First Screening. August 2016. SPOILER WARNING
I’m sure this article will only be a shorter rehash of many reviews posted and printed about a problematic enterprise that held a lot of hope only to crash into the well of disappointment. There are many things that are interesting about the remake of Ben-Hur, but I find the most interesting thing to be that it is actually not that bad. In fact, it comes nowhere near the apocalyptic reviews I’ve read in short. On top of this, I actually saw the film because the word of mouth of the film was very good. I met several people on vacation in Hollywood who saw it because the premiere at Grauman’s was that week, or people in the In-N-Out Burger in Long Beach who walk to the theatre once a week. I also talked to a very nice African-American couple who praised it in the thriving metropolis that is downtown Big-Bear City. All of them claimed to have seen the first one. None of them mentioned religion as a motivation or plot point at all.
I’ll skip the history of the novel by Lew Wallace and only focus on the dramatic differences I saw between the original film which I viewed only a couple of months ago with my son and the new version I also saw with him and my cousin in Southern California last week. Just in recalling the old one with my son over our trip back home and countless conversations in the car since, we’ve nailed down some pretty big differences that may make the critics uncomfortable even if the audience that does see it may not have the same opinion. This has happened repeatedly – look at Suicide Squad last month.
This Ben-Hur is shorter, there is no doubt. At two hours, five minutes it does not even come close to the three hour, thirty-five minute extravaganza that is the Charlton Heston classic. This sounds an insane reason to like one movie over another but in the day of shorter attention spans and the near impossibility for Hollywood to release a film that can only be shown three times a day instead of six – and therefore only make half the money – this is a reality of epic remakes. It also enables the filmmakers to jettison storylines they just have no time for or to truncate things they think make the film slow. Point in fact is Heston’s lengthy scene in the House of Hur with Ester when he returns from the Galleys. My son, durable, honest, but greatly interested in the film, sighed, rolled over, and went to sleep.
The shorter version dropped Ben-Hur’s adoption by a wealthy Roman Patriarch, thus ensuring his safe return to Judea. It also cut out long and drawn-out scenes of Ben-Hur training his horses for the ever-famed chariot race. Long walks, long contemplations, long serious shots over the ocean or into the desert were simply not included to move the story along. In essence this did what it was designed to do. The longest part of the film is Ben-Hur’s life in Jerusalem up to his arrest and Masala’s betrayal.
The end effect of this is the first debatable point. What does this achieve? Trimming off an hour and a half of your running time sounds like a great idea from a cost perspective and from a revenue perspective. But unfortunately it may have not worked from a plot point of view. Familiar with Ben-Hur’s patron saving him from the galleys and adopting him as a son, I was perplexed how he was able to show his face in broad daylight, even during a chariot race, without being immediately crucified. This and other time saving techniques must be balanced with other confusing choices. The accident that leads to the invasion of the House of Hur is Ester’s over zealous curiousity at the marching Romans below. Her hand brushes a tile which falls onto a Roman and nearly kills him. When Masala investigates he finds the tile and the House of Hur innocent but still banishes Ben-Hur and his family to a life time of pain despite knowing they are all innocent only to advance his career as a Roman soldier…the only sure fire way to get ahead in the Roman Empire of the day.
Instead, what we have in the remake is a very complicated story of liberation. Zealot Jews are resisting the Roman occupation. One is wounded and is taken to the House of Hur. Because he is a boy, Ben-Hur allows it, nurses him back to health, and tries to convince the under aged boy through philosophy of politics that what he is doing is unethical as it does not keep the peace. The broken piece of accidental tile then becomes an assassin’s arrow, the boy using the House of Hur as cover for murder. Ben-Hur inexplicably catches him and lets him go. Though he is a fellow Jew I find this absolutely astounding. So when Masala breaches the house he finds the bow, bandages from a wound, and Ben-Hur admitting under pressure that he shot the arrow. Of course Masala doesn’t believe him. But what is he faced with. Was Ben-Hur helping a contemporary terrorist? Check. Did the House of Hur provide him with a weapon? Check. Was the suspect using the weapon to commit a crime? Check. How is Ben-Hur not guilty under these circumstances? In the original film, Masala’s blind ambition towards advancement was his hubris that undid him. Here, Masala seems to be only enforcing the law and Ben-Hur is, if not partially responsible, directly guilty. Muddled around this is Masala’s new motivation – a grandfather who helped participate in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Thus he has a stained name that he must cleanse and what better way to do this than to arrest the man he grew up with as a brother? In the original this had meaning because Masala had betrayed Ben-Hur basically over nothing. But in the remake he seemingly does this to enforce the law and this takes away Masala’s betrayal. It is hollow. It seems this is done for the ending, which is in fact the next point.
Heston’s Ben-Hur raced Masala to death in the arena, then saw him die in a fit of vengeance that left Ben-Hur satisfied that he had ‘won.’ The restitution of his family in a separate plot line was complicated (dropped in the remake) but the end result was they meet Jesus during the Passion, he cures the family of leprosy and Ben-Hur of his hate. They live happily ever after as reborn Christians. In the new version it is reverse. First, Ben-Hur runs across Jesus in the Passion. He is cured of his hate and when it rains after Jesus dies, his family is cured by the Heavenly water. Ben-Hur then sees Masala whom he forgives and takes back into his family as his brother. The new family goes off happily ever after and we are wondering how a family that spent 5 years in a dark hole with leprosy could possibly forgive their adopted son, who somehow was brought up to be a pagan in spite of the House of Hur being Jewish.
The new ending is quite powerful. And in this very strange mishmash of a film, I actually prefer it. It brings more power to the story and certainly to the Passion, which in the first film seems tacked on at the end. In fact, it should be called “Ben-Hur and Twenty Minutes of the Crucifixion.” I did not, in any way, connect the two in the first film. But I cannot deny that if they had done this in the first film the story would be even more powerful. I found it very touching.
Unfortunately this greatly powerful moment is scripted against his incarcerated family and book-ended with the family’s anger at Masala at the beginning of the story and the strange de facto acceptance of Masala at the end. In the middle is a rather rushed Roman fight scene, a dark and gloomy galley that a viewer can’t focus on, and a chariot race that despite being impressive, simply does not live up to the first Ben-Hur.
So as a film, it doesn’t work nearly as well as the original even though it has a remarkable amount of pluses. The greater meaning of the Passion, the idea of forgiveness and redemption in our lives, and the superior acting by Jack Huston and a cast seemingly of unknowns in the west. I thought the acting was greatly better than the first, despite Heston’s classic leading man style, if only because acting style has improved a great deal. Morgan Freeman was great as only Morgan Freeman can be. I would have seen the film regardless of all other factors simply because his power as a heavy is something to behold in a town where heavies are fading fast.
I do expect the film to be derided for these flaws and not because of the religious message. This is something to say about a town and a community that despises religious film and despises them even more when they succeed. Since this film seems to have tanked so badly at the box office, the critics have gone soft on it, expecting it to be crucified in the court of public opinion, dead of itself, and in no need to a fifth wound to the heart. But what if it had done well? It’s an interesting counter factual that we’ll never know. There is no reason to watch it again, but there is certainly no reason to not go see it now. Like most films, it’s not going to get better in your living room.