One title. Two movies. Okay, actually it’s three movies. Hang on, let me double-check that… There were four Ben-Hur movies? I guess one of them is listed as a short-film. The three-and-a-half movies called Ben-Hur are based on an 1880 novel entitled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. I haven’t read the book. But I’ve now seen at least two of the several movies it spawned.
The Ben-Hur most people are familiar with is the 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler. For almost 40 years, it was the only movie to win 11 Oscars at the Academy Awards (until Titanic matched it and later Return of the King). It’s a theatrical epic in two acts separated by an intermission given its almost four-hour run-time.
The new adaptation of Ben-Hur is produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (I’ve written on their Bible-bending before), starring Jack Huston in the title role, and is directed by Timur Bekmambetov whose most notable credit is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The movie cuts a lot of material from its predecessor and writes in some of its own (I’m talking about Ben-Hur now, not Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).
I watched both movies this week. It’d been quite a while since I’d seen the 1959 original… er, first remake… second remake? Anyway, despite borrowing from the same source material, they’re two very different films and deserve their own reviews. They both have their own strengths and their own weaknesses. Yes, despite being an Oscar decorated epic, the Ben-Hur of 59 has its flaws.
For the sake of avoiding confusion, I’ll be referring to the two films as Ben-Hur59 and Ben-Hur16 from here on out. First, a review of the most classic film…
The movie begins with the birth of Christ. Three wise men follow a star to a stable in Bethlehem where they find the baby Jesus and present him with their gifts. Balthasar, one of the magi, is also the narrator of the story. He comes back up later on looking for the child who has since become a man, and encourages Judah to search with him.
Fast-forward to about 26 A.D. when Judah Ben-Hur’s childhood friend, Messala, returns to Jerusalem as a Roman Tribune. Messala is played by Stephen Boyd, and boy does he have the googly eyes for Charlton Heston’s Judah. The bromance on Messala’s part seems a little more than friendly. He even throws in a line about their “unrequited love.”
Rumors have swirled about a homosexual subtext. In 1995, one of the film’s contributing writers, Gore Vidal, revealed that they had envisioned a homosexual backstory in the relationship of Judah and Messala to explain why it was so easy for Messala to turn on Judah. Heston, a staunch conservative, was never in on it, but Boyd was.
|Great googly moogly!|
Many have dismissed Vidal’s story as being made-up, just stirring up controversy in the 90s. Perhaps he was playing off Boyd’s overacting (Boyd died in 1977, so we didn’t get to hear his side). But even if Vidal was telling the truth, I don’t really have a problem with Messala being written as having some kind of desire for Judah beyond friendship. He was a Roman. Depravity was kind of their thing. Maybe Messala wanted more out of his relationship with Judah. At one point, he talks to Judah about coming back to Rome with him.
Judah is not as taken by Messala’s offers. He’s downright insulted by the suggestion that the Roman occupation is a good thing. Refusing to help Messala tame the Jews, Judah’s frustration is sold well by Charlton Heston. A clear rift occurs in Messala and Judah’s friendship and neither one can trust the other (this split isn’t as obvious in Ben-Hur16).
Later, Judah is wrongly accused of an assassination attempt on a Roman official and he and his mother and sister are arrested. Judah is banished to the Roman galleys for life, where he’ll row the oars for Roman battle ships. During his slave trek across the desert, they come to a town where the prisoners are allowed to get a drink. The water passes Judah who falls to the ground and prays to God for relief. A man walks up and gives Judah a drink. That man is Jesus. But his face is never seen and his voice is never heard in any of his appearances throughout the film (I like that touch).
Judah spends years rowing Roman ships, earning a spot on the flagship of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius. During a battle on the sea, the ship is rammed and destroyed. Judah saves Quintus from drowning, who then also tries to kill himself, but Judah prevents his suicide, too. Quintus would not only set Judah free, he would adopt Judah as his heir and give him the name Arrius.
