This is a CGI-heavy retelling of the classic tale, in which Ben-Hur (first name Judah) takes on the Roman Empire and his estranged brother Messala (first name Chicken Tikka) to try and put an end to their brutality.
Ben-Hur is on course to be the latest in the line of mighty flops in recent years. And like many of the flops we reviewed as part of our Top of the Flops series, the reason is more because of the bloated budget and lack of a major star in a lead role than the overall quality of the film.
The limited amends to the story work well, with a restructure resulting in the chariot race forming the climatic finale of the film and trimming down over an hour of running time compared to its previous incarnation. As such it’s more pacey, without descending into the loud, meaningless action film it could have been.
The effects are good, but it suffers from the fact that putting huge crowds, battles and sets on screen isn’t exciting anymore. In the 50s and 60s there were only a very small number of films which could pull off this kind of scale. But now any major action film can pull this off with the wonders of CGI, albeit with a the glossy sheen of a perfect digital image which detracts from the realness. With the sense of spectacle diminished, and the sparse attempts to modernise the story, it’s hard to see why this was re-made at all.
I’m loathe to criticise Jack Huston for his performance in the lead role, as like Armie Hammer and Taylor Kitsch before him he seems more like a sacrificial lamb tied to the dead weight of a movie doomed to sink in the cruel currents of the box office than the star of a major motion picture. While the classic 1959 version had the charismatic Charlton Heston inflating his performance and widening his sizeable gob to match the vast sets, Huston and Toby Kebbell, as Messala, keep things low key, failing to truly animate the film.
The most interesting thing is how the presentation of the religious element of the story has developed over time. In the silent 1920s version, the role of Jesus was more overt, but by 1959, audiences had diversified and secularised, so Jesus was never shown fully on camera and his role was more implicit than in-your-face. In this adaptation it’s cranked up once again, with Jesus having several lines of dialogue and far greater presence in the film than last time.
This is a complete reversal of the approach taken in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: God’s and Kings (arguably a remake of other 1950s Heston epic The Ten Commandments). This film seemed almost embarrassed to be religious, with God appearing in the form of a child (as opposed to the booming voice of the 50s) and some of the plagues taking on quasi-rational explanations. Similarly Noah presented God through vague dream sequences and took a number of liberties with the svelte biblical tale to make it work on the big screen.
This coyness regarding religion was a major problem for films which were adaptations of Bible stories, and their limited success may have been the reason for Ben-Hur taking the opposite approach. But this is a story where religion plays a much smaller part, so could have been played down and have it still work. Time will tell if audiences prefer the beefed-up Jesus, but if they didn’t in America it’s hard to see Brits responding differently.
Ironically the best recent successor to the great historical epics is Gladiator (granted now 16 years old), which has many elements in common with the story of Ben-Hur but without the God stuff, and with enough dramatic clout to make it work. Film makers would do well to heed this lesson and tell new stories in homage to the great epics, which feel appropriate to modern audiences, rather than creating direct remakes. Otherwise they will continue to face box office disasters of biblical proportions.