Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley
Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer and Morgan Freeman
Another era, another version of “Ben-Hur.” Since General Lew Wallace published his novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” in 1880, there has been a version of the story told in every era. First, it was stage play that ran for 20 years, in 1925 as a silent film epic – there was a version made in 1907, but that film is better remembered for the precedent it set in US copyright law – and of course, the famous 1959 version. A remake of “Ben-Hur” is a massive task to undertake, the 1925 silent film, directed by Fred Niblo, was one of the most ambitious productions made during the silent era. The 1959 version, directed by William Wyler, is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made and is one of two movies to win 11 Academy Awards.
Having never read Wallace’s novel, I cannot say how faithful this, or any, version is or was to the novel. I do know that this version of “Ben-Hur” does make some changes from the previous film versions. There was a minor change, the adoption of Judah Ben-Hur by Quintus Arrius was axed entirely from the story. There were also several more significant changes made to this version. One of these changes I was on board with, that was that the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala was an adoptive brother relationship, instead of the friendly relationship in the previous versions. I liked this relationship because it gave great depth and added weight to Messala’s ultimate betrayal, without having to go into excessive exposition.
However, the most significant change to this version and ultimately what made this version lesser than its predecessors was how this version depicted Christ. In Niblo’s version Christ is never shown, you see his hands, his feet, and in one scene, only part of his shoulder. In Wyler’s version you Never see Christ’s face, you see him from the back, or his face is obscured. In both prior versions, Christ is mentioned and quoted only. In this version, Christ is on full display, and he speaks. Seeing and hearing Christ takes the power out of the pivotal water scene, the crucifixion and thus Ben-Hur’s conversion to Christianity.
This change hurts the film because Christ is an unessential character. In this version, Ben-Hur is a quasi-Christ figure, and could very well take that place of Christ in the narrative. In this version Ben-Hur starts his arc with Christ-esque philosophy, he takes an 180 with Messala’s betrayal, then comes full circle, but not necessarily because of Christ. A conversation that Ben-Hur has with Sheik Ilderim before the chariot race and the crucifixion marks this change in place of Christ. “Ben-Hur” is about the power of Christ. This version of the movie missed a tremendous opportunity to turn young people to Christianity, by relegating Christ to an irrelevant character you lose the subtext of the story. Wyler’s version was brilliant in the way it was able to make the religious subtext in the story palatable to the secular audience.
Overall, “Ben-Hur” was an adequate film, it was fine for a remake, the performances were good, nothing to write home about, the direction was ok, the cinematography and production design were fine. Fine, but nothing spectacular is the perfect tag line for this remake of “Ben-Hur.” Which is unfortunate considering the pedigree of its predecessors, I guess the shoes were just too big to fill.