Bigger than…perhaps, but not better than

Ben HurReview by Penny Mulvey


It is a brave director who takes on the might of a movie so iconic for its size and excesses that it is part of our lexicon.

The 1959 version of Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards, including best actor for Charlton Heston. It cost more than any movie in the history of Hollywood at the time and the massive arena which staged the dramatic chariot race took 12 months to build.

Fifty-seven years later, a Ben-Hur remake, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, starring Jack Huston in the title role and Toby Kebbell as the jealous adopted brother, Messala, has hit the big screen in Australia.

For those unfamiliar with the story (based on the 1880 Lew Wallace novel entitled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ), Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Jewish prince who lives in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, with his mother, sister, adopted brother Messala and two servants. Messala is a Roman whose grandfather was crucified for treason. He believes he needs to redeem his name so that he can be a more worthy son and prospective son-in-law to the family who has cared for him. This prompts him to betray Judah into captivity.

The Jewish poor, in contrast to Judah Ben-Hur and his family, suffer greatly at the hands of the Romans, drawing parallels with some Middle Eastern cities in the present.

It is in this context of poverty and servility that Jesus is introduced to the audience. Working at his craft as carpenter, Jesus speaks words of love to Judah as he walks past. Later Jesus offers Judah water as he falls to the ground, bloodied and broken, on his way to the hard unrelenting life as a galley slave for the Roman conquerors.

What about the chariot race? It is spectacular. It is violent. This reviewer found it hard to watch horses being apparently hurt and riders trampled to death. However, with the use of CGI, it would match the original in drama, brutality and the crowd’s lust for blood.

The new Ben-Hur attempts to replicate the epic qualities of its predecessor, but it doesn’t quite make it. There is little emotional connection with the two protagonists Judah and Messala. Also the women within the Ben-Hur compound, despite being central to the plot development, are poorly defined, meaning the audience is unmoved by their plight.

In many ways, the producers and director of Ben-Hur are tackling the same issue on the big screen as Christian communities all around the world – how do we bring the story of Christian faith to a sophisticated society surrounded by choice?

The challenge for filmmakers is to find ways of authentically engaging an unchurched contemporary audience, used to superheroes and complex action scenes, with the deeper message of grace.

Unfortunately the message of forgiveness feels tacked on the end of an extremely violent movie. The gift of redemption is life-changing, but somehow the sudden switch at the movie’s end from full throttle revenge to happily ever after seemed flippant and contrived.

The 20 anonymous Jews who had been crucified because of Judah’s impulsive actions were somehow forgotten, a mere footnote to the storyline.

In cinemas now.

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