Yesterday, thanks to generous donations via Paypal, I went to see the new Ben Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov, based on the novel by Lew Wallace). I’ll get around to writing a longer post soon, but today I’m just going to post a few random thoughts that aren’t enough for an individual post.
Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you intend to see the movie, you may want to do so before reading this. But if you’re like most people and don’t intend to see it, read on!
- It’s not a good movie. At 2 1/2 hours, it still manages to be too short. The backstory between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) needs more time than it’s given. The performances are unexceptional; Morgan Freeman delivers his lines as if he’s narrating March of the Jewish Resistance Fighters.
- Apparently 1st century Jewish men dress like 21st century fashion models. In one scene, Ben-Hur appears to be wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt that he just bought from Abercrombie. It’s such a jarring look that I honest-to-God thought that somehow the film had veered into meta-theater by shooting the scene in contemporary clothing. Note to the costume designer: the only Middle Eastern people who wore pants in this period were Persian women.
- The film continues the Hollywood tradition of having trouble with Roman names. Messala Severus has no praenomen (no private ‘first’ name) for his adoptive family to use; they all just call him Messala. It’s no wonder he never feels like he’s really part of the family; they’re calling him by his last name. And one of the supporting characters is named Druses instead of Drusus. But I suppose we can forgive it, since the characters’ names were lifted from a 19th century novel.
- The film also continues the Hollywood tradition of depicting Rome as an evil, oppressive empire that the world would be better off without. The characters spend so much time complaining about how horrible the Romans are, I wanted to shout “but what about the aqueducts?” (Given that the theater was virtually empty, I could have done so with impunity.)
- I’ve already commented a little about the naval combat scene. And the full scene holds up pretty well. It does a fairly good job of capturing the realities of trireme combat from the rower’s point of view, and it’s quite an effective scene: claustrophobic, chaotic, and frightening. As I pointed out before, however, by 33 AD, there was no naval combat in the Mediterranean, because the Romans ruled the whole Mediterranean basin. The ‘Greek rebels’ the Romans are fighting in this film never existed, and are invented entirely to provide an action scene in a film that really only gets three of them, as well as to provide a way for Ben-Hur to escape captivity.
- Since I’ve complained before about films whitewashing, I feel obligated to say that this film did things better. The performers who play Judah Ben-Hur’s household are actually mostly Jewish or at least Middle Eastern, even if Jack Huston is British. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is played by a Italian-Portuguese Brazilian actor though. Has Hollywood ever cast a Jewish actor to play Jesus?
- Freeman’s Ilderim has literally no motive whatsoever. He decides to bet Pontius Pilate a massive sum of money to allow Ben-Hur to race Messala even though Messala is an undefeated champion and Ben-Hur has never been in a chariot race before, and he agrees to cover all bets on the races because the climactic chariot race won’t happen unless he does, but he never explains why he’s doing this, except for a throw-away line that he used to hate the Romans for killing his son, but he’s over that now.
And thank you to those who donated to my Paypal account so I could go see this! If you want me tackling more first-run films, donating is a good way to make sure I do.
Want to Know More?
The movie isn’t available on Amazon yet, since it’s still in the theaters, but the 1959 Charleton Heston version of Ben Hur is
Or think about reading the original novel, which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.