(Spoilers for both the 2016 and 1959 versions of Ben-Hur ahead.)
Of the 2 previous versions of Ben-Hur to hit the big screen, by far the most prestigious and well-known version is the 1959 release starring Charlton Heston. The most expensive film ever made upon release, it featured an ambitious scope that led to it winning 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film stands (and still surprisingly holds up, in my opinion) as a Hollywood classic with scenes impressive even by a half-century of improved standards. To say this 2016 version walks in large footprints is a massive understatement.
Still, I’m no nostalgic jerk ruminating on how much better things used to be. I did not walk into this movie determined to hate it or thinking the 1959 version untouchable. Believe me, just as much fails to hold up today as it manages to impress. I went in expecting this Ben-Hur to at least keep me entertained for its 2 ½ hour length (which is much nicer than the gargantuan 3:42 runtime of the predecessor).
And entertain it does. But is it enough for a Ben-Hur remake to be just a passable summer action movie?
A quick recap might be necessary since this version has some very key differences; the movie centers around Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of a Roman-controlled Jerusalem, and his adopted Roman brother Messala. And yes, the brotherly connection is stressed immediately and very often throughout the movie, to the disappointment of those hoping for the return of the homosexual subtext of the 1959 version. Roman control has led to hostile tensions throughout Jerusalem, which culminates in an incident upon the arrival of Pontius Pilate to the city. A wounded zealot that Judah heals and shelters fires an arrow at Pilate. Messala betrays Judah and his family and has them arrested. Judah is enslaved and sent to row aboard a Roman galley.
From there, he strives to return to Judea and get his vengeance. And it goes about as expected.
The biggest difference from the 1959 movie is an increased focus upon Messala, as well as his motivations. The first 30 minutes or so of the movie focus on him more than Judah. It is established that while he was raised by Judah’s family, he has never felt like part of the family. Their shared mother does not approve either of Messala or his relationship with Judah’s sister, Tirzah. His motivation for leaving to join the Roman army is to gain the status worthy of her. Brief glimpses show us his time in the army. The movie consistently returns to him throughout as he tries to keep a steady, peaceful influence on the Roman occupation of Judea. I like the idea to humanize the focus of Judah Ben-Hur’s revenge, and I can’t say they failed in the attempt.
Toby Kebbell does well with this increased focus, as does most of the cast. Perhaps Jack Huston plays too soft a personality compared to the Heston’s charismatic take on the character. Morgan Freeman plays typical Morgan Freeman but with awful dreadlocks. I certainly won’t sit here and criticize the acting, however. While nothing remarkable, the cast does fine. The same stands for the action and visuals. I liked the transitions throughout the various environments Messala warred in for the Roman army. The naval battle looks great. The costumes and sets are bright and appealing, if nothing mind-blowing.
Considering the entire movie builds to the chariot race, a disappointment there would break the movie. It delivers, for the most part. I could complain about the over-the-top nature, but why bother? Ben-Hur doesn’t strive for realism here. It strives for entertainment, and that’s what we get. Frantic angles, trampled bodies, splintering wood, screaming and death and desperation, it is the defining action scene of an action movie. Revenge is Ben-Hur’s calling card, and the race provides that revenge.
So, decent flick. Solid acting, good action, pretty to look at. The remake pleasantly surprised me. If not for the name, I doubt the negativity leveled at the movie would exist. Most would let it pass as the summer popcorn flick it wants to be.
But that’s not to suggest the flaws are minor or easily overlooked.
Talking Ben-Hur’s flaws without mentioning the 1959 classic is difficult, specifically because the biggest flaw ties directly to that movie; a little thing we like to call the checklist effect. Rather than create a coherent narrative around the new ideas, the movie consistently leaves their potential unexplored to progress to the next plot point. So many scenes occur without much context or sense to them. Messala’s betrayal happens because it must, despite his deeper connection to Judah’s family. Naomi (not Miriam) and Tirzah have leprosy and heal because that’s part of the story. Judah passively moves from location to location with little agency in the course of events because the story says he should.
This is arguably the biggest flaw of the movie, especially with Ben-Hur’s time as a galley slave. Rather than show his worth to Consul Quintus Arrius, which leads the Roman to leave him unchained and allow Judah to save his life during the battle with the Macedonians, the remake rushes through this part of the story. The commander is an angry brute that dies quickly. Judah meekly rows in chains with the others. The Romans lose rather than win, he manages to climb aboard a piece of wreckage, and washes up at the camp of the Sheik Ilderim.
So much of the following events lose their dramatic potency and coherency because of this change. Judah Ben-Hur should not luckily wash ashore in the camp of the man whose horses he eventually races. The fact that he saves Quintus Arrius and becomes his adopted son means a great deal to this story. It is because of his status in Rome as both Arrius’s son and renowned as a racer in Rome that Ben-Hur can race against Messala later. The remake pays lip service with Ilderim’s bribe, but the damage is done. Judah loses the character and agency which allowed him to rebuild himself from slave to prominent noble. The heroic nature of the story vanishes without anything to fill the void.
Perhaps that was the intention, but a lesser movie results. The idea of a random slave washing up on shore, being kept alive, and then being allowed to race the chariot simply doesn’t add up like the original story does.
Also strange is the way Ben-Hur both drastically tones down the role of faith while also being much more direct with it. Nothing displays the checklist effect like Jesus Christ’s role in the film. Rather than the important, ever-present, faceless and voiceless character so central to both the story and Judah’s character, he simply shows up from time to time for the required scenes. At the same time his identity and importance apparently must be shouted from the rooftops every time he appears.
Rather than simply be there with water when Judah collapses, everyone stops and goes silent while he strolls over without protest. The Crucifixion happens in rushed fashion because that is how the movie must end. He shows up a couple times for seemingly no purpose but to remind the viewer he exists. The role of faith in Judah’s character and the story is basically non-existent. It felt to me like the movie wanted to do without Jesus, but didn’t think they could get away with it.
This especially shows in the wasted potential of Esther’s increased role. Somehow, despite Jesus’s presence, her immediate faith in him rather than the last-minute devotion of the 1959 movie, and her general greater presence, she does even less in this version. Worst of all, she lost her storyline with Judah’s mother and sister, culminating in leading them from the leper caves to see Jesus Christ before the rain heals them. I already mentioned the checklist nature of Naomi and Tirzah’s leprosy and the healing. Their general importance is surprisingly decreased, despite their established importance to both Judah and Messala in the movie’s opening. Quite the surprise that a 2016 version of Ben-Hur did less with its female characters than the 1959 version.
Besides the checklist effect, the movie commits other storytelling sins present in other adaptations covered here at Fandomentals (and makes me wonder why so many adaptations share the same flaws). Characterization 180s, anachronistic dialogue, and the inconsistent freedoms of slaves and servants all stand out at various points. The writing definitely falls below the standard of the production. Some of this may fall upon squeezing such an epic story into the lesser runtime. Much of the writing should not be allowed to receive that excuse.
So I ask again, is “another action movie” good enough for Ben-Hur? Depends on the audience. For some, the Charlton Heston epic sets a standard forever held against this remake. Others will be perfectly happy with a fun movie. As for me? I think Ben-Hur succeeds at what it wants to be.
And that’s perfectly fine. Not everything will be a Hollywood classic. Sometimes a movie is just a movie.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures