Review: Ben-Hur (dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2016)

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In theory, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t make a new version of Ben-Hur. Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel has been dramatized several times already, and the most famous film of them all — the 1959 adaptation with Charlton Heston — deviated from the book in ways that arguably made it a less-than-definitive adaptation of the source material. (Among other things, the Heston film is less overt about its Christianity than the silent 1925 version.) So I was prepared to give the new movie a chance.

Unfortunately, the new movie — directed by Timur Bekmambetov, a producer of flashy, trashy action movies whose directorial credits include Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — is a mess. The filmmakers have been justifying the existence of their film by saying that it is more faithful to the original novel, but the movie itself doesn’t support these assertions. Written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, the script jettisons some of the story’s most important subplots while inventing new subplots to “flesh out” the main characters and give the story some sort of modern political resonance. And its treatment of the biblical material is perfunctory at best. Worst of all, it tries to cram everything into a two-hour running time, which forces the filmmakers to make some odd narrative shortcuts and leaves no time for the audience to feel properly engaged by any of the characters.

The two previous feature films based on Wallace’s story worked on a very elemental level: Judah Ben-Hur was a Jew who believed strongly in non-violence, while Messala was a Roman who believed in the power of the empire and its military, and their childhood bond is broken when Judah stands up for his religious heritage and refuses to help Messala track down Jews who are less than happy with Roman rule. But the new film reimagines Judah (Jack Huston) as a spoiled rich kid who doesn’t want his way of life upset — other characters keep lecturing him about his life of “privilege”, even after he survives a five-year stint as a galley slave — and it reimagines Messala (Toby Kebbell) as a Roman orphan who grew up with Judah’s family but is constantly made to feel like he doesn’t really belong with them.

This point can’t be emphasized enough: For much of the new film, our sympathies are decidedly with Messala, who has traditionally always been the villain of this story. Practically the first thing we see him do is carry Judah home after Judah hurts himself in a horse-riding accident, and then Messala prays to one of his Roman gods and leaves a small figurine outside the room where Judah is being cared for. This gives the new Messala a decidedly spiritual quality that was lacking from the nakedly power-hungry Messalas of earlier films; his pagan religiosity is also remarkably different from the agnosticism that Judah expresses in another scene shortly after that (“If there is a God, why doesn’t he do right by the world?”). And yet, despite the fact that Judah’s mother (Ayelet Zurer) told Messala to pray, she chastises him afterwards for praying to the wrong gods. Like, seriously? She took this Roman into her home as a boy, and after all these years she hadn’t figured out just who he would pray to? She hadn’t either raised him to believe in the Jewish God or learned to live with a difference of belief under her roof? Of course, in a way it helps that Messala doesn’t feel too integrated into Judah’s family, because he seems to have a thing for Judah’s sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia), and if Judah is Messala’s “brother”, then presumably Tirzah would have to be Messala’s “sister”. Either way, Messala’s interest in Judah’s sister just gives Judah’s mother one more thing to complain about.

And so Messala leaves the house of Hur to go make a name for himself and reclaim his family’s honour. (We are told that his grandfather was crucified for taking part in the assassination of Julius Caesar some 70 years earlier — which would be a sign of dishonour indeed, since Roman citizens were generally exempt from crucifixion.) He travels the world and fights many foreign armies, and along the way he finds a mentor in Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) and learns that his fellow soldiers prefer raw brutality to dealing with conquered peoples intelligently and sympathetically. Eventually Messala returns to Jerusalem when Pilate and his entourage are assigned there, and he is happy to be reunited with Judah — until he discovers that Judah was harbouring a young Zealot named Dismas (Moises Arias) who tries to assassinate Pilate while Pilate is riding down the street outside Judah’s house.

Judah, of course, had nothing to do with the assassination attempt — but he did give Dismas a place to stay after Tirzah brought him home along with some other Zealots, following a skirmish in which Dismas sustained some injuries. So, whether it was Judah’s fault or Tirzah’s, the house of Hur is guilty of giving sanctuary to a Jewish rebel (who escapes while the Romans are storming the house), and Messala has no choice but to punish the family as a whole, lest Pilate and the other Romans question Messala’s loyalty.

Judah doesn’t see it that way, of course, and for the next five years — condemned to row the oars of a Roman warship — he nurtures his hatred of Messala. Except for a few exterior shots of the boats, Judah’s time on the warship is shown entirely from his point of view, which is to say the camera stays below decks. We only see the officers through gaps in the ceiling, or perhaps when they come down to bark at the slaves, and we only see the other warships — some Roman, and some apparently piloted by rebel Greeks — through the tiny oar-holes in the walls of the ship. When the ship is bombarded by tar and flaming arrows, we don’t see where these things are coming from — and we don’t see the Greek ship that rams Judah’s ship until it’s too late to do anything about it. (The Greek ship has a prisoner strapped to its front, just like one of the pirate ships in the 1925 film.) This is all very terrifying and claustrophobic, but it limits the movie’s perspective in other ways as well. Most shockingly of all, Quintus Arrius — the world-weary nobleman who is rescued by Judah in all other versions of this story, and who adopts Judah in return, giving him wealth and Roman citizenship — is reduced here to another Roman brute (played by James Cosmo) who ends up dangling from an oar during the battle, and is then whacked by Judah himself. Or is he whacked by one of the other oarsmen? Either way, it’s a savage way to bump off a once-beloved character who was played so well by Jack Hawkins in 1959 and Ray Winstone in 2010 — and it suggests a certain resistance to the idea that there can be such a thing as a good (or at least morally complex) Roman.

Or perhaps it was just a way to hack the story down to two hours. Instead of spending time in Rome, Judah washes up on the other side of the Mediterranean and comes across Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a Nubian sheikh — Arabic in most other versions of the story — who owns a team of horses and needs a charioteer to drive them. Oh, and — quelle coincidence! — Ilderim just happens to be going to Jerusalem. So Ilderim takes Judah under his wing — but the deletion of the Quintus Arrius subplot leaves the film in an odd place, because now, instead of being a champion chariot-racer in Rome before he returns to Palestine, Judah is an utter neophyte who isn’t even trained by Ilderim until after Ilderim has made an enormously risky wager with the Romans that could ruin him financially if Judah loses. But Judah is determined to race against Messala because he hopes Messala will die in one of the inevitable pile-ups, and it’s the thought that counts, right?

The chariot race itself has a certain momentum, as well as a couple of ludicrous action-movie twists that are par for the course these days (such as Judah falling out of his chariot, being dragged behind it, and pulling himself back in). I liked the flying sand and the way the chariots sometimes flip in the air — it may be a bit exaggerated, but it has a definite energy and it gives the race a sense of constant danger above and beyond what we saw in the earlier films — but I’m not a fan of director Timur Bekmambetov’s reliance on GoPro cameras (and this isn’t the only period piece that is using them right now; the trailer that dropped last month for Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword also had some GoPro footage). Maybe one day we’ll treat those shots as images like any other, but for now they just yank you out of the ancient-world setting that they are supposed to be immersing you in. (They may also remind you of Bekmambetov’s trashier GoPro-based projects like Hardcore Henry, which has some point-of-view shots that resemble shots within this film.)

This being Ben-Hur, the story wouldn’t be complete without some scenes of Jesus, and from the beginning, the people behind this film have said that they were going to show more footage of Jesus than the 1959 film did. Well, the earlier film kept Jesus’ face hidden and this one doesn’t, so there’s that, at least. But the dialogue (spoken by Rodrigo Santoro) has very little to do with the message of the Jesus of the gospels. Sometimes he says things that are biblical, but were actually said by other people (such as “God is love,” which comes from one of John’s epistles). And sometimes he says things that sound very modern, even New Agey, such as his insistence that “love is our true nature” while hate, anger and fear “are lies they use to turn you against each other” (the “they” in this case being the Romans, I guess?). But while Judah’s wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) talks about the Jesus movement, we never really see it until the film cuts abruptly to a scene of Jesus being betrayed in Gethsemane the night after the chariot race. (Ben-Hur follows other recent films, such as The Gospel of John and Son of God, in supposing that some of the female disciples — including Esther, in this case — were present when Jesus was betrayed.) (Side note: in Wallace’s original novel, Judah was the young man who ran naked through Gethsemane as per Mark 14:51-52. Alas, there is no Judah in this scene, and no other naked men.)

