Ben-Hur has been brought to the silver screen four times. The 1959 version directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston has passed into cinematic legend, known for its lavish production and iconic chariot race (though elements of it were lifted from the 1925 silent film). Its massive Oscar night in 1960 (11 wins – an unmatched quantity until Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King both also won 11) and pop culture impact cast a long shadow over this 2016 remake. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (who helmed the genuinely good Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), the 2016 Ben-Hur has proved to be the biggest financial bomb of this summer movie season. This seems to be a film no one in particular was asking for, but as one of the relative few who did give it its day in entertainment court, I find it to be a competent epic peppered with moments of real grace and emotion.
In 33 A.D., Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) are inseparable comrades in Jerusalem, even as Jewish “Zealot” forces start to fight back against Roman domination. But haunted by the sense that he’ll always be an outsider in Judah’s family, Messala enlists with the Roman army. When war hero Messala returns to Jerusalem with Pontius Pilate’s (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbaek) legion, the Zealot cause and Judah’s family intersect with dire consequences. Under the watchful eye of Pilate, Messala must betray his former family, and as Messala’s star rises, the condemned Judah Ben-Hur swears revenge. But as Judah’s wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) comes to believe after following the teachings of the carpenter Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), revenge is not the only way.
If you have never seen a version of Ben-Hur or read the novel, I think the plot of this film will be confusing to follow or, more importantly, tougher to care about. As I’ve seen the ’59 version I’m able to follow it clearly, but I also recognize how it could easily look opaque to those who haven’t. But that said, several huge changes from the revered 1950s film make a positive impression here. Judah and Messala are brothers as opposed to childhood friends, and their palpable bond is depicted as more intimate. Messala is not a cold villain, but a conflicted and sympathetic character, given a lot of narrative real estate within the runtime to establish his innate desire to do right alongside his considerable ambition. Toby Kebbell is key to this, bringing humanity to the role. In previous flawed movies such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Fantastic Four, Kebbell has a unique lone-wolf energy and proves to be a performer to watch.
He’s complemented by the more straightforward efforts of Jack Huston in the title role. Huston fits the role well but doesn’t stand out, and the same can be said of Morgan Freeman as the horse owner and chariot race gambler Sheik Ilderim. Interestingly, a Welsh actor named Hugh Griffith played this role in the ‘59 version… in blackface. Griffith actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, and the casting of Freeman is at least a step in the right direction. Freeman is largely in his standard mentor mold here – and induces a couple unintentional laughs due to his wig and his line in sports coaching – but there is the sense that he’s acting more than he might have had to, and that’s nice.
Bekmambetov’s default style of camera work can be a bit frustrating, when you’re trying to will him into steadying his shot from a theater seat months after filming was wrapped. But the handling of action here is quite interesting. Earlier this year, Bekmambetov produced the surprisingly fine-tuned Hardcore Henry, featuring feature-length GoPro-esque POV action. That approach finds its way into the 1st Century in Ben-Hur. The naval battle is reimagined with a you-are-there shooting style, which means claustrophobia as you’re stuck below decks with the slave rowers and no “cheating” with fancy exterior shots depicting the wide scope of battle. I can’t say it entirely works, but when the POV is used as an asset in the toolbox, as in the chariot race, that’s when it starts to pay off. The chariot race isn’t a tour de force, but it is an intense and weighty sequence, with CGI mayhem, practical effects, and quick POV sequences coming together to accomplish a thankless task – to follow up one of the most famous action sequences of all time. At the end of the day, the 2016 chariot race doesn’t embarrass itself.
The screenplay, by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, is hit and miss. On the one hand its streamlined structure and use of Messala work a charm, but on the other this is a story set in the 1st Century where characters say, “I’m good” and “Wow”. Sigh. But ultimately I have to give Clarke and Ridley a lot of credit for what they do with the ending. It takes all the pieces leading up to it, shuffles up events from the ’59 version, entirely changes others, and comes out the other side with a genuinely touching ending that blindsided me with how well it works. Love it.
So why don’t I love this version of Ben-Hur overall? It’s a bit hard to say, because while I look back in retrospect and remember all the good, there are enough dodgy plot elements and stylistic choices that drag the enterprise as a whole down a ways. Maybe it’s because for all the truly inspired elements (Messala, the ending) there is a general sense that the film’s main mode is generic sword-and-sandals epic. Every time I want to really endorse the film I’m hit with the word “generic” like sand in the face. Ben-Hur is a somewhat schematic historical epic, but with a good antihero in Messala, and a great ending. 6/10.