Whilst it's only been six years since the story of Ben-Hur was last on our screens, it's been 57 years since it was playing in cinemas, so, given the huge success of that 1959 version - itself a remake of a remake - it was only a matter of time before someone adapted it for the big screen once again. After all, two scenes in particular have resulted in some spectacular set-pieces in previous adaptations without either the 1959 or the earlier 1925 version receiving such acclaim that no-one dares to to touch the source material again. In fact, as the shortest of the non-animated Ben-Hur adaptations, this version seems to pretty much revolve around these two set pieces.
The episode for which Ben-Hur is now best known is the chariot race scene and that seems to have become the driving force (if you'll pardon the pun) behind many adaptations - early stage versions of the story had horses running on rollers, the first film adaptation way back in 1907, was little more than footage of a chariot race, and a recent "stage" version hired out the O2 arena in order to be able to have the race do laps around the auditorium.
Here, once again, the chariot race dominates. The film opens on the starting line, with Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) taunting each other through gritted teeth. The film then goes into flashback mode, which is a nice little device, but does rather highlight the film's emphasis on the chariot race. This is further underlined when the it turns out that the point in time to which they go back is Judah and Messala racing horses eight years before. Then the two were on far friendlier terms - Messala had been adopted into Judah's family and the two very much see themselves as brothers, even if Messala occasionally points out that he is not really part of the family when it suits him.
Indeed, as the opening scenes unfold it emerges that one of the ways in which it suited him to be not-a-part-of-the-family is his love for Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia). The film draws this out a little more than other adaptations - it's Judah and Tirzah's mother's objections to their attachment that drive Messala off to join the army. In one way this works well: it renders Tirzah a far more rounded and interesting character than in the 1959 version (true of all 3 female leads). Yet that brings with it a few complications as well. How did Tirzah feel whilst he was away? Did she write to him regularly in the same way her brother did?
When Messala returns as a tribune he is far more concerned with his reunion with Judah than with his former love, but this is never really commented on. Perhaps we are meant to see his intimacy with Tirzah as the kind of youthful infatuation that this hard-hearted, career-driven soldier no longer has any time for. And of course, when Pilate is attacked by an injured zealot recovering in the Hur house, there's little reference to their previous tenderness. When Judah is sentenced to the galleys and told his mother and sister are being executed, for a moment I wondered if the more interesting story on a human level might be that of Tirzah rather than Judah. If only she also could have raced a chariot...
But of course the camera chooses to follow Judah, who by now is symbolically tied to a yoke and falls at the feet of Jesus. This, in fact, is Judah's second encounter with the man from Nazareth, though both take place in Jerusalem. Shortly before Messala's return, Judah and his slave-turned-wife, Esther encountered Jesus in the marketplace. For some reason he'd set up a carpentry stall there, although the main thing he seemed to be building is a soap-box from which to preach his message of love. Then Judah shruged it off. He's not exactly an atheist - he had joined in with his family's generic, sort of Jewish, religious festival a few nights earlier, for example - but he didn't have much time for Jesus's calls to love his enemies ("If he’s already decided my path, how am I better off than a slave?").
Yet now Judah is flat on his face on the road to the slave port and Jesus is pulling off a Jedi mind trick in order to give him a sip of water. This has always been a pivotal moment in Judah's story, and here it flashes back to him time and again, but it also proves pivotal for Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). Whilst Judah is away she joins Jesus'movement (apparently two years before it even starts) and does good works amongst the poor. In contrast to Judah' mother and Tirzah, Esther is rather poorly sketched, despite having more screen time than either of them. Despite her desire to do good works she doesn't, for example, seem to have made any in roads into tracking the fate of her in laws, nor does she seem overly perturbed by her father's death. And ultimately despite spending half a decade following Jesus, she doesn't really have anything compelling to say about him.
All of which leads us to the film's other set piece - the sea battle - and it's by far the film's most successful scene, defly combining horror, tension and excitement. The bravest, and most successful, decision that director Timur Bekmambetov makes is to leave his camera below deck for the entire fifteen minute sequence. This nicely captures the claustrophobia of the environment but it also allows the audience to share the slaves' disorientating experience - their knowledge of what is happening is fragmented and limited to the few words they overhear from above deck and what they can glance through the oar holes. They know they are in a battle, but it's a shock when they get rammed in the side by an enemy vessel. And whilst the way Judah somehow manages to free himself from the wreckage seems a little questionable, it actually improves upon the implausibility of the novel and subsequent adaptations on this point, even if it's a little convenient that he washes up on shore just a short distance away from a chariot racing expert/horse owner (Morgan Freeman).
It's here that the movie makes quite a sizeable leap which results in Judah landing himself in his much desired a grudge match. The chariot race itself is exciting, even if the odd pan of the crowd is let down by some bad CGI. Again the camera stays close to the action. Whilst it doesn't surpass its predecessors there's some good work here, particularly the pacing, which is so critical to a scene like this, and some impressive camera angles.
