If the inestimable amount of contemporary Hollywood remakes suggests nothing short of creative bankruptcy, the sole factor justifying another Ben Hur in 2016 is that its source is a novel, a minor technicality that allows one to view the new film less as a remake of previous versions (the first in 1907, the second in 1925, and the Charlton Heston classic in 1959) than as simply another adaptation.
Based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben Hur: A Tail of the Christ, this is the story of young Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Judean prince who grows up in the company of a young Roman Orphan named Messala (Toby Kebbell). The two fraternal brothers soon turn into mortal enemies after Messala joins the Roman Legion. Attempting to prove his worth as a Roman, Messala sentences Judah to slavery for a crime he never committed and imprisons his mother and sister in a dank prison. After years on board the galley of a slave ship, a series of events leads Judah, with the help of African horse runner Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), on the road to revenge. And all the meanwhile, the life of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) plays out in the background.
William Wyler’s ’59 epic became a touchstone of Hollywood’s Golden Era. It remains a massive epic of a movie. Featuring a cast of thousands and running nigh short of four hours long, it was at the time the most expensive movie ever made, and took home a staggering eleven Oscars.
Given the ubiquity of the 1959 film, it is inevitable -novel or no- that the 2016 film must suffer comparisons. Furthermore, it must be said that director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) appears to invite those comparisons by using Wyler’s film as a direct frame of reference, particularly by framing key sequences around the classic’s biggest moments: the chariot race, the galley ship, Jesus gives Ben-Hur a drink of water. Unfortunately, in comparison, none of those scenes in the new film feel quite as monumental as they do in the Heston epic.
Among other problems, Hur’s trajectory here -both physical and moral- feels more rushed than it ought to. Where the aforementioned classic ran for 3 and Â½ hours, this one runs for just under two, and a feeling of desperate truncation runs throughout. Key plot points are altered or left out completely. Granted, a 3 and Â½ hour movie is a lot to ask of a modern audience, not to mention the price tag associated with such length, but the abbreviation is particularly noticeable to anyone familiar with the classic tale. Furthermore, the sections left out (for instance, Ben-Hur’s rescuing of a Roman officer on a sinking ship) are significant in the way the character(s) develop; to leave them out is to substantially alter those characters. As a result, the movie feels like ‘Ben-Hur’ in ellipses, fast-motion footnotes of the real thing.
However, the film in and of itself isn’t qualitatively bad. In fact, it’s an entertaining two hours, and for a lot of people who haven’t seen the earlier movie(s), the objects of comparison will be irrelevant. The story -albeit altered- is still engaging, the message is positive, without being as heavy-handed, while the technological advances in movie making are as marked between 1959 and 2016 as they were between 1959 and 1925 – for better or worse.
While the 2016 Ben-Hur has already copped a lashing from many critics, the response seems more reflexive than it does considered, an automatic retaliation for ostensibly profaning a classic. In fact, withstanding certain abbreviations, the new film is more than faithful to the spirit of that classic, replete with espousing the best attributes -peace, love, forgiveness- of nascent Christianity and condemning the brutality of Roman rule.
Far from monumental, Ben-Hur is nevertheless very respectable. It could have been a lot worse.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10