Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, an ambitious interweaving of the adventures of the fictional Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur with the life of Jesus, was the bestselling novel of its day, a work noted for its ability to make Christianity accessible to modern readers and ground the stories of the New Testament in the real world. But in the public consciousness, Ben-Hur’s life is understood as the lead-up to a chariot race. Even as early as 1907, the first film adaptation of the novel, a 15-minute silent one-reeler, stripped away the vast bulk of Wallace’s opus, leaving little more than the chariot race. Soon after, Wallace’s publisher put out a special edition of the novel excerpting only the text of the race scene, which it accompanied with detailed illustrations. The best-remembered of the novel’s many adaptations is MGM’s lavish 1959 version, a bloated, white-elephant epic whose tone of sanctified somnolence is disrupted only briefly by its still-rousing chariot race.
The makers of this latest Ben-Hur clearly recognize the primacy of the chariot race to the property’s popularity and, accordingly, have constructed the entire film around this one sequence, opening on a flash-forward to the race, basing the central relationship between Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his adoptive brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), on their shared love of horses, and foreshadowing the film’s climax so frequently that it’s hard to care about anything that happens along the way to the inevitable showdown in the circus.
Of course, it’s also hard to care because the film is conceived and directed less as a sweeping epic than as a talky, plotty, melodramatic made-for-TV special in the vein of The Bible (which, like Ben-Hur, was co-produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey). Despite some pleasantly campy touches, from Morgan Freeman’s ridiculous dreadlocks, to Rodrigo Santoro’s portrayal of Jesus as a kind of sexy Jedi, to a hilariously disconsonant final shot featuring Ben-Hur and Messala riding horses in slow motion set to a schmaltzy pop song, Timur Bekmambetov’s film is a pretty staid affair.
The screenplay, co-written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, compresses so much story into two hours, hitting not only all the major plot points from the three-and-a-half-hour 1957 version, but throwing in some additional backstory as well, that there’s little time left over to create any definable characters. Ben-Hur and Messala are generic historical-fiction types with little in the way of personality or the suggestion of an interior life. Even Jesus, who appears in brief snippets throughout, is mostly reduced to a few famous catchphrases (such as “Those who live by the sword die by the sword”).
Clarke and Ridley manage to find some contemporary political resonance in the milieu of Roman-occupied Judea, drawing some clear parallels between the Roman army’s control of the Jews and the over-policing of black Americans, including a robust debate over the efficacy and righteousness of violence as a response to oppression (a cry of “Jewish lives matter!” would hardly be out of place here). But given the dictates of the film’s narrative, they have little room to explore these issues beyond merely hinting at them.
Throughout, Ben-Hur keeps teasing us with the promise of the chariot race. Bekmambetov has demonstrated a penchant for exaggerated action sequences in films such as Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, suggesting that this film’s chariot race could have offered some over-the-top camp delirium. A training scene in which Ilderim (Freeman) instructs Ben-Hur that he must master the art of the “tilt”—raising the chariot onto one wheel as it goes around a bend, like a Roman equivalent of the “Tokyo drift”—seems to promise as much. So, too, does a murky, hellish naval battle, shot from inside a ship and featuring a nonstop barrage of hot tar and flaming arrows.
But when the chariot race finally happens, it’s disappointingly directed in good taste, and with a total lack of imagination. Bekmambetov offers nothing new to the cinematic lexicon of the chariot race: chariots flip out, horses tumble, guys get run over. It all flies by in a flurry of forgettable, perfunctory images. The scene, like the rest of the film, is a hasty retread that never finds a way to distinguish itself from its numerous forebears.