Editor’s Note: Ben-Hur opens in wide theatrical release today, August 19, 2016.
On the ever-expanding, near endless list of unwanted, unneeded, unanticipated sequels, prequels, and remakes, we can add the Timur Bekmambetov-directed (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Wanted, Night Watch) adaptation of General Lee Wallace’s 1880 epic novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Before reaching the silver screen in 1959, Ben-Hur leapt from the printed page to the theater stage, from the theater stage to a one-reeler, from a one-reeler to the silent screen in 1925 and finally to the nearly four hour long, 11-time Oscar winner three decades later. Other adaptations have come and gone since then, including a modestly budgeted two-part miniseries in 2010, but like so many sequels, prequels, and remakes they’ve disappeared into the pop-culture memory hole, never to be heard or seen from again. The latest adaptation of Ben-Hur, an expensive exercise in faith-based filmmaking camouflaged as a wannabe tentpole, will do the same, but at least we’ll have another chariot race to feed our spectacle-driven desires.
A hyper-kinetic visual stylist, Bekmambetov doesn’t disappoint, shooting the chariot race from every conceivable angle and editing the choreographed action into near chaos.
Ben-Hur gives us a brief glimpse of the climactic chariot seen in the opening moments before hitting the reset button and traveling back in time a decade earlier to explore the disintegrating relationship between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a wealthy Jewish prince, and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), his adopted Roman brother. When Ben-Hur falls in an accident, Messala carries him back to their home, but rather than receiving a hero’s welcome for saving his brother, he receives criticism from his adopted mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), for endangering Ben-Hur. His non-Jewish religious beliefs (he’s a pantheist through and through) also causes friction with his adopted family, as does his thinly disguised romantic interest in his adopted sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia). Before long, Messala decides to leave the comforts and conflicts of his adopted home in Jerusalem and make a name for himself in the Roman army.
When he returns several years later, he’s a decorated veteran of Rome’s imperial wars, hacking, slashing, and slicing his way to a respected position in Caesar’s army. Pace previous adaptations, their reunion sours almost immediately, less because of any long hidden, suppressed homoerotic feelings for each other (as in the 1959 adaptation) and more because Messala wants Ben-Hur to collaborate with the Roman Empire, naming names and pointing out the Jewish resisters – Zealots with a capital “Z” – who actively engage in asymmetrical (guerilla) warfare against the Roman occupation. Despite his self-interest in maintaining a status quo that favors him and his family, Ben-Hur rejects Messala’s offer, setting the stage for Ben-Hur’s eventual banishment and years-long enslavement aboard a Roman galley. In a marked contrast to the earlier adaptation, however, Ben-Hur’s willingness to protect an injured Zealot – in essence forcing him to pick sides – leads to his downfall. It’s not a falling tile that almost injures a passing Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), but a well-aimed arrow from a Zealot’s bow that dooms Ben-Hur to slavery and his sister and mother to permanent exile.
Bekmambetov’s adaptation dispenses with a key sequence in Wallace’s novel and the 1959 adaptation: Ben-Hur doesn’t save a Roman centurion in battle. He doesn’t become a Roman by adoption, the heir to his adopted father’s name, fortune, and status. Instead, he washes up on a shore populated by horses and their owner, Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a dreadlocked African sheik who takes an interest in Ben-Hur, first as a caretaker for his horses and later as a chariot driver for his team of horses. Seeing Ben-Hur as a worthy investment, Ilderim sponsors him in an upcoming race against Messala. Before we get to the race, however, Bekmambetov exhaustively revisits the conflict between Ben-Hur and Messala (they meet in their now abandoned home), and Ben-Hur and his estranged wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), a newly minted follower and believer in a longhaired, bearded carpenter and preacher, Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro). Not surprisingly, Jesus preaches love, compassion, and forgiveness, but it’s message a revenge-minded Ben-Hur rejects repeatedly.
Adaptations have come and gone, but like so many sequels, prequels, and remakes, they’ve disappeared into the pop-culture memory hole, never to be heard or seen from again. The latest adaptation of Ben-Hur, an expensive exercise in faith-based filmmaking camouflaged as a wannabe tentpole, will do the same, but at least we’ll have another chariot race to feed our spectacle-driven desires.
Of course, Ben-Hur wouldn’t be Ben-Hur without a chariot race, so forgiveness – if it comes at all – has to wait for Ben-Hur and Messala to resolve their differences in the arena, charioteer against charioteer. A hyper-kinetic visual stylist, Bekmambetov doesn’t disappoint, shooting the chariot race from every conceivable angle and editing the choreographed action into near chaos. To his credit, Bekmambetov only veers into incoherence once or twice, seamlessly mixing practical stunt-work with CGI for the 10-minute-long chariot race. It’s the exact opposite of the earlier sea battle that looks and feels like a cut scene from a long-forgotten videogame or cobbled together from discarded takes from 300: Rise of an Empire. Ben-Hur’s religious conversion happens later, the result of his encounters with Jesus, including Jesus’ crucifixion, but by then any good will earned by Bekmambetov’s relatively restrained direction or an earnest, committed cast, even a somewhat miscast Huston – he’s better at emoting anguish than rage – has all but dissipated, the result of too many narrative missteps, including clunky voiceover narration (not even Freeman’s “voice of god” delivery can save turgid, flaccid exposition), a slow-burn start, and a slow-moving middle section (anything post-sea battle, pre-chariot race).
Timur Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur features a fine chariot race amidst restrained direction, but ultimately the film has too many narrative missteps, including clunky voiceover narration, to be an effective film.