The joke review you’ll hear a lot about this latest Hollywood version of Governor Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ is ‘hated Ben, hated Hur’ … which isn’t strictly fair, but isn’t completely off the mark either. William Wyler’s 1959 version of the saga casts a long shadow – though there was a 2010 miniseries which was generally well-received, and Wyler was treading on film history himself by redoing one of the great hits of the silent era (the 1925 film). Scripted by Keith R. Clarke (The Way Back) and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter), this streamlined epic works hard to get round the story problems which make earlier Ben-Hur adaptations so hit-and-miss, most notably that Pierce Brosnan Bond film issue of having the big action sequence everyone remembers (the chariot race) in the middle of the story and then getting bogged down in the last, redemptive half of the film. Also, arriving in the same year as Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ, it tries (not always successfully) to avoid all the parodiable aspects of these Roman religiose epics which led to the eclipse of the once-dominant spectacular genre by science fiction or fantasy epics. So, we open with a teaser for the chariot race, establishing the enmity of former foster brothers Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), then flash back to their early days – and return to the arena for the big, spectacular climactic race (now in 3D), with everything after (including a logical new wrinkle to the outcome) shuffled through so we can get home early.
By now, everyone knows the story of the homoerotic subtext supposedly snuck past Charlton Heston by co-star Stephen Boyd and writer Gore Vidal in 1959 – a bit of print-the-legendery, since Heston clearly plays as much as Boyd with a flirtateous, s-m aspect to the relationship. It’s understandable that every film version winds up stressing the Judah-Messala love/hate since all the women in the story are severely underwritten and the casting of interesting actresses here – Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland) as Judah’s love interest Esther, Ayelet Zurer (Superman’s Mom in Man of Steel) and his mother Naomi and Sofia Black-D’Elia (Project Almanac) as his sister/Messala’s sweetie Tirzah – still doesn’t make up for it. Trimming much of the second half of the story further minimises these roles, and the real third wheel in the Judah-Messala menage is Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), who pops in to deliver Bible quotes and egg Judah along his own road to redemption. Previous versions have gone with the convention of not directly depicting the Christ in a tale about Him, but Santoro gives a post-Mel Gibson reading of the Nazarene Carpenter as plot device – he’s responsible for one big miracle, but there’s surprisingly little about the rest of his career as everyone in Judea is much more interested in the chariot race than what goes on at Golgotha.
Huston and Kebbell aren’t monolithic screen characters, but they are pleasant presences – and work best during the early scenes which present Roman crackdowns on Jewish zealots as analogous to the War on Terror (with hoods whipped over the head of innocent arrestees, confessions by torture and blame by association radicalising even liberal Judeans), a theme which then gets dropped before it might get too uncomfortable for American audiences who won’t like being compared to nasty Romans (or Israeli audiences who won’t like seeing Jews as analogous to contemporary Palestinians). After that, it’s just the set-pieces – which are both interestingly conceived, but come off as a bit on the cramped, CGI-blurred side. The sea battle is seen almost entirely from inside the galley where Judah is enslaved, with glimpses of above-decks, on-the-waves carnage (a Roman prisoner strapped over the ramming pole of the Greek ship that smashes the galley) and an apt confusion as to what is going on (Heston saved Jack Hawkins’ Quintus but Huston seems to murder James Cosmo’s by shaking him off an oar). The chariot race is staged explicitly as a Death Race 2000 game in which the winner is expected to be sole survivor (which he isn’t, quite) but wavers between horrors (a few big players’ deaths get lost, suggesting a post-production rethink to lower the rating) and nicely thought-through new licks (Judah being upset at the deaths of horses). If the CGI-assist carnage that’s been standard since Gladiator can’t match the stunts-and-staging-and-monumental-art-direction of the CinemaScope era, then perhaps it’s worth remembering that most of those movies had to be dedicated to the stuntmen who died making them – while all the crashes here, including upsetting equine pile-ups, involved nothing worse than a computer programmer getting backache.
The epics of the 1950s and ‘60s were known for supporting performances – check off how many Best Supporting Actor Oscars were handed out to Brits playing Romans – but the fact that our leads here seem lower-case means that the promising likes of Pilou Asbaek, as a Pontius Pilate who is mostly just plain rotten (with one great punchline that suggests more), get short shrift. The last survivor of the grand ham tradition is Morgan Freeman, sporting Predator dreads, as the Arab chariot-race manager once played by Hugh Griffith – Freeman also narrates, though he’s done this so often that it seems like parody. Is it great? No. But it’s less of a chore than the much more highly touted Ridley Scott Exodus Gods and Kings.