Last week I dragged my husband and 15-year old daughter to see Ben-Hur. I promised them popcorn and reclining seats (greatest invention EVER). I told them it was a time-honored classic about a man who discovers the meaning of forgiveness.
But seriously, there’s really only one reason I wanted to see Ben-Hur–only one reason anyone could have to see a remake of a remake of a remake.
The last good chariot race sequence I’ve seen in the movies was Gladiator—which I have watched about ten thousand times. Each time it is still amazing. The original Ben-Hur chariot race was pretty good too (well, not actually the original, since there were two previous versions). And I’d read that the new version was created without the use of CGI and that the actors playing Judah and Messala didn’t use stunt doubles. (The horses, however, did have stunt doubles.)
Let me just tell you, that chariot race delivered. I wish I had a picture of my daughter and I staring at the screen with our fists in our mouths. We actually cheered at the end. Out loud! Even though we knew what was going to happen — I mean, is there ever any doubt? The bad brother (with the black horses) is going to get his butt handed to him by the good brother (with the white horses).
Still, this was the most intense and satisfying fifteen minutes of movie experience I’ve had in quite a while.
I liked the rest of the movie too, mostly. But I did have a few issues. The original novel was called Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. The author was a civil war general who actually became a Christian in the course of writing of the book. But it gets a bit thorny when you try to insert the real Jesus into a fictional story. I sort of preferred the 1959 version, when you only saw Jesus from the back, even though his hair looks a bit too coiffed. In the original stage play, Jesus was portrayed as a strong beam of light, as the author didn’t feel comfortable with any actor playing the role.
In the updated version, Jesus shows up all the time, imparting words of wisdom. Sometimes he appears in all the wrong places–like in Jerusalem, doing carpentry. That’s just wrong, people! Jesus didn’t live in Jerusalem! Stuff like that really bugs me. (And why can’t they ever find a Jewish actor to play Jesus? Or any of the Jewish characters, for that matter?)
And where was Herod? The movie indicates that Pilate was building a “Circus Maximus” in Jerusalem, though it’s generally accepted that Herod the Great built a Hippdrome about fifty years before. (If he did it at all–no trace of it has ever been found) But Herod Antipas, the King of Judea at the time, never appears in the film. It’s like he doesn’t exist. Pilate comes on the scene looking like he just got out of college. It’s very weird casting. (And if Pilate was building the Hippdrome, well, it’s the fastest building project in the history of the world.)
Messalla and Pilate often discuss the “rebels” but they never mention Jesus, and then all of the sudden Judah Ben-Hur sees Jesus staggering down the Via Dolorosa with the cross. It feels to me like the “Jesus content” was added onto the script as an afterthought and never fully integrated, which makes Judah’s sudden change of heart feel unconvincing. When Jesus showed up in the ’59 film, people stared at him bug-eyed, like they were seeing someone, well, Important. But this Jesus doesn’t seem to make much an impression on anyone, except for Judah’s wife.
And let’s not even talk about the Deus ex Machina ending. You could get away with that stuff in 1959, but not in 2016.
I was truly amazed at how good this film looked, though I wish it could have been better. I wish it had committed more fully to the idea that this is truly a tale of Christ — of how Christ can change lives torn apart by bitterness and anger. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
But oh, that chariot race…