Given the accolades poured on the original, it's no surprise that this version does not quite keep shoulder to shoulder with Charlton Heston, nibbling away at his wheels with is hub caps. That said, and against all expectations, the new version is a surprisingly competent effort. Whilst there's the occasional nod to Wyler's film, the 2010 version is content to do it's own thing and at time this works really effectively. Take, for example, the famous chariot scene. Wyler's version, with it's enormous amphitheatre packed to the rafters with an ecstatic crowd, may have been referenced by productions as diverse as The Simpsons and The Phantom Menace, but is pure fantasy from a historical point of view. Here the venue is far less impressive - it's more open plan so that the crowd is far smaller and just stand nervously around the edge of the track - but it feels more realistic. Interestingly it's more reminiscent of the pod race in The Phantom Menace than Wyler's version, which both films draw on.
In contrast to the other versions of the film, the story starts with Judah Ben Hur and a Harry Potter-esque Messala racing carts as teenagers. Messala is the illegitimate son of a Roman senator who has lived with the Ben Hurs since the death of his mother. We're introduced to a stick catching game which predictably reappears throughout the film - the adult Ben Hur always catches it, whereas the adult Messala always drops it, accompanied by a slow-motion shot of it thudding onto the ground. But suddenly Messala's father calls him to Rome, leaving both boys devastated.
Cut to eight years later and Messala's father has arranged for his son to be given the garrison commander position in Jerusalem. Judah now looks like a cross between Charlton Heston and Robert Webb and runs his dead father's business, trying to toe a fine line between the Jewish zealots that work for him and the Romans he relies on to keep his business going. It feels like some kind of metaphor Tony Blair's third way politics, but I doubt that's what the filmmakers had in mind.
Messala's first official task is to arrange Pontius Pilate's entry into the city. He fails to get Judah to inform on his zealot colleague, but nevertheless takes the governor on a more circuitous route through the city, rather than smuggle him in through the back door. Pilate is quickly shown to be incompetent and melodramatic. We first see him struggling to get onto his horse, and then when the tile slips from Judah's roof he scrabbles around feebly rather than brushing it off like a soldier. Pilate is incensed. Messala disgraced. Judah arrested. Pilate sends Judah to be crucified, and on his way to the cross a stranger tells him "forgive them, for they know not what they do".
It soon turns out however that Messala has disobeyed his commander and deferred Judah's sentence to life as galley slave. The ship Judah rows on is owned by prominent Roman Quintus Arrius (Ray Winstone) who is impressed at Judah's suggestion to make the ship more efficient. On a whim, Quintus unchains Judah one evening so that when the ship is sunk a few hours later Judah is able to rescue him. The two return to Rome where Quintus locks horns with Messala's father, Senator Marcellus Agrippa, for the attention of Emperor Tiberius (Ben Cross), who already thinks himself divine. When Quintus credits his survival to "the will of the gods", Tiberius smirks. "We do amuse ourselves in a most peculiar fashion".
Whilst Marcellus is manoeuvring to get Pilate replaced by his son Messala, Quintus is setting things up for Judah. He orders Judah to sleep with Marcellus' slave Athene, gets him pardoned and freed, makes him his heir and then promptly and conveniently dies leaving Judah as a very rich man. All of which suggests that this version of Ben Hur draws on Gladiator and the TV series Rome as much as the William Wyler classic.Part two starts back in Judea with Esther, who had previously been betrothed to Judah, listening to Jesus (Julian Casey) preach. His talk is taking place on a small hill, but the excerpts we hear leave no doubt that this is meant to be the Sermon on the Mount.1 Meanwhile, Judah has returned to Rome seeking revenge on Messala, meeting Pontius Pilate and buying back his old house. Judah's first conversation with Pilate is significant not only because it mentions the local chariot race, but also because of a supposedly off the cuff mention of a Jewish trouble maker.
I've never actually read Wallace's novel, though a copy sits in a box at home somewhere, so I shan't go into too great a detail as to which parts of the book have been omitted. One aspect that was missing however was the presence, or lack of, of Balthasar, one of the magi who visited Jesus after he was born. In the book Balthasar befriends Judah, and it is he who is Judah's doorway to Jesus. But in this version not only is the nativity scene at the start of the film omitted (perhaps because it was so well satirised in Life of Brian, but also Balthasar's presence later on.
