Based on the book by Lew Wallace.
Genre: drama, Christian, bible era
Plot Summary: Judah Ben-Hur is the son of a Jewish nobleman. Mesala is a Roman who grew up orphaned. The two share a bond as (adopted) brothers but a misunderstanding takes place turning their affection to hatred. As Judah is sent to the prison galley slave ships and Messala rises in military rank, all looks as though there is no place for God, peace, or love in this world. But Judah is given a second chance, to either choose faith in a Carpenter from Galilee, or seeking revenge in the Roman circus.
My Review: I have awaited this day for so long. The day when Ben-Hur would be brought to it’s full glory and excitement on the big screen with a full-blown budget! I remember staying up late into the night the summer I was fifteen years old when I was staying at my grandparents’. The cause of my insomnia was the novel, “Ben-Hur,” by Gen. Lew Wallace. The book has remained among my top favorites, though I’ve read hundreds over the years.
I’ve seen the old 1959 Charlton Heston version. And contrary to most people’s opinions, I’ve never cared for it. I’m sure it was a huge deal when it came out back then, breaking records with being the biggest budget film and using the most paid actors’ of its time. But watching it after the era of The Lord of the Rings… it just failed to get my heart racing. And Charlton Heston fails (IMO) to look the part of Judah Ben-Hur; too old and he’s just not how I imagined him. So many things needed improved upon. I didn’t even bother with the 2010 tv movie, having heard how certain themes I don’t agree with were inserted into it. And I’ve seen a couple of scenes on TCM from the ancient 1907 one, but even though I’m sure it was a big deal 109 years ago… I mean, come on.
That was when I began to wish and pray for the epic remake. And I was thrilled earlier on this year to find out that was the case (see my post here). It was a rainy day today and made perfect for having an adventure at the movie theatre! And so I got my wish.
I went into this having read a review preparing me for the fact that this version leaves a lot of the Christian gospel out. I was disappointed to hear that, but I still wanted to go see it. I’m sorry to report that despite my excitement over it, I came away rating it only 3 out of 5 stars. I will write my pros and cons of it below. Be aware there it is riddled with spoilers:
PROS: Oh, boy! Was it ever exciting! Movie-makers really outdid themselves when it came to recreating a gigantic Roman circus arena, a nail biting Roman sea battle, and a heart pounding chariot race. If that is what attracts you about the book, then by all means you’re going to love this! Drums, hoofbeats, fire, drama, peril, battles, horses, crashes, crowds, roars! This movie is not lacking in adventure!
Costumes and props are so beautiful to look at. Loved the women’s hairstyles, and Tirzah’s pink evening toga. Bright colors and gorgeous jewelry. I’d watch it again just for that!
I felt the characters were well-cast. Although Mesala (Toby Kebbell) wasn’t quite how I pictured him in the book, I thought he was the best actor out of the whole movie. I would be interested in seeing him in future movies. Judah looked right for his role. Esther was how I’d always pictured her, and Tirzah and Mrs. Ben-Hur also were gorgeous actors. It was also enjoyable getting to see Morgan Freeman as the sheik Ilderim and loved how they featured him as narrator in the opening scene.
I am happy to say that there are no sex scenes to worry about! The trailer is actually more suggestive than the film. Anyone watching based on this hope will be mightily disappointed.
Cons: This is where the 3 stars come in. It all boils down to how a story is told, and this film version got a lot of things wrong in this area.
Let’s start with how it holds up to the book. I am not one of those who believes movie versions should be exactly like the original book. However. A lot of liberties were taken with this story and it doesn’t do it any justice. It just makes things confusing and unbelievable. I ended up not caring too much for the characters like I’d wanted to. I didn’t feel emotionally involved with them. I was just there for the chariot race.
