Film Review: Ben-Hur (2016 version)

Warning: there are spoilers ahead.

The new Ben-Hur film was released in theaters this weekend, and the few reviews I read in advance were not encouraging (e.g., Yankee Gospel Girl’s Seven Things I Hate About the New Ben-Hur Movie). But given that the 1959 Ben-Hur is my favorite film, and one which I have thoroughly mined for sermon illustrations, I felt I needed to see it for myself. So Helen and I reserved our seats for Sunday’s first showing (I like being able to reserve seats, because I am OCD-like in my pickiness about where I sit). We don’t care for 3-D versions, so we chose the equally expensive RPX™ edition. As it turned out, there was no need to reserve our seats in advance, for the theater might have had 20 to 30 viewers, although I didn’t actually count. I’ll state upfront that I did not dislike the new Ben-Hur as much as Yankee Gospel Girl did and I disagree with a few of her criticisms. But I think she got a number of them right.

For example, I don’t disapprove of casting Morgan Freeman as Ilderim, and I think some people addressing Ilderim as “African” to be entirely plausible.  And I don’t see why making Messala an adopted Gentile orphan is any more implausible than a fully Roman young Messala being Judah Ben-Hur’s best friend growing up.

I do agree that this Ben-Hur does not do a good job of portraying Jewish culture and religion. For example, the scenes of family life in the 1959 version shows the family reclining at meal, and we see glimpses of the family’s prayer life and piety. The only expressions of the Jewish faith in the new version that stood out to me is the mother, Naomi, disapproving of young Messala’s idol worship, and her disapproval of the budding romance between the daughter, Tirzah, and Messala. I would add the role the Zealots play in the Jewish opposition to Rome, but even then the religious motivation is not emphasized. More serious, however, is Judah Ben-Hur’s apparent lack of religious devotion. In the 1959 version, Ben-Hur declares his faith in the God of Israel and belief in Israel’s destiny on a number of occasions. In the 2016 version Ben-Hur appears to be something of a skeptic, and faith in God does not appear to be a significant factor in his resilience and perseverance.

I haven’t read the novel Ben-Hur, so I’m not in a position to say which version is truer to the book. But I’m not surprised that a remake of Ben-Hur would alter the story in significant ways from the 1959 version. The film makers no doubt wanted to put their own stamp on the story, and you need to justify remaking a film that is widely considered to be a classic. Yankee Gospel Girl notes that audiences don’t have a tolerance for long films anymore.  Where the 1959 film ran 3 hours and 32 minutes, the 2016 version runs 2 hours and 4 minutes. Something’s gotta give. But the plot is not simply abridged, there is an expansion at the beginning of movie which shows us something of the relationship of Judah and Messala when they were younger. In addition we see Messala’s dissatisfaction with his status as an outsider in society and particularly his awareness that he will never be considered a full member of Ben-Hur’s family. As a result, he believes he must make his own mark in the world and then return as his own man. To do this he chooses to pursue advancement in the Roman army. Although he is ambitious, he is not needlessly cruel, and he believes that military force is not the only, or even the best means of bringing peace to the conquered territories of the Roman Empire. But there are pressures to perform in the face of rebellion, as well as doubts about Messala’s loyalty to Rome. And after a Zealot takes advantage of Ben-Hur’s allowing him to stay in his home and attacks Pontius Pilate from the walls of the compound, Messala does not withstand the pressure and sentences Judah to the galleys and his family to death.

Also as Yankee Gospel Girl points out, this version removes the part of the story where Ben-Hur rescues the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, which is followed by Arrius’ adopting Judah Ben-Hur as his son. In the 1959 version, this development is the key to seeing God’s providential guiding of Judah Ben-Hur’s life, using Messala’s sentencing Ben-Hur to the galleys as the ironic means of bringing about Messala’s downfall. In the new version, Judah Ben-Hur’s path to the chariot race confrontation with Messala is not worked out nearly as well. Not only that, but it deprives me of one of my favorite sermon illustrations, that of using Arrius’ adoption Ben-Hur as an example of adoption in the Roman world, in order to give insight of how Christians would have understood their adoption as children of God.

But even worse is the diminished role of Jesus Christ compared to the 1959 version. Even though the 1959 version is sub-titled, “A Tale of the Christ” Jesus is not extensively portrayed, and he does not speak much. But it is clear from the opening of the movie with the nativity scene, as well as Balthasar appearing at the beginning and then at intervals during the story in his search for the Messiah, that Judah’s destiny is one of coming to faith in Christ. Although Jesus appears a few times, and has more lines in the new version, there is no sense that Ben-Hur must come to faith in Christ to resolve his spiritual anguish.

Finally the endings of the two versions are very different, with Messala surviving and being reconciled to Judah. Given the expanded backstory of Messala’s involvement with the Ben-Hur family, and the ending where they are all reconciled and reunited, it appears that primary purpose of Judah Ben-Hur’s “come to Jesus” moment is that it causes him to regret his estrangement from, and hatred for Messala, and enables them to become brothers once again. The need for reconciliation with God is at best secondary.

This Ben-Hur is not a great film, but since I was not expecting the film to live up to the 1959 version, I was able to enjoy it. And there are some good things to be said.  Some scenes, like the naval battle and the chariot race are well done. Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, and Toby Kebbell as Messala, are good enough. But they’re no Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. So if you haven’t seen the 1959 version, do yourself a favor and buy the Blu-Ray disc.