Now a Roman citizen, Judah has a successful career racing chariots. But despite his fame and fortune, he longs to go back to Jerusalem and find out what happened to his mother and sister. Upon his return, Esther (his romantic interest) tells Judah that his mother and sister are dead. This enrages Judah all the more to seek revenge on Messala. He comes into the company of an Arab Sheik named Ilderim who breeds race horses and bets on them. Judah decides to race the Sheik’s horses in the Roman Circus, and it’s there he’ll get vengeance against Messala.
The chariot racing scene is gorgeous, the part of the film the movie is most famous for. To cut to the quick, Judah beats Messala who’s trampled by horses at the end of the race. With his dying breath, Messala tells Judah that his mother and sister aren’t dead but are lepers living in a leper colony. As he dies, Messala says, “The race goes on,” still trying to agonize the heart of Judah.
Judah sees people flocking to hear Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He refuses to go with them, but Esther does and desires to hear the words of this great teacher. Tensions arise in Judah and Esther’s romance because Judah still can’t let go of his hate.
When he finally retrieves his mother and his sister, he decides this Jesus of Nazareth can help them. But by the time he brings them to him, he’s being led down the road with a cross to Golgotha. Jesus stumbles and Judah goes to take him water just as Jesus did for him years before, but the guards prevent Jesus from drinking any. Judah follows all the way to Golgotha where he watches Jesus being crucified.
Meanwhile, Judah’s mother and sister are with Esther. Upon the death of Jesus, the sky darkens and during a storm the rain cures them of their leprosy. Judah returns home to tell Esther what he’d witnessed. He sees his mother and sister are cured, and they all lived happily ever after.
|Maybe this is where Michael W. Smith got the idea for “Healing Rain.”|
Ben-Hur is an epic and every shot is beautifully filmed, but very slow-moving contributing to its nearly four-hour run-time (there’s a musical prelude and a built-in intermission). This was at a time though when you couldn’t rent a movie and take it home. Going to the movies was like going to a play. Its slow pace is part of what gives the movie its grandeur. But as much praise as the movie receives even among Christians, it’s not without its problems.
All the Jews in this movie are quite white and very westernized. Then there’s the Arab character Sheik Ilderim played by English actor Hugh Griffith in brown-face (he won an Academy Award for the role). Speaking of faces, though the face of Jesus is never seen in the movie, he’s still clearly a light-haired white dude. Everyone who looks at him is also quite taken with him when the Bible says he was nothing to look at (Isaiah 53:2).
That huge, iconic chariot race? It takes place in Jerusalem. Come on, that’s just lazy storytelling. There was no massive colosseum nor chariot racing in Jerusalem. How hard would it have been to write that Judah went to Caesarea or even back to Rome for the chance to race Messala and get revenge? That’s way less far-fetched than Roman chariot-racing in Jerusalem. (Edit: It’s been pointed out to me Herod Antipas did want to build a hippodrome in Jerusalem, but it never came to fruition.)
The film ends with the crucifixion of Christ, not his resurrection. I hadn’t seen the movie since I was in college, and I could have sworn the film ended on resurrection Sunday morning. Nope. Judah sees Jesus die, his mother and sister are cured of their leprosy, and then the closing shot is of shepherds herding sheep past an empty cross. There’s a reference in the dialogue to Jesus dying for the whole world, but no mention of his conquering death.
At one point, Balthasar tells Judah, “There are many paths to God. I hope that yours will not be too difficult.” It’s hard to tell if Balthasar meant that in the theological sense or in a more personal sense. If it was theological, then it’s the same nonsense as Oprah’s theology: “There are millions of ways to God.” There’s only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).
But Balthasar could also have meant that some people come to know the Lord soon and others go through more difficult trials before God delivers them up and shows them the error of their ways. Considering how much movie was left and that Judah would still go through an act of revenge and find himself unsatisfied, that’s a plausible interpretation. I don’t want to give the film too much credit though because the writers were biblically ignorant on a number of fronts.
