My Rating: 7.5 out of 10
The latest adaptation of the Ben-Hur story can best be described as epic. It had all the necessary parts that make a tale truly timeless, which is probably why it has been revisited so many times over the last century. While there were some who felt the remake was unnecessary or that the addition of special effects and the streamlining of the plot were nothing but a means of squeezing more money out of the story, I couldn’t disagree more. The film did focus highly on the action sequences and was nowhere near as long as its famous 1959 processor, but the story was still incredibly powerful and artfully presented. In my opinion, no remake is “unnecessary” if it is done in a way that shows respect to the original material. While people may have different opinions on which Ben-Hur adaptation is best, without this recent iteration, many younger viewers may never been exposed to this beautiful story. While I clearly enjoyed the film a lot, it certainly had some issues that preventing me from giving it a higher rating, especially when it comes to the ending.
For those of you unfamiliar, Ben-Hur was originally a novel that was written in 1880 by Lew Wallace and has since been remade again and again as both films and plays throughout the last 100 years. The most famous adaptation being the 1959 version, which won 11 Academy Awards and is known for being over 3 and a half hours long. The story takes place around 2000 years ago during the time of the Roman Empire and focuses on two brothers: Judah Ben-Hur and Messala. Judah (played by Ben Huston) is the heir to a wealthy Jewish family, while Messala (played by Toby Kebbell) is an adopted Roman, who feels as though he doesn’t belong. The two brothers are extremely close, but are separated for a few years when Messala goes off to join the Roman army in order to find himself. He returns as a decorated soldier under the direct command of Pontius Pilate (played by Pilou Asbaek). At the time, there is heightened tension between the Roman Empire and the Jewish zealots who are fighting for their freedom. While Judah wishes to remain neutral, he is dragged in to the political conflict when a young zealot staying in his home attempts to assassinate Pilate. Despite their obvious innocence, Messala orders his adoptive family killed and sentences Judah to enslavement on a galley. Through a surprising chain of events, after five years living as a slave, Judah becomes free and teams up with a horse racer named Sheik Ilderim (played by Morgan Freeman), who gives him a chance to get vengeance by defeating Messala in a public Roman chariot race, thereby disgracing him.
One of my favorite things about Ben-Hur was how the film took place over a span of time close to a decade, yet was done in a way that didn’t make it feel rushed while also giving the proper amount of weight and importance to each segment. With the exception of the ending, there was nothing that took me out of the movie and nothing that felt forced. The decisions and revelations made were all believable and showed how much things can change over time and how the flow of life has a way of presenting us with deep suffering and immense joy. I liked how every character was important, even the minor ones. They all had a part to play in Judah’s story and they all had their own sort of wisdom to impart based on the life they had lived. While it is easy to sympathize with Judah due to the injustice he experienced, Messala was not painted as a purely evil character either. Instead, he came across as a conflicted man that wanted to find his place in the world. All of this would not have been possible without the filmmakers’ deft storytelling and the actors’ subtlety.
The elements of history interwoven into the film made the story feel even more realistic, while the incorporation of Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro) added another layer to the epic scale of this movie. The reference to some Jews, including the followers of Christ, as “zealots” immediately made me think of Reza Aslan’s book on the historical Jesus. At first, I thought the filmmakers were going to present a secular take on Jesus that focused mainly on what he stood for and preached versus the mystical elements of his story. This did remain the case until the ending, which leads into my problem with how the film was resolved. The actual inclusion of the crucifixion and Jesus’ healing powers curing the lepers didn’t bother me, though those scenes did seem a little packed on. In fact, I thought those scenes made for a great crescendo to the juxtaposition between Jesus and Judah that the first two-thirds of the film had set up. While both men endured injustice at the hands of the Roman empire, Judah sought revenge while Jesus chose to die for God’s people and to forgive. The scene in which Judah witnesses the crucifixion and falls to his knees after realizing the error of his ways and the loss of the relationship that he had with Messala is incredibly powerful and, in my opinion, is how the film should have ended.
The problem I had with the ending was that it felt too easy. Messala was not a wicked man, but he had done terrible things and never tried to stray from his path and find redemption. Judah was justifiably furious with his adoptive brother for the things he had done and found a way to get revenge in a way that did not involve murdering his brother, but instead shaming him in front of the Roman people. The idea of choosing forgiveness instead of continuing the cycle of hatred is a timeless and important message that I believe is the crux of this story. Judah slowly realizes this from the end of the chariot race, which is a triumphant yet bittersweet scene, up until the moment he sees the crucifixion. I didn’t have any issue with him forgiving Messala and realizing that, in his quest for vengeance, he lost his brother, but the idea of them going back to the way things were with their family as if nothing had happened was a bit much.
The power of the story was in its realism, which was broken not by the miracles of Jesus, but by the way in which everything was too quickly tied up into a neat bow. The film was clearly about the importance of family, which both Judah and Messala had lost sight of in their individualistic quests. In the end, getting vengeance didn’t fulfill Judah and the Roman leaders couldn’t care less about Messala once he was injured in the final race. However, the tragic element of the story was cut short by the way in which everything was so quickly resolved at the very end. It wasn’t necessary to show the scene where Judah goes to Messala and finds him without a leg, this could have been implied from the scene where Judah exclaims that he lost his brother after the crucifixion. Perhaps Messala could have died in the race and Judah could have mourned him despite the terrible things he had done. Regardless, the ending took away from what was otherwise an incredible movie and prevented me from being able to give Ben-Hur a 9/10, which is, in my opinion, what the first three-fourths of the film deserve.
Not to end on a negative note, I would like to praise the director, Timur Bekmambetov, for the artistic choices he made during the two biggest action sequences of the film. There were so many unique shots during the chariot race, which made the audience really feel as if we were there with Judah as he attempted to disgrace Messala in front of the Roman people. It was so visceral and exciting that I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. The chariot race was such an important part of the film since it was the apex of all the tension that had been created up to that point, and it was a scene that most people in the audience were most looking forward to. However, the battle in the boat while Judah served as a galley slave was also shot in a unique way that showed the entire battle from the perspective of the people underneath the boat. Again, this made me feel as though I was there and really ramped up the tension to new levels. I’m excited to see future films directed by Bekmambetov, who I come keeps of this level of artistry in the projects he works on from here on.
Overall, the remake of Ben-Hur was a great film that is only diminished by its rushed ending. This seemed to be a case in which the filmmakers put the message before the plot, which was a shame since the plot had been so deftly constructed and presented up until the very end. I still highly recommend trying to see this film in theaters, especially if you haven’t seen any of the previous Ben-Hur iterations, since this is a timeless story with a poignant message that applies today just as much as it did in the past. Whether you are a religious person or not, I feel like the scenes that incorporate Jesus are not heavy-handed or trying to push a religious message on anyone. In my opinion, Ben-Hur is a movie that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds, which is what makes it a story that we cannot help but go back to.