Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
General Lew Wallace’s popular 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ permeated American culture in the 19th and 20 centuries. The novel was made into a widely seen play that thrilled and inspired huge audiences around the country and in England. There were two silent film adaptations of it before William Wyler directed the 1959 version that garnered 11 Academy Awards, and there was also a TV adaptation in 2010. And now we have producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett’s much shorter version, directed by of all persons Timur Bekmambetov, who helmed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Despite initial misgivings, I found that, from a Christian perspective, it is a very satisfying reworking of the original story. And I do mean “reworking,” the new ending totally abandoning Wallace’s emphasis upon an unrepentant Messala whose nastiness brought on his own demise at the end of the chariot race. To appreciate fully this new version, you must lay aside the 1959 film—though by no means should you get rid of it, especially if you have the lavish 4-disk set.
Besides the ending lots of other details are changed. There is no appearance of the major character of Arrius, the Roman commander whose life Judah Ben-Hur saved when their galley was sunk. (This long sequence unfolding in Rome, during which Arrius adopted his rescuer, making him heir to his wealth, no doubt was cut to save time.)
In the new version Judah Ben-Hur and Messala still are boyfriend companions devoted to each other, and when they grow up and the Roman returns from several years fighting for Rome, the Roman still betrays his Jewish friend when the new governor rides by Ben-Hur’s house. But this time it is not a loose roof tile that falls into the street, but an arrow aimed at the official. Earlier Judah had given shelter to a badly wounded Zealot, and it was this man who sneaks onto the roof and tries to kill the governor. Messala sees the real assailant, but accuses his friend of the crime. The whole Ben-Hur family is arrested and thrown into dungeons. There follows the familiar story, but one, as stated above, with a very different ending.
Despite the omission of the Nativity Story, there seems to be more of Christ in this version, with the two following incidents not included before. Judah sees Christ for the first time in Jerusalem while he is supposedly working as a carpenter. The Nazarene speaks some words of love over against the Jew’s hatred for their Roman occupiers. Later, during his public ministry, Christ protects an accused adulterer from being stoned to death. However, it is not the woman from the 8th chapter of John, but a man. Christ covers the fallen man with his own body.
Late in the story when Judah sees the condemned Christ carrying his cross, he tries to give the prisoner a cup of water, but the whip-lashing guard forbids it. Judas wants to throw a stone at the soldier, but Christ stops him. This is a pairing with an earlier incident in which Jesus had given Judah, while on his way to become a galley slave, a drink of water. (The new film omits this.) At the cross Judah hears the dying Jesus forgive his enemies. It is all of these contacts that transforms Judah from his desire to avenge himself to forgiving the man who had ruined his and his family’s life.
While actor Jack Huston might lack the gravitas of Charlton Heston, he nonetheless is sufficient as the man who moves from hatred and obsession for vengeance to a life of love and reconciliation. Toby Kebbell as Messala matches his colleague’s performance as the arrogant, battle-hardened Roman soldier, who also is fundamentally changed. Rodrigo Santoro’s scenes as Jesus are brief, but he speaks his words of love and tolerance effectively.
As with the silent and the 1959 versions, the staging of the chariot race is a spectacular sequence that keeps us on the edge of our seats, even though we know the outcome. The factor that I found distracting is that the gigantic circus structure is located, not in Antioch where such a building with its many statues of Roman gods would have been accepted, but just outside the walls of Jerusalem itself. This allows for a very dramatic shot, the camera panning from Christ’s crucifixion on Golgotha hill and down the cliff to the racetrack itself. But there is no way that the Jewish population would not have arisen in rebellion had the Romans tried something so brazenly pagan so close to the Holy City. Also, though I love the actor, Morgan Freeman’s Sheik Ilderim seems to me to be as improbable as his sidekick was to Robin Hood in Prince of Thieves.
This remake is no masterpiece, but I think that too many of the secular critics who have dismissed the film as “unexciting” are the dazed victims of too many super hero epics. For those wanting a blend of religion and action (the sea battle here is better than the 1959 one), this is a good investment of time and money. Even though it violates the plot of the novel, the conclusion’s message of reconciliation is one our world sorely needs.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.
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