Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Written by Keith R. Clark and John Ridley
Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbel, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, and Pilou Asbæk
The story of Ben-Hur has been around a long time. The novel, written by General Lew Wallace, was published in 1880 and over time has become the highest-selling Christian book of all time (other than the Bible). It was first put to screen in 1907 as a 15-minute silent film that cut out most of everything (because it assumed most people had read the book and movies weren’t much longer back then). The next adaptation was by fledgling studio MGM (who still retain the rights to the book to this day) in 1925. This was a more complete adaptation, running 143 minutes and creating two stunning action set pieces: the ship battle and the chariot race. This brought MGM some much needed capital and it became one of the major movie studios. By 1959, MGM was in dire straits. It was losing money for the first time, so their answer was to do another version of Ben-Hur, this one starring Charlton Heston. This was an epic in every sense of the word, running 3 hours and 42 minutes and including much of the original story, Ben-Hur helped to stay the bleeding of MGM (though not for long). This version broke box-office and awards records, capturing 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler) and Best Actor for Heston, a record that still stands today, though it was tied in 1997 by James Cameron's Titanic. Though the story was told or referenced in various TV shows, this became a classic and was left largely un-remade (except a 2003 animated film featuring Heston reprising his role as Judah Ben-Hur) until now, 57 years later, Ben-Hur rides his chariot again. Unfortunately, this new adaptation not only can’t hold a candle to the two prior feature length versions, it’s not fit to muck out the chariot horses’ stables.
The (radically altered from every other source, including the novel) story is of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince whose family has taken in a Roman orphan Messala (Toby Kebbel) and raised him as their own. When Messala gets older, he leaves Jerusalem for Rome to become a soldier. When he returns, he does so with the new governor, Pontius Pilot (Pilou Asbæk)’s, favor. Messala returns to the Hur’s house, welcomed by his adoptive family, and asking for help from Judah in controlling the rebels. Judah assures Messala that Pilot’s arrival will be without incident, but on the day a rebel he has been nursing back to health tries to kill Pilot from the Hur’s roof, casting suspicion on the family. They are arrested and Judah is sentenced to life as a galley slave (a man who rows the war ships). Judah escapes after a battle and meets Ildrim (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy man who sponsors his chariot and driver in races. Judah cures one of Ildrim’s horses of certain death and eventually trains to be his driver to get revenge on Messala in a big chariot race.
Sounds interesting and exciting, right? Well, this time it’s not. The script by Keith R. Clark, who wrote The Way Back in 2010, and John Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of 12 Years a Slave, is leaden and dull. No characters are fully realized, all just people doing things in service of the plot. What little time is spent getting to know the characters is all empty and feels like it was put in as an afterthought once they realized their story had no depth, but they don’t add any to it. The only character that actually has any resonance is Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro). His parts feel like there was actual time spent on them and it comes across on screen. That only serves to make the film more disjointed and uneven because he shows up so infrequently (though he’s in this one more than I remember him being in the ’59 version).
Director Timur Bekmambetov doesn’t do anything to liven the film up either. He’s best known for Wanted, and some of that flair would have been welcome, but he drabs down his normal panache for something more straightforward. Even his action sequences seem wrote and shopworn. The battle that occurs while Judah is a galley slave should be exciting, especially given the technological advances over the years, but he instead focuses solely on Judah and not on the outside action. This could have been a way of making the sequence more intimate and exciting because we don’t know what’s happening outside, but it just makes it kind of boring. The chariot race, the legendary sequence from the novel and the other two films (the 1907 version just shows one camera angle of the chariots starting, so there’s not much to reference there) doesn’t feel exciting or even particularly real. It’s telegraphed from the start, because either Bekmambetov or the writers decided to start with the beginning of the race then flash back to eight years prior for no reason whatsoever. There’s no emotional impact, no reason to really care about Judah or Messala and without that, there’s no reason to care about the chariot race. It all looks good, but it doesn’t matter.
Ben-Hur isn’t likely to be the studio savior it has been in the past. It just drones along, explaining everything too much, weighing down any potential excitement with plot instead of character and emotion. Jesus may save Ben-Hur, but the only thing Ben-Hur will save is two hours when you don’t go see it.