It’s one of life’s unavoidable truths that the mention of the name Ben-Hur likely conjures up images of Charlton Heston’s chiseled visage. That’s because, while there have been numerous film adaptations of Lew Wallace’s novel going all the way back to 1907, it is William Wyler’s 1959 epic starring Heston that everyone has committed to memory. And why not? Wyler’s film was the highest grossing movie of its year, critics and audiences alike gave it glowing reviews, and it garnered 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s highly unlikely anyone over the age of 30 hasn’t seen it.
That poses a bit of a problem for director Timur Bekmambetov’s new take on the classic tale. As younger audiences aren’t typically the target market for historical dramas, it is older moviegoers who are the ones most likely to purchase a ticket for this updated Ben-Hur. For them, the specter of the older film will inevitably hang over any attempts to view the new one, making comparisons all but inescapable.
The basic skeleton of the story remains the same. In the years just preceding the ministry of Christ, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a well-to-do Jewish noble who spends most of his time hanging out with his best Roman pal, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). As unrest builds between the Jews and the Romans, Judah takes a non-committal stance while Messala rises in the ranks of the imperial legion. Circumstances eventually lead to Judah’s unjust arrest at the hands of Messala and subsequent enslavement on a Roman galley where he swears vengeance on the man he once called brother. Escaping imprisonment when his ship goes down in battle, Judah finds the chance for revenge when he is offered the opportunity to compete against Messala in a no-holds-barred chariot race. While all this is playing out, Jesus quietly goes about his work in the background.
So the basic storyline remains, but numerous changes have been made for this outing, and not always to the movie’s benefit. The decision to humanize the two leads by casting actors who don’t look like ancient statues come to life is fine, but it does make one question their near-superhuman abilities in the final race just a bit. The film also decides to show Jesus this time around rather than cleverly keeping his face hidden as Wyler’s movie did. In some undefinable way, this actually ends up diminishing the savior’s presence in the story rather than improving it.
However, the most egregious change comes in the handling of Messala. In this version, he is not only Judah’s friend, but his adopted brother as well, one who constantly comes under the disapproving eye of Judah’s mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer). And whereas in most versions, the incident that leads to Judah’s incarceration is due to nothing more than a loose roofing tile falling on Pontius Pilate, this time around it is because Judah has been harboring a zealot who flat out tries to murder the Roman official, thereby giving Messala little choice but to do his job and arrest his brother for breaking the law.
All of this is done in the name of giving the character of Messala more resonable motivations behind his actions in the film, but by doing so, it effectively undermines Judah’s justification for seeking vengeance. This is problematic because the entire story is ultimately about the futility of such motivations, no matter how justified, and the ultimate need for forgiveness in our lives. It’s those very themes, in fact, which have caused the likes of Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley and Cardinal Donald Wuerle to endorse the film, so the movie does itself no favors by taking steps to weaken them.
Technically, the film is fine. Bekmambetov is no stranger to action scenes and he directs them well here. The iconic chariot race is suitably exciting, though the notion that Judah can clearly hear Morgan Freeman’s shouted instructions during the event is kind of amusing. I know that Freeman has basically become the voice of God in the minds of moviegoers, but this pushes it a bit. The best moment is actually the naval battle which is filmed entirely from the point of view of the slaves in the bowels of the galley. It’s brutal and harrowing and honestly one of the better action sequences put to film this year.
It’s not enough to save the film, though. While there is much to recommend in this new Ben-Hur, the attempts to modernize the story ultimately undercut the very things which have made it such an enduring classic. That is not to say you shouldn’t see this new version or that you won’t enjoy at least parts of it. Just don’t expect it to fare well when the inevitable comparisons with what came before happen.