The 2016 remake of the classic, 1959 film, Ben-Hur, is an ambitious production. Anytime a film crew attempts to retell the movie that holds the record for Academy Awards (at 11), they deserve credit. But did the risk pay off? Were they able to recapture the majesty and grandeur which swept away audiences more than 50 years ago? Or is this movie a chariot cobbled together by wishful thinking, whose $100 million wheels fall off not long after it leaves the gate? Read on to find out.
A rough start
Before I dive in let me just say that I never saw the original film. So I won’t be making any comparisons to its illustrious predecessor. Nor have I read the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. I’ll be judging this film simply on its own merits.
The movie takes place in first century A.D. and centers around the relationship between the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted Brother Messala. They appear to have a wonderful relationship at the beginning of the film, but Messala never completely embraces his Jewish family. Instead, he takes off to prove himself in the Roman army. That he does and then some, quickly rising in rank to become one of the most powerful officers in the military. So fully does he embrace his Roman heritage that when Ben-Hur and his family are accused of sedition, he has his stepmother and stepsister killed and Ben-Hur sent off into slavery.
Though there are lots of details I’ve left out, what I’ve just described sums up the first third of the film. And that is one of this movie’s biggest faults. It takes too long to really get going. The characters are interesting, the sets are stunning and beautiful, but there just doesn’t seem to be much happening. And what does happen feels episodic and disconnected. The scenes are related, but there’s no strong narrative arc to follow. One reviewer I read said the movie feels like a mini-series jam-packed into a couple of hours and that is certainly true for the movie’s opening sections.
Did the Romans make this film?
The movie picks up considerably once Ben-Hur becomes a slave, but even then it’s so intense at times that it’s hard to watch. The audience gets a front row seat to the misery of life as a galley slave and it’s not a pretty picture. The battle scene at sea, in particular, jars the screen with visceral depictions of suffering and death.
Ben-Hur’s anger at what his “brother” has done to him eventually sets him on the path of getting revenge via the only way available to him—through the chariot races. The movie makes it clear that if Ben-Hur wins, it will be a victory not just for him, but for the oppressed nation of Israel. The film pulls out all the stops in this climactic scene. Visually impressive, the chariot race certainly provides the most memorable moments of the movie. It makes pretty much every other cinematic race I can think of look like a jog around the block. Still, like the sea battle, it is too graphic to sit through without cringing at certain parts.
What a friend we have in Jesus
On the other end of the spectrum from these intense action scenes are those which feature Jesus. And the confusing role he plays in this film is sort of a microcosm of what’s wrong with the screenplay as a whole. The director just doesn’t quite know what to do with him.
While Jesus is only present in half a dozen rather brief scenes, I hate to say it, but his presence feels more like a distraction. For the most part he is treated like a “good teacher” whose message of love and peace fits in with the 21st century politically correct Jesus and, for that matter, hippies, anti-war protesters, and Ghandi. To be fair, his scenes are so short that it’s probably asking too much for a full-orbed portrayal of the Messiah. Jesus certainly was loving and kind, but any hints at divinity, or his teachings about sin and repentance are completely absent here.
By the time the crucifixion plays across the screen (thankfully not nearly as graphic as some other parts of the film) the audience is left wondering just why Jesus was killed at all. The only reason hinted at is that his ideas of love and forgiveness are somehow “dangerous” to Rome. But if he really is the Savior, as some of the movie’s promotional materials label him, then what is he the savior of? You won’t find that out from watching this movie. At best, he seems to have shown Ben-Hur that it is better to forgive than live in anger, but if so, one gets the sense that Ben-Hur might have come to this conclusion on his own.
Sand in the eyes
Despite its shortcomings, Ben-Hur is by no means a bad film. It is just never lives up to its potential. Like participants in one of Rome’s fabled chariot races, there will be lots of thrills along the way, but audiences will get a lot of sand thrown in their face. If you decide to hop aboard Ben-Hur’s chariot be ready for a bumpy ride.