By Ryen Thomas
August 19, 2016
Ben- Hur: A Tale of the Christ, first written in 1880 by Lew Wallace, must hold some kind of record for “most important adaptations.” The first feature iteration helped to define the silent era in 1925 and the 3 and ½ hour, 1959 mega-sensation directed by William Wyler, loaded up at the Oscars; both features made a huge dent in cinematic history. But will the current adaptation, brought to us by producer Mark Burnett (known for the History Channel miniseries The Bible) continue to trend? Short answer, probably not; but the new Ben-Hur does succeed in adding fresh layers to a familiar story.
It’s unfair to spend an entire article comparing what we have now to what came before. In all honestly, how do you compete with the grandeur of the predecessors that defined the Biblical epic genre, especially when there are moments where this new film feel more like a big budget TV movie, with a star that lacks the larger than life charisma of Charlton Heston. There are few sweeping shots and the pacing at times feel choppy as if the filmmaker had to cram a lot of content into the film for a modern audience who wouldn’t dream of waiting through an intermission.
However, there are many elements that work here. For starters, the incident that sets off the chain of events is more believable and speaks to the turbulence of the ancient time period. In the book and 1959 movie, loose roof tile falls onto a horse and gets Judah Ben-Hur and his well-to-do family into trouble with Roman law. With due respect, the original incident is hoaky, but in our new film, it’s Judah’s alleged ties to radical Zealots that put him on the radar as a violator of ancient Rome’s brand of McCarthyism.
The film triumphs with themes that connect the issues of our day with those of Biblical times. We explore the threat of populism against a regime that the people feel is an oppressive police state. There’s classism, with Judah, part of the Jewish elite, caught in the middle of the cultural wars. Actor Jack Huston, grandson of legendary director John Huston, is not as towering as Charlton Heston but, as the film progress, his expressive eyes powerfully create a connection and takes us along with him as he faces new hardship and many questions. Will he use his influence to appease the Romans in hopes that they will maintain peace? Will he support his people who strive justice by any means necessary, including violence? Will he use violence for personal, rather than social, justice?
Most of our modern Biblical epics have fallen short in the diversity department. However, this film gives us Morgan Freeman in the role of Sheik IIderim. His swagger provides the star power that’s missing, elevating the movie right before it almost literally sinks during an extended boat scene. Even the female characters get a little more attention this time around, making Ben-Hur seem slightly more instep with modern sensibilities.
Cinematic heart makes up for the reduced level of spectacle. You really believe that the characters’ privilege has left them unprepared for their falls from grace and their struggle creates tender scenes of vulnerability, not forced and/or drowned out by the kind of loud, manipulative score of yesteryear’s Biblical epics.
Star Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
While the movie’s marketing might lead us to believe that this film is a wannabe Gladiator that completely ignores the “Tale of the Christ” part of the original book, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t shy away from the religious sensibilities of the source material. This is a narrative fueled by events during the time of Christ. In the earlier films, Jesus is depicted in a more mystical fashion in the 1959 film, but the 2016 version presents a personality that’s more earthly. He’s a man of the people and his words of compassion provide a greater threat to the Roman leaders than the radical violence of his contemporaries.
The more intimate tone makes iconic set pieces shine that much brighter. The film builds up to the infamous chariot race, much like a Rocky film builds to the final fight. The chariot race results have surprising implications for the characters, turning the film’s revenge story back to the strong emotional journey about family, redemption, forgiveness and message of the Christ that ties the characters, and this worthwhile new/old movie, together.
Read “A Fresh Take On A Beloved Story: Pete’s Dragon”