston. Judah Ben-Hur has several encounters with Jesus, who preaches a new law, that forgiveness and love of neighbour are paramount.
Although Jesus is a minor character in the first part of the story, his presence becomes more prominent after the chariot race. When Judah tries to give him water but is whipped, Jesus intervenes, stopping Judah from retaliating. Jesus' radical call to love is in direct contrast to the Roman way of blood sport and cruelty and to the practice of Judaism at the time of Jesus - both of which encouraged "an eye for an eye'. Judah Ben-Hur learns that his vengeance has not healed him of his hurt and has not only crippled his once beloved brother, Messala, but destroyed his soul too. Revenge hasn't changed the fact that his mother and sister are lepers or that his family is in ruin (according to this version). The Jews (and Judah Ben-Hur) are becoming like their oppressors, cruel and blood-thirsty, a fact that Pontius Pilate points out to Sheik Ilderim after the race.
It's likely that this film won't do so well probably because audiences are tiring of remakes. We've had remakes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Tarzan, Godzilla, not to mention the tiresome Spiderman, Batman and Superman reboots and many, many others. This is also a movie with definite religious overtones that tend not to resonate so well with modern audiences. In the hopes of making the film more palatable, there is plenty of action and it was filmed in 3D. The movie has little gore and no sex. The filming was done in such a way that suggests what happens rather than showing it. This is particularly true of the sea battle and the chariot race as well as the crucifixions, the confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane and even the leper colony. Despite its many weakness, Ben Hur is an enjoyable remake, with great action sequences, beautiful cinematography and a good (albeit vastly pared down) story. For younger viewers, if you haven't seen the 1959 version, please do so. It's worth the time (3 and half hours!) and it's a classic.
Here's the second trailer for Ben-Hur 2016 - the beautiful music is Ceasefire by the Christian rock group For King and Country: