I need to begin this review with a confession: I am not a fan of the 1959 Academy Award winning version of Ben Hur. I saw the film on television when I was a kid, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me one way or the other. I respect that the movie won so many awards, and I appreciate the influence the film had on a generation of film lovers, but even with all of that in mind, I simply don’t get the hostility aimed at filmmakers who would dare remake a movie that came out over fifty years ago.
While I appreciate that people like the old film, is anyone really so invested in that particular story that they’re willing to be upset that it’s been remade for the modern age? Especially considering that the 1959 film was a remake of a remake itself?
Maybe there are. And if so, then obviously nobody will make these people see Ben Hur, and they can live their lives as if it never happened.
However, I think the more relevant question is this: is Ben Hur (2016) any good?
My answer? Yes, it is good. And at the same time… no, it isn’t.
But I’ll get to all that in a moment. First, a bit of voiceover narration to set the scene.
The latest incarnation of Ben Hur is an unusual animal: a wide-release $100 million dollar secular film that has been promoted strongly to the faith-based audience. It’s understandable that Hollywood would do this, because the faith-based audience has proven that it will show up for the right project. But finding that right project has not proven easy.
To help shepherd the faithful to Ben Hur, Paramount and MGM brought in Hollywood’s premiere faith-based power couple, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, as executive producers early in the film’s development. This was an unprecedented move, and presented a huge opportunity for faith-based films to enter the mainstream. Unfortunately, opening weekend box office returns do not bode well for the film, or for the experiment. As of this writing, the film has made about $20 million combined domestic and international, and films typically don’t gain momentum after that opening weekend.
[Insert chariot joke here]
It really is a pity that it’s gone this way, because – Rotten Tomato score notwithstanding – Ben Hur is actually an enjoyable movie. It is not going to repeat the awards success of the 1959 movie, and it was far from a perfect film, but it did what a big summer flick is supposed to do: it entertained.
What I liked about Ben Hur (minor spoiler alert):
1. That the leads were not big names.
It’s been argued that the film has not attracted the audience it could have attracted because the main actors are not household names. I can see this, as audiences crave familiarity, and there’s a reason why certain actors command huge salaries. Ben Hur’s only well-known actor was Morgan Freeman, and he plays a supporting role.
In this case, I actually appreciated that I didn’t know the actors who were playing Judah and Mesalla because they seemed real to me. I wasn’t distracted by having Bradley Cooper or Tom Hiddleston (he considered the role) looking back at me every time they were onscreen. It allowed me to be more immersed in the film.
2. It was not a white-washed Bible movie.
Considering the criticism Hollywood has received recently for white-washing films, it’s pretty stunning that Ben Hur’s filmmakers largely avoided this trap. For example, Jack Huston (Ben Hur) has Jewish roots, Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus) is Brazilian, Nazanin Boniadi (Esther) is Iranian-born, Ayelet Zurer (Naomi Ben Hur) is Israeli, Morgan Freeman (Ildirim) is African-American, and the list goes on. This diversity in casting gave the film increased authenticity, and the filmmakers should be applauded for this. Strangely, I’ve seen very little celebrating of Ben Hur‘s diversity from the folks who typically love to point out this issue.
Of course, now people are calling Ben Hur an example of “straight-washing“, so… I guess you can’t win.
I love that this big budget Hollywood Bible epic was directed by Kazakhstan’s most famous film director. This is showing some bias on my part, as I lived in Kazakhstan for fourteen years, and my wife is Kazakh. But Bekmambetov is famous for a reason: he has a unique style and voice as a director that he’s shown over and over, and he was able to bring a lot of that unique vision to this film.
Bekmambetov’s style worked especially well in Ben Hur’s big action set pieces. The sea battle was amazing, because it was so claustrophobic. Bekmambetov kept you locked in the galleys with Ben Hur, with only quick tantalizing glimpses at the battle that was raging outside. It was a stunning visual example of the power of showing less, and it was incredibly effective. The same could be said about the infamous chariot race, where fast cuts, thumping sound effects, and unexpected camera placement put you right into the heart of the race.
In short, thanks to Bekmenbetov’s direction, I was never bored with Ben Hur. Unlike most films that are categorized “faith-based”, the film kept my attention from the beginning.
4. There wasn’t much Jesus in this faith-based film
I’ll also be talking about this in my negatives section, but I was so glad that this faith-based Bible period film didn’t show very much Jesus. In fact, the most effective scene involving Jesus didn’t show him at all. In this scene, Judah was talking to Esther while she’s going with a group, palm fronds in hand. It’s pretty obvious that they’re heading to Jesus’ Triumphant Entry, but there’s no mention of it, and no follow up. It’s like an Easter Egg (pun intended), and it worked. I wish they had used this sort of subtlety more.
5. It felt like a real movie.
This point is huge for a faith-based film, and hopefully reflects a new age for these sorts of films. Most faith-based movies have a distinct “made-for-TV” feel. When you watch them you realize that you really wouldn’t have missed anything if you’d waited and watched the film on Netflix (or one of the Christian versions of Netflix). Ben Hur is not this sort of film, and seeing the big set pieces on the big screen definitely enriched the experience for me (although 3D is not necessary). The film also has a distinctively epic feel to it, and it is firmly and distinctly grounded in the right era, with great attention apparently paid to detail.
If you don’t get to see it in the theater, at least make sure you watch it on a worthy home theater system.
6. Giving away ministry resources
This doesn’t have to do with the movie per se, but more with the marketing of the movie and recognizing the difference between ministry and commercialism.
It’s become common for Christian movies to develop ministry resources for their films, with the hopes that pastors and Bible study groups will purchase copies of the movie for viewing, and purchase study materials to go along with it. It’s actually a pretty big money-making component of faith-based films, and an unfortunate part of the development of a “Christian film industry” that often seems more enamored by profit than outreach.
And almost all of the big faith-based filmmakers do this.
But Ben Hur is an exception. Yes, the filmmakers developed ministry resources, but somehow they were able to convince the bean counters that ministry resources should be free.
Look what happens when you search for Ben Hur on Lifeway, the big Christian retailer.
And look what happens when you go the Ben Hur official ministry resource page. Everything is free.
I have nothing but respect for the fact that Downey and Burnett have decided to give away all of their ministry resources. Kendricks, Pure Flix, everyone else – this is how it should be, especially if you are making big money off your movies and can already afford to pay your writers.
You can read more about my thoughts on this subject here, How George Lucas Helped Shape The Christian Film Industry, if you are interested.
What could have been better about Ben Hur:
The movie was good, and I enjoyed it, but there were also some big problems. They weren’t big enough that they soured the movie for me, but they were still problems.
1. Use of Voiceover
The film starts and ends with voiceover narration. I understand that you’d probably be a fool not to use Morgan Freeman’s voice if you have it, but even so, it was not necessary. In fact, it is rarely necessary. Don’t waste time telling me what you want me to know, jump right into showing me what you want me to know.
Not a fan of the voiceover, even with Morgan Freeman’s glorious pipes providing it.
If Mr. Bekmambetov had asked my opinion, I would have suggested that they start the film with Judah and Messala racing the horses as kids – establish that they are close from a young age – maybe even have a moment where their race is interrupted by the sight of Roman soldiers to establish how much Messala admires the Romans, then they start racing again. Do a “ten years later” thing and drop us into the race as young adults that they show us and pick it up from there. Forget the initial glimpse of the chariot race, forget the Morgan Freeman voiceover, just drop us right into the action.
And by the way, what happens at the end of Judah and Messala’s initial horseback race was wonderfully unexpected. The lady beside me literally shrieked and nearly fell out of her chair. It was delightful.
2. There was too much Jesus in this faith-based film
Now, I know that above I mentioned that it was good that the film had so little of Jesus, but to be honest, they could have done with much less. I’ve heard the term “shoehorned” used to describe Jesus’ part in this film, and I would agree wholeheartedly. It was like the filmmakers stopped Ben Hur several times to interject a scene from an entirely different Jesus movie. I wish they’d gone more subtle – as the original did. Faith-based audience needs to learn to embrace subtlety and not have to have things so in-the-face, a lesson that I hope Burnett and Downey learn from this experience.
By the way, I do recognize that the filmmakers could have gone nuts and done a whole lot more with Jesus in this movie, and I’m glad that they didn’t. I just wish they had done less with him.
3. Ben Hur’s Redemption
This one has taken me a while to process, and it’s a big one. I liked Huston in the role of Judah Ben Hur. He carried the film well, and he demonstrated that he is a very good actor. But as I thought about the movie afterwards, it occurred to me that the character ultimately didn’t work – and it came down to Ben Hur’s redemption.
The more I thought about it, the more I didn’t get it. Why would hearing Jesus say that he was willing to die by his own free will matter? Why would seeing Jesus crucified change him? Why would Jesus looking at him while he says, “Father forgive them” cause him to fall to his knees in repentence? Yes, knowing what I know about Jesus, I get it. But in the context of the story, I didn’t.
Ultimately, I didn’t buy Ben Hur’s descent into hatred and unforgiveness that needed to be redeemed in the first place. Judah, as played by Huston, seemed like a fairly nice guy through the entire film. He didn’t seem consumed by a thirst for revenge, just a desire to see his family. And when Messala came to meet him in the abandoned Hur house, I didn’t get the sense that Ben Hur wanted to do anything more than punch him in the face, which he did. Where was the rage? Where was the hatred? It would have helped if Ben Hur had really let loose on Messala, so that the troops breaking in actually stopped him from murdering his brother.
5. The healing of the sisters
Healed by the rain of the crucifixion? Please. Yes, I know this happens in the 1959 movie, too, but it was just so convenient and contrived and typical faith-based “trust God and he’ll solve all your problems” theological nonsense.
Considering how Biblically accurate Downey and Burnett have wanted this film to be, why go so far off The Book? Jesus heals the women himself in the original novel, and I wish the new movie had gone that route. Or, they could have gone an even riskier route and had the sisters not be healed at all.
6. The ending
Which leads me to the ending. Really? They’re all back, happy, like nothing ever happened? I know that reconciliation and forgiveness were the themes of this movie, but what about consequences? What about dealing with loss? In the original novel, Ben Hur and Messala do not reconcile. In the 1959 movie, they reconcile as Messala dies after the chariot race. In this version? They’re all happy, back together, and going off to live with Morgan Freeman.
This detail sets this incarnation of Ben Hur apart from any earlier versions, and not in a good way. Unfortunately, it’s what we’ve come to expect from faith-based films.
7. The pop song in the end credits
I really don’t have anything more to say about it except this: what a terrible, terrible idea, to freeze frame the boys on their horses and turn on this pop song, the name of which I don’t recall. I’m sure the song is probably fine as far as pop songs go, but it was completely jarring and unfitting to the rest of the movie. A bad decision.
8. The shaky cam
My last criticism is a small one, but it’s worth mentioning. While I do like Bekmambetov, I so, so, so dislike the shaky cam. I know that it’s supposed to create a sense of being “in the moment” and urgency, but to me it just makes the action hard to follow and gives me a headache. I was so glad I wasn’t watching this in 3D.
And so, there you have it. My thoughts on the 2016 redo of Ben Hur. My final prognosis is that the movie is pretty good, is brilliant in parts, and is well worth the price of admission as a big summer movie.
And while I don’t typically subscribe to this point of view, if you are a Christian who wants Hollywood to make more fare that recognizes and respects your faith, you really should go see this movie, and convince your friends to go as well.
Remember, Ben Hur is a big experiment being conducted by the studios. They want to see if they can make a big budget film that you will enjoy, that you will pay to see. If the film ultimately fails, it will quite possibly be a long time before we see another like it. We’ll be relegated to nothing but the little micro-budget movies like the Kendricks and Pure Flix make. Given, those movies have their place, but it would be a shame if they continued to be our only option.
Not to mention that non-Christians who would never go see a low budget Christian-made film will possibly go see Ben Hur, partly because it’s a big budget summer movie, and partly because they saw the 1959 movie and are curious what the updated version will do. This non-Christian viewer will possibly be affected by Ben Hur’s redemption in a way that I wasn’t, and it might be an important point on their own journey of faith.
And that would be worth the price of admission.
By the way, if Ben Hur fails, it might not be the end of big budget faith based films.
As Yoda tells Obi-Wan at the end of Empire, “There is another…”
And his name is Mel.