When Judah finally returns to Esther after seeing Jesus crucified, he tells her he heard him say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Judah says of the experience, “I could feel the sword being taken from my hand,” suggesting that he no longer feels the rage and the hate for what happened to him and his family. But next, Judah sees his cured mother and sister, and that’s the end of the thought.
That was a great opportunity to conclude the film with repentance! The filmmakers really could have fleshed that out more. Christ had delivered Judah from his sins. But the “sword being taken from my hand” line was really as far as the movie took it. To find any gospel in Ben-Hur, you’d have to fill in the blanks yourself. It’s not a gospel story.
Let me first say that I will be really happy when this shakey-cam generation of making movies comes to an end. While Ben-Hur59 is bold and beautiful, Ben-Hur16 tries to cover up its short-comings by jostling the camera like a drunk with Parkinson’s riding on a galloping horse.
Unlike Ben-Hur59 which began with the birth of Christ, Ben-Hur16 begins with a portion of the chariot race. The action then shifts to Judah and Messala racing one another as friends. Judah topples from his horse and is injured and Messala saves his life. The Judah and Messala of this story are brothers as Messala was adopted and grew up in the house of Hur.
Messala is trying to escape a dark mark on his past, one that involves his grandfather who was a traitor to the Romans. In order to make something of himself, he feels like he needs to leave and head for Rome, where through military accomplishment he becomes a Tribune. Judah, meanwhile, marries a servant girl named Esther.
When the Romans occupy Jerusalem, Messala comes back into Judah’s company and the two brothers rekindle an old friendship. But Messala, now a Roman Tribune, wants Judah to assist him in outing the zealots that seek to stir up trouble, and Judah refuses to name names. This is the only meaningful and witty conversation between two characters in the entire film.
Toby Kebbell’s Messala is significantly more compelling than Jack Huston’s Judah, who’s kind of a blank-slate of a man. But neither actor gives anywhere near the performance that Boyd and Heston did before them. Boyd gave Messala’s character that truly sinister touch, and you can feel Heston’s rage — even when he’s not talking, it’s there in his eyes. But Kebbell and Huston give wooden performances that surely aren’t helped by a shallow script.
According to Gore Vidal, Ben-Hur59 needed a reason for Messala to betray Judah so easily, so they presumably wrote in the whole homosexual undertone thing. Well, in this movie, it’s a combination of Messala’s dead grandfather and a nagging officer named Marcus that’s always trying to get Judah to do the Roman thing lest he become a traitor like his grandfather. But there are enough elements happening in the movie that the story doesn’t need Messala’s dead grandfather and the annoying officer.
After Judah is wrongly accused of an assassination attempt, he confesses to the crime so the guards would let his sister and mother go. At that point, the case is closed. There’s no need for Messala to have a backstory for his anger. Judah’s given him a reason. It would actually be merciful for Messala to not kill him on the spot and instead banish him to the galleys. That would be totally fitting for the character as he was created for this film. But whatever. Lazy writing.
As Judah is being taken away to the galleys, he stumbles on the road and that’s when Jesus shows up to give him a drink. Jesus made an appearance earlier when Judah and Esther were in the market. While the Jesus in Ben-Hur59 is faceless, that’s not the case in Ben-Hur16. Handsome Rodrigo Santoro’s Jesus is the low point of the film. Everything he says is forced and senseless, and the other characters’ reaction to him doesn’t make any sense either.
There’s a scene where a man is being stoned, and Jesus runs in and covers up the man to protect him. He tells the people to stop throwing stones because this man is “your neighbor” and you’re supposed to love your neighbor. He says, “Hate and fear are lies that turn us against each other.” Then he says, “Love is our true nature.”