Another plus point is Pilate's presence at this "circus". There are some tenuous links between Pilate and the arena in Caesarea, which did host chariot racing during his governorship. What is particularly good is that the Pilate we encounter here is the kind of crude bloodthirsty thug that history suggests, rather than the mild-mannered philosopher of so many Jesus films. Pilate (Borgen's Pilou Asbæk) struggles to contain his excitement as the race progresses, blood is spilt and the bodies pile up. This isn't a man who would worry himself about executing a would-be messiah. (As a Borgen fan, it's also interesting watching Asbæk playing the top dog, rather than the pitt-bull like press secretary serving a middle of the road prime minister).
Where the chariot scene does let itself down a bit, is the sight of Freeman's character Ilderim scurrying around shouting advice to his rider as he swishes by. It's unclear if this is because the filmmakers realised they hadn't given Judah long enough to become a credible charioteer, or because they want to remind the people at home about all the things that are about to prove dangerous in just a lap or two's time. Either way the idea that as Judah thundered past he would catch a single word of Ilderim's advice - over the roar of the crowd - is laughable and detracts from what is otherwise a decent action scene.
The other problem with the scene is something that is so typical of all the films in general, and indeed all of the biblical films that Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have produced; their tendency to ramp everything up to the point of crassness. So Judah can't just win the race, he has to win his first ever race, against Rome's greatest and unbeaten champion, despite getting knocked out of his chariot and dragged along the floor for half a lap and managing just to cross the line before his chariot crashes and his horses all die. Some of that is drawn from the novel, but time and again the pair's productions push things far further than their source material, draining them of any subtlety and ensuring absolutely everyone in the audience is totally and completely aware of their point. Does Pilate need to have a brush with death near the start of the film? Get a zealot to shoot him with an arrow! Is Morgan Freeman good as dispensing wisdom? Have him offer a life lesson at every conceivable moment! Is this a tale of learning to forgive? Have Judah and Messala have a big hug and ride off into the sunset! Would more talented writers have stopped this repeated two-phase question/statement pattern I'm employing? No, do it more!...etc. etc.
That said some of the usual weaknesses in Downey and Burnett's work do seem at least a little reined-in here, not least the level of violence which, for once, feels more or less in keeping with the source material. And I quite liked the handful of places at the start if the film where Judah is challenged about the fact that his rosy world view is at least partially dependent on his privileged position of wealth and power. When Judah gives Jesus the question above about "how am I better off than a slave?" Jesus comes right back at him with "Why don't you ask her?", the "her" in question being Judah's former-slave turned wife, Esther. Another time whilst citing what has happened to the fields his father owned as evidence of injustice he is asked, rather pointedly, "and who owned the fields before your father?" Then there's the zealot who tells Judah "You confuse peace with freedom”.
This tendency to bring original and contemporary sounding dialogue into the film works rather well for the most part. After all Lew Wallace was hardly Shakespeare and the novel's prose is often leaden and turgid. The new dialogue often places Judah squarely in the middle between two more extreme and violent parties vying for control of Judea. It's unfortunate that the writing in the latter part of the film isn't as strong at the earlier part such that this, too, ends up also being a bit crass.
And what of the portrayal of Jesus? In the run up to the film's release I have heard people say both that the film minimises the role of Jesus and that enhances it and curiously both perspectives are true. Given the film's condensed run-time the material needed considerable abridgement, and to that end excising the nativity and that oh-so-convenient reappearance of Balthasar years later, is a wise move. I also quite liked the brief shot of Gethsemane, which I don't recall from the previous adaptations, though it is in the novel.
That said I've already highlighted a couple of areas where the portrayal of Jesus didn't really work for me, and though Judah undergoes a profound transformation at the foot of the cross, there's precious little indication as to what is occurring. As with other Downey/Burnett produced Bible films, I come away wondering what it was they were trying to say about Jesus. Is it simply that marketplace message of love for your enemies? Perhaps that in itself is actually enough.
I think, though, that there are two reasons why the crucifixion scene didn't do much for me. The first is actually a fault of the novel: I've always found the healing of Judah's mother and sister a bit too convenient. Not only does the Bible fail to mention any healing miracles occurring during the crucifixion, but it's such a lame plot device. And speaking of lame why do Judah's mother and sister get healed whilst his 'brother' remains an amputee?
But the other reason is that Jack Huston's performance as Judah is rather lacklustre. Whilst the filmmakers would have struggled to find a more similarly surnamed leading actor, Huston lacks Heston's intensity. There's a few lines in the film that suggest that Messala is struggling to emerge from his grandfather's shadow. Whilst Huston did some good work in Boardwalk Empire there's little here to suggest he is going to lose the 'grandson of John Huston' tag anytime soon.
Fortunately, for much of the film Huston isn't required to do a great deal because the chariot race and, most notably, the sea-battle are two great set pieces. These, combined with the film's natural sense of urgency and rhythm, mean that, ultimately, watching the film is more like spending the day at the chariot racing than spending life in the galleys.