The film then proceeds abruptly to the Via Dolorosa and the Crucifixion, and it brings back Dismas and reveals him to be the ‘Good Thief’ who is crucified next to Jesus. The fact that the ‘Good Thief’ is clearly identified in this film as a freedom fighter, rather than a mere criminal, is all to the good. But after all the time and care that was put into establishing Dismas in the early scenes, his presence here is as perfunctory as everything else in the movie’s final moments. For one thing, we don’t really know why Dismas is being crucified in the first place; he was in the crowd for the chariot race, and the Romans arrested him while the Jews were celebrating Judah’s victory, but what exactly did he do to attract the Romans’ attention? (Remember, this scene takes place five years after Dismas tried to assassinate Pilate, an event that Judah took credit for in the futile hope that his mother and sister would be let off the hook. Presumably the Romans haven’t bothered to investigate the attack any further. And if Dismas has been an active Zealot in the interim, why would he show his face at a Roman sporting event?) For another thing, Luke’s gospel says the ‘thief’ spoke up in defense of Jesus — and asked Jesus to remember him in his Kingdom — after Jesus had been mocked by another ‘thief’ who was crucified with them; but in this film, although the other ‘thief’ is there on his cross, Dismas just blurts out his defense of Jesus without any prompting. And so one of the film’s many attempts to “open up” the story ends with a scene that feels like bits got hacked off so that the rest of it could be shoehorned into the movie.

There are many, many other points that one could make about this film. In addition to killing off Arrius, the film completely omits Balthasar, the Egyptian ‘Wise Man’ who, in earlier versions of this story, returns to Palestine decades after the Nativity to see if the Messiah has revealed himself yet. (Incidentally, Wallace’s novel grew out of his interest in the Nativity, but the new movie omits the birth of Jesus, too.) The dialogue gets too modern at times, such as when Judah scoffingly calls Jesus’ ideas “very progressive” or when he tells Messala that he has spoken to some of the local rabbis and “opinion-makers”. There’s a striking lack of ceremony about the chariot race; instead of letting the chariots parade around the arena, Bekmambetov has them race at top speeds right out of the gate — and unless I’m forgetting something, Pilate never bothers to crown the winner once the race is over.

And because the chariot race is so all-important to the new film, the writers have created an entire subplot around the construction of the circus where the race takes place — but this subplot makes no sense the moment you think about it: the Romans are building the circus right outside Jerusalem, the holiest city in Judaism (in the book, the chariot race took place in Antioch); the Romans have been taking gravestones from a Jewish cemetery to use as building blocks (we even see stones covered in Hebrew letters in the stands); and the arena’s inaugural chariot race, filled with shattering chariots and trampled charioteers, takes place during Passover, one of the most sacred of Jewish festivals. And I haven’t even mentioned what’s up the hill from there. The structure and all that surrounds it should be repulsive to any reasonably devout first-century Jew — and indeed, Dismas and his fellow Zealots kill some of the Romans who have been desecrating their cemetery — but when the climactic chariot race arrives, the arena is packed with spectators. So who are all these people? Did thousands of Jewish pilgrims come to Jerusalem for the Passover and figure they’d take in a pagan bloodsport between their prayers and sacrifices?

Presumably the filmmakers weren’t thinking about any of that; all they knew was that the movie needed to have a chariot race, and so, just as their marketing campaign emphasized the race, the race, the race, the film itself allows the chariot race to seep into other parts of the movie even when it makes no narrative sense. The film actually begins with the start of the chariot race before flashing back to an earlier part of the story, and the end credits consist of actors’ names racing around a stadium and kicking up dust as they go; and in between, the filmmakers never pass up an opportunity to throw in more horses, like when Judah is about to let Esther go away to marry some guy and then he rides after her to bring her back to Jerusalem, in a scene that a colleague of mine compared to a Harlequin romance novel cover.

I take no pleasure in saying all this. I like the Bible-movie genre and I want it to do well — but when a film as high-profile and underwhelming as Ben-Hur comes along, there’s not much I can say except that it hurts the genre and its prospects. It has been nearly 60 years since the last big-screen version of Ben-Hur was made, and I hope it doesn’t take that long for the next one — but next time, I hope it will be made with the sort of dramatic finesse and thematic sensitivity that are utterly lacking here.

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