Indeed much of the later part of the book is abbreviated. Judah buys back his old house, is gradually reunited with his former acquaintances and wins the aforementioned chariot race, with Messala dying from injuries sustained in the race. There's a sub-plot with one of Judah's former employees attempting to marry Esther, and Judah carries on with Athene. He witnesses Jesus' triumphal entry and subsequent crucifixion, is converted and reunited with his mother and sister and is reunited with Esther. Nevertheless, given all that has gone before everything gets resolved in an overly cheery manner that feels out of step with the rest of the film.
The latter stages of the story are, of course where the narrative focuses in on Jesus and his teaching. I remember back in 2008 hearing producer David Wyler saying both that they wanted "to look at the spirituality within the piece rather than directly relating it to a specific religion" and that it would be based more on the original novel. That seemed like something of a contradiction, but this is actually a fair assessment. In many ways this version of the story has more focus on Jesus than any of the three previous film versions. Rather than Jesus simply passing Judah some water, he instead urges forgiveness.The start of episode two gives a good deal of the heart of Jesus' teaching. This teaching clearly influences Esther and she quotes Jesus several times, again specifically with regard to forgiveness. Then there's a discussion between Pilate and his aide about Jesus' trial. (It's unfortunate that the blame is placed on the Jewish authorities, rather than the Romans, but then I suppose that Pilate might wish to blame someone else). Judah's meeting with Jesus on the road to the cross remains, and, as in 1959, echoes their earlier meeting. But Jesus' admonishment to "forgive them" has a double meaning. It's not just about the soldiers that are crucifying him, but about Judah's attitude to Messala. But the scenes with Jesus on the cross - so critical in the 1959 film - are reduced to a shot of the cross a long way in the distance. And whereas that version saw Judah's mother and sister being healed during, and by implication because of, Jesus' crucifixion, this version can certainly be taken as suggesting the miracle happened some time later, and was perhaps at least as much to do with the reconciliation between Judah and his childhood friend.
So whereas earlier takes on the story had their focus on Jesus, the focus here is more on a critical part of his teaching. The emphasis is primarily on the power of forgiveness itself, rather than the power of the cross. In other words, Wyler was right, Ben Hur (2010) is about forgiveness (the spirituality), rather than about the one in whom, (according to Christianity - a specific religion) forgiveness finds its greatest expression. 1959 closing shot was of tree crosses on a hill: 2010 zoomed out from a close up of the fully reconciled Judah and Esther across a busy marketplace.
That shouldn't be taken as a criticism necessarily. Indeed given the differences between the audiences of the two films, this later version is, in many ways far bolder.
There are however a few moments where the script lets things down. Firstly, and perhaps as should be expected for a Roman-Christian Epic, the dialogue is often overwrought. When Judah sleeps with Athene for the first time she purrs "I did not expect to get virginity along with virility". It's not helped by actress Lucía Jiménez delivering this and other lines as if she's saying "Monsieur! With these Ferrero Rocher's you are really spoiling us". That said there are also some some very clever double meanings, such as when Quintus, unaware that Athene has just poisoned him, says he will be "leaving this accursed place, so, make haste".
Secondly, there's a handful of lazy shortcuts, which would seem unlikely in real life. Why for example, does Ben Hur leave it so late to ask anyone about the fate of his mother and sister. And why does he leave his friend to die with his foot chained to the sinking galley rather than just cut it off? Is it likely that Quintus would be completely unaware of the Hur family given that his son lived with them? We find out that Pilate's regime is more compassionate than even the gospels allow. When Simonides is crucified the day before the Sabbath (a weekly occurrence) he is not enabled to die quickly by having his legs broken, but taken down and allowed to live (albeit with a disability). Likewise, Pilate doesn't just release one prisoner for the Passover, but all of them.
The one thing that mitigates all this is that the plot is well paced, the story is engaging and the film is gripping - even though its outcome is known in advance. There's a chance that Ben Hur might be better than I expected purely because my expectations were so low. Certainly it doesn't match either the 1925 or the 1959 film adaptations. Nevertheless it's entertaining, contains some meaningful shots and whilst its focus on forgiveness may differ from previous adaptations, it's more effective at conveying the freedom that forgiveness can bring.
1 - I may detail these later, but I made these notes - 70 x 7, eye for an eye, turn the other cheek, tunic/cloak, walk 2 miles, love your enemies, beatitudes.