There are essentially two ways a movie could be called a success. First, it could be a popular success, as measured by box office receipts. Or it can be a critical success, the kind of movie people like me love, but that have a hard time finding their market. Well, the new Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston, is neither a financial nor a critical success. It cost a hundred million dollars to make, and so far, has made around twelve million in box office, a dismal enough figure that it’s closing all across the country. Critics haven’t liked it. It’s around 29% on Rottentomatoes.com. By those criteria, it’s not a successful film.
And you can’t help but wonder why it was even made. The 1959 William Wyler film, with Charlton Heston, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (to Heston), and Best Director. I’m not sure how well it holds up anymore, but it’s certainly a classic, an important and memorable film. Why remake it? Why make a new version, directed by the guy who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and starring John Huston’s grandson? Why greenlight it, why fund this production, why market and distribute it? It’s seems like a peculiarly unnecessary venture.
I’m also aware that I have this fault as a critic; I like pretty much everything. I like movies; I like the experience of seeing movies, and my son teases me by saying that my one superpower is finding something positive in even quite wretched movies. So my positive comments here are easy to discount. I get that. I do.
The fact is, though, the new Ben-Hur isn’t terrible, and at times, it’s quite gripping. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by it. Jack Huston’s not Charlton Heston, but he’s a fine actor, and makes a creditable Ben-Hur. The acting is generally just fine, and the story unfolds at a brisk pace (which can’t really be said about the four-hour-long ’59 classic). And I don’t have much hesitation recommending it.
I’m sure you remember the essential story. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince living in Jerusalem, has an adopted brother, Masala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in. The men grow up as brothers, and are inseparable. But Masala wants to advance in the Empire, and becomes a centurion. Eventually, he’s posted to Judea, working for the prefect, Pontius Pilate. When a Zealot assassin Ben-Hur has been protecting tries to kill Pilate, Masala has his brother arrested, and condemned to the slow, horrific death of a galley slave. But in a sea battle, Ben-Hur’s ship sinks, and he makes it safely to shore. He is rescued by Ildurim (Morgan Freeman), who trains horses and riders for chariot racing, a popular Roman sport. He trains Ben-Hur, setting up a big climactic chariot race between Masala and Ben-Hur.
In some respects, this new movie is kind of a Cliff Notes version of the ’59 classic. The movie is built around two big action set pieces–the sea battle between galley ships, and the chariot race. Both take up a lot of screen time, and both were well staged and filmed. I already knew perfectly well who was going to win the chariot race, but I still found it exciting and suspenseful.
The interstitial stuff between the big action scenes were less well handled. When Ben-Hur is arrested, his mother and sister are arrested too. He agonizes over that fact, assumes they’re dead, and wants, at least, to see them properly buried. Turns out they didn’t die, but the resolution of that plot point was perfunctory and unconvincing. Likewise, Ben-Hur’s marriage to Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) was rushed through, as were subsequent scenes showing their reunion, quarrel, and reconciliation.
But the film’s biggest failure, in my opinion, has to do with its handling of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). The Civil War General Lew Wallace, who wrote the novel all this is based on, titled it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur meets Jesus periodically throughout the movie, but is unpersuaded by His message. But (SPOILER ALERT), not entirely. Esther becomes a Christian, and Ben-Hur himself eventually comes around. The point of the movie, I think, is this; both Ben-Hur and Masala are men who are consumed with hatred and pain and anger and an insensate desire for revenge. Christ’s message is that those emotions are false, are temptations of the Adversary, and that instead, we need to embrace love and forgiveness. After seeing his brother badly injured in the chariot race, Ben-Hur, touched by Jesus’ teachings, reconciles with his brother, and the men embrace and forgive. Yay for them; closing credits.
It doesn’t really work, though. The resolution is much too perfunctory, and the scenes with Jesus were hampered, in my opinion, by Santoro’s limitations as an actor. And by Huston’s limitations as well; his ‘consumed with anger’ looks very much like his ‘desperate to forgive.’
(And I’m hardly an expert on this historical period, and would love to be corrected if it turns out I’m wrong, but I do not believe that Pilate’s Jerusalem ever featured a big Cirkus for chariot races. Also, I don’t think a Roman Centurion would have been a big name chariot racer. Wrong social class. Also, I’m not sure what caste Ben-Hur belonged to. A ‘Jewish Prince’ who is really wealthy and nonetheless charitable and kind and beloved in Jerusalem? A Herodian? Not sure that guy could have existed. But if I’m wrong, let me know).
If you want to see an exceptionally well-made and well acted movie, set in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry, see Risen, with Joseph Fiennes, a much better movie on the same subject, only without chariot races. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur really can’t be said to have succeeded, exactly. But it’s not half bad, and parts of it are very well done indeed. So I recommend it. And you’ll have to hurry; it’s leaving town soon.