Some of my favorite characters were left entirely out. There’s no Quintus Arrius. There’s Amrah. There’s no Iras. QA is one of my favorites because he provides the story with heart. He is the kind Roman captain of the slave ship Judah is sent to, who Judah ends up saving during the battle, and who adopts Judah and leaves his inheritance to when he dies. Judah comes back to Jerusalem like a bible era Count of Monte Cristo. I can see why the movie scriptwriters decided QA was expendable, but I genuinely missed him. Amrah is Judah’s old nurse, who also provides heart in the book. The character that is NOT expendable is Iras, the wily daughter of Egypt who tempts Judah from his goals and what is good. She is in cahoots with Messala and creates a rivalry against Esther for Judah’s affections. Why does every film version leave this character out? Not that I’m wishing for it, but if Hollywood wanted steam, they could find a way with this ‘Cleopatra.’
Which leads me to the romance between Judah and Esther. I must say it was a lot better than the old Heston version in which man sees woman, man kisses woman. The end. But whoever rewrote Ben-Hur this time around completely killed any suspense they could have made with plot element as well. They marry them off too quickly… in the beginning! Now, we loyal Ben-Hur fans know that Esther doesn’t come into the novel until somewheres in the middle. I get why Hollywood would introduce her earlier in the movie, but where’s the tension? There’s tension in a story where Esther waits and hopes for 5 long years and then finds Judah again when he comes back, but he’s not the same anymore being filled with hatred for Messala, and meanwhile Iras is fighting for his attention. What will happen next? Will love conquer all? But no, they completely ruined the tale by rewriting it.
Where they snipped the romantic tension in one area, they tried to add it in another. Tirzah and Messala are now lovers. This wouldn’t have been a big deal to me, except that it makes for a completely unbelievable situation when Messala all of a sudden orders Judah’s sister crucified. Why, when he had genuinely seemed to love her? And at the end when everyone is hugging and cuddling and crying, and Messala hobbles up on his one existent leg, Tirzah doesn’t seem to mind a bit and it’s assumed the two get together in the end anyway. Yeah, I’d totally if a hot man ordered me to death by crucifixion!
Other motives didn’t seem to make much sense. Like Druses’ saving Judah’s family’s lives after Judah threatens to kill him. Huh? And then there were certain other smaller parts of the film that came across as being hokey, like Judah’s sister and mother suddenly being healed of leprosy… by being rained upon. No, no, no! In the book it was Jesus who touched them and had compassion on them!
I went into this having read a review that prepared me to not expect to see a gospel presentation here. OK, I don’t have to have preaching. But I do need a reason why Judah’s heart and life was changed. I was glad to see parts of the story of Jesus portrayed, and Judah’s encounters with him, especially when he is a witness to Jesus’ death at the cross. But without the resurrection, there is no meaning to it all and there is no purpose to us forgiving and loving one another. And that is one of the biggest ways in which this movie fails big time: the lack of the Resurrection. It’s not even hinted at. There can be no inspiration for a changed life by seeing a man hanging on a cross, simply because there is no life at all. But by faith in the living Jesus and with His life at work in us, we know that this life is not all there is and can therefore have peace and joy, and his victory and power enable us to forgive and love our enemies. None of that came across in the film, and I’m afraid anyone who knows little about this spiritual aspect of things would fail to make the connection.
The worse, from a storyteller’s point of view, was the ending. This may come across as sounding pretty terrible, but I felt it was ruined because Messala lived and forgave Judah and all became one big happy family again. That is cleaned-up Hollywood. In the original book, Messala becomes paralyzed/crippled for life and ends up killing himself. Judah does gain the ability to forgive him, but Messala’s life is not changed. To see the ‘two brothers’ flip their attitudes toward each other on a dime, after they each tried to murder each other by various cruel and unusual punishments, is totally unbelievable.
Lew Wallace was a storyteller, you know? There’s a reason why his book has been well-loved for a hundred and fifty years. Why must Hollywood think there’s a need to rewrite it? And then they’re a surprised when it’s a ‘big box office flop.’ I’m sorry for that, but they asked for it! You can’t just bank on a big budget to make an excellent film. You have to tell a good story. A believable one, where viewers identify with the characters and can empathize with them. But this was not that story.
Would I recommend it? It depends on how much of a stickler you are for the original. If you’ve never read the book and just want a clean, exciting flick, I think you could enjoy it. (Be aware there are some gruesome battle images, and scenes that include crucifixion.) But if you’re too much of a loyalist like I am, you might want to wait another 55+ years for them to do the tale justice.