Ben-Hur is back for 2016 in a fresh take on the old story most iconically remembered for the performance of Charlton Heston in 1959. 2016 feels remarkably like a year of remakes and sequels, particularly of the superhero kind. Let’s face it, it was only a matter of time before someone attempted to recapture the magic of, what many consider to be, one of the true Hollywood epics. While the Heston film was the proud winner of 11 Oscars, I think it’s fair to say that this rehashed version will not receive the same accolades.
Ben-Hur is the story of Judah (Jack Huston), a member of a wealthy family living in Roman occupied Jerusalem. All is well in Judah’s world until his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbel) returns home after being inexplicably shunned by members of his adopted family, a centurion in the Roman army requesting safe passage for Pontius Pilate as he visits the city. Despite his wealth and privilege, Judah is caught between loyalty to his adopted brother and loyalty towards Jerusalem. When an attempt is made on Pilate’s life by a zealot, it is Judah who is arrested and sentenced to the galleys, while his family members are sentenced to death.
There are indeed moments to enjoy in this remake, yet sadly it is overwhelmed by flaws. The first and major problem being that Judah Ben-Hur (who we must remember is our hero) is a bland, uninteresting and with his privileged life, a largely unlikeable main character. Early on it is Messala who I sympathised with. Seemingly shunned by his adopted family and mother in particular, the character who should be the ‘bad guy’ garners most of our sympathies, at least he got mine.
It is not completely inconceivable that a family of great wealth and standing would take the fall for the actions of a zealot but when the previous scenes have shown them belittling the zealots and their cause in previous scenes it is hard to fully believe. In the Heston version of events it was a falling roof tile that brought problems to the Hur family. They were all deemed, as a household, to be culpable for this crime, whereas in the 2016 version they all willingly decide to take the fall for a cause they do not believe in! This is infuriating as, once any film begins down the path of a nonsensical narrative it almost impossible to recover from.
Positive aspects of this film unfortunately have more to do with special effects over and above anything contained within the plot. The iconic chariot race sequence is much improved, as you would expect in 2016 with the technology now available to film makers, and it works well. Scalps connecting with the sandstone track and hooves bearing down on stricken riders feels all too real. These sequences are by no means short on spectacle over its’ ten-minute runtime. What’s missing though is drama. There are too many faceless riders whose fates are of little consequence in keeping Judah and Messala apart.
Annoyances like this persist throughout the course of the film, nonsensical timelines, characters dialling in performances coupled with other minor issues serve to distract and irritate. Perhaps though, the films most problematic element is it’s treatment of Jesus.
Throughout the Heston version of the film the journey of faith is well laid out and fits in with the story as it progresses. Here however, the character of Jesus feels very much shoehorned in, sporadically popping up like some Jimminy Cricket type of conscience figure which Judah seems to stare at blankly and then quickly disregard.
Most troubling of all was in the films final act. Judah watches the crucifixion of Christ and then having an epiphany moment, as to who Jesus really was, chooses to believe. It is at this point you could be forgiven for believing that the purpose of Christ’s death was solely for the benefit of the family unit and to bring them back together. Within what appear to be mere moments of finding faith Judah Ben-Hur is reconciled to his estranged wife, his mother and sister are healed of leprosy and he has a smile on his face that has been absent throughout all of his previous troubles.
Now to be clear, I’m not against expressions of faith on screen. When handled correctly they can be inspirational and a well executed moment like this has the power to be deeply affecting for the viewer. For me, however this remake failed miserably in doing so and imparted some, frankly, cringeworthy theological thinking.
While not wishing to completely dismiss those who have had similar experiences of radical transformation in their lives, for me a belief in Christ is not an instant fix to all failing areas of life. It rarely means an instantaneous restoration to all broken relationships. A belief in Jesus does not ,as suggested in the final moments of the film, provide a perfect life.
For this to be inferred in the final moments was almost offensive to me.
My faith in Jesus has not given me a perfect life with great relationships and societal status. My faith has been a work in progress and at times (if I’m going to write honestly) a struggle. Yet my faith has better equipped me to tackle and make it through times of hardship, loss, struggle and doubt.
If the inclusion of this crucifixion scene had some relevance to the films’ plot or some thematic reasoning I would be far less agitated about this decision. However in this case it really had neither. This epilogue was wholly unnecessary.
The story of Ben-Hur has within it enough decent material to consider without the need to have a forced gospel message wedged in at the end. Ben-Hur is not solely a tale of revenge, rather it is a journey to forgiveness, reconciliation, the pursuit of justice and redemption. To come out of a film and talk through these ideas with friends, and discuss how they can be applied, is a far more subversive and normal means of communicating gospel, truth and power.
Whileproblematic, Ben-Hur is not a terrible film, it has moments of decent entertainment. In a year that, so far, has struggled to entertain in terms of cinematic blockbusters it could be considered one of the better efforts. The films creators however have done this epic tale a great disservice by not keeping their story coherent enough to make their message clear and at times turning this epic into a farce.