Uh, no. Jesus never said such a thing. He straight-up called men evil (Matthew 7:11, 12:34, 15:19, 16:4). That is our true nature. Jesus came to die for our sins, satisfying the wrath of God burning against our unrighteousness. For those who are in Christ, we who are evil are received by God as righteous because of what Christ has done. He covers our evil nature with his own good nature. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift (Romans 3:23-24).
The most beautiful part of the movie is when Judah is in the boat rowing and there’s the war at sea. We see almost everything from Judah’s perspective. It’s so well done, I was going, “Man, this movie’s turning out to be pretty good!” But that’s the high-point. It’s all down-hill from there. Judah never saves Quintus like he did in Ben-Hur59 which was odd because Quintus is played by James Cosmo of Braveheart fame. Cosmo is in the movie for like a blink, and then he’s gone. What a waste of a good actor.
Judah washes up on a shore and is found by Morgan Freeman who mails in his part as Sheik Ilderim. Really, he’s not even trying. He’s just there to be Morgan Freeman. He had a better character voice for Azeem in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and that was a movie full of terrible accents.
|And what’s with the dreadlocks in Downey and Burnett’s Bible stories?|
Incredibly, Judah knows how to race chariot horses. In Ben-Hur59, it was established that he was an experienced and winning chariot racer. In Ben-Hur16, he’s never raced a chariot one time, and suddenly he’s going to take on the best in the world including the undefeated Messala. Like in Ben-Hur59, that race takes place in Jerusalem. But in Ben-Hur16, the chariot race takes place during the week between Palm Sunday and Jesus’s crucifixion!
The race is pretty action-packed and climactic, but it’s not as beautiful or as awesome as the chariot race in Ben-Hur59. The two don’t even compare. Captain Shakey-Cam tries to cover up all the bad CGI and lack of grand scale. I won’t say it’s all bad. There were some good shots. The conclusion to the race was pretty awesome, too, with some foreshadowing leading up to it. Of course Judah wins, and what he thinks is Messala’s corpse is paraded around as the loser.
The rest of the movie is rather rushed. Judah encounters Jesus on the road to Golgotha and tries to give him water. He weeps at the cross after hearing Jesus say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Esther weeps with him and they have an I’m-sorry-let’s-be-romantic-again moment (the chemistry is never there — they’re just two good-looking actors). In muffled dialogue, Judah says, “My brother is dead,” and Esther replies, “Just have faith.”
Sure enough, Messala is still alive. He’s laying on a bed with an amputated leg he lost in the chariot crash. Judah approaches him and Messala curses him, promising revenge and is ready to run him through with a knife he’s holding. But instead the two embrace and hug and cry and forgive each other. Like, in about 5 seconds. Judah doesn’t even break stride when approaching him. Just like that, Messala went from ready to kill Judah to hugging and crying.
The movie doesn’t end there. There’s an even cheesier moment where Judah and his mother and sister (who were cured of their leprosy in a random cut-scene, just to get that part in there) are riding on horses. Messala is there and Esther and Morgan Freeman. At one point Judah looks back, I guess to see if Morgan Freeman is still part of his company. Freeman says, “Don’t look back, Judah. Look forward. You have your whole life ahead of you.” Oh, boy. Like the other Ben-Hur movie, if you want to find any gospel in this movie, you need to fill in the blanks yourself.
It would seem likely for me to end this review by saying that you need to watch the 1959 Ben-Hur instead of the 2016 Ben-Hur. But as I said, save for certain plot points, the movies are so vastly different they’re almost incomparable. Just don’t watch either movie expecting to see a Bible story. Jesus exists in both films as a gimmick. Don’t be naive; this is to make money, not preach some kind of message and definitely not to preach anything biblically sound.
The Ben-Hur of 1959 is an iconic piece of movie history. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it an 8. The Ben-Hur of 2016 is even more of a cash-grab and a mediocre serving of the shakey-cam action films of our generation. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a 5. The action saves the movie from being any less than that. The acting and the story keep it from being any more than that. The parts of the Bible that are butchered and wedged in there make it worth nothing.