The 1959 version of Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston is Hollywood spectacle of the highest order. Its level of opulence can perhaps best be measured by its 11 Oscars, a record achievement matched only by two other enormous films, Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). This year’s remake of Ben-Hur is much smaller and leaner than its predecessor. It tries hard, but it just isn’t in the same league.
Thankfully the actors in the new version actually look Middle Eastern – several of them actually are – but they can’t hold their own against the legacy of Charlton Heston. Heston is not a “good” actor, but he is a larger-than-life presence who contributes to the epic grandeur of the original.
The portrayal of Jesus, too, is less effective in the remake, even though they show more of him. Famously, the original film chose not to show Jesus’s face. Yet Jesus was still a powerful presence in that film. In particular there is a moving scene in both films where Jesus offer the protagonist a drink of water in direct disobedience to a Roman soldier’s command. In the remake Jesus is less confrontational and is portrayed as merely a quiet presence of compassion for suffering, downplaying his dangerous authority. In the original he literally stares down the soldier.
Overall the remake just seems smaller than the original, especially in the dialogue scenes which are filmed mostly in close-ups. On the other hand, the new film is much more energetic – the camera is constantly moving – whereas the original was more staid and even lethargic at points. The action sequences in particular are much more urgent in this film. They are bloodier than the old film (earning a solid PG-13 rating), and are shot with shaky hand-held whip-pans and zooms. This works surprisingly well for the chariot race. (A 70 year old lady sitting next to me in the theater was literally on the edge of her seat with her eyes wide and her hand over her mouth.) But it doesn’t work as well in the slave galley which is too frenetic to achieve genuine suspense. It is simply constant noise, without the slow building of rhythm and the moments of silence required to generate tension.
When it comes to plot and character development, the new Ben-Hur actually makes several genuine improvements over the classic version – at least until the last five minutes when the new film botches the most important element of the story. Ben-Hur is ostensibly the story of a First Century Judean prince’s conversion from revenge to forgiveness. The hero’s spiritual awakening never made perfect sense in the original, but here it makes even less sense.
In 1959 the character of Judah Ben-Hur started out as a devout Jew who chooses to support his own people even if that brings him into conflict with the Romans. He prays to God for strength at multiple points in the story as he struggles to hold on to his faith during years of imprisonment as a Roman galley slave. Judah’s most repeated prayer is that God will grant him revenge against Messala, the childhood friend who grew up to become the Roman military leader responsible for enslaving Judah and his family. Not all of Judah’s friends approve of his desire for revenge. Judah’s girlfriend Esther has become a Christian and tells him about Jesus’s teachings: “I’ve seen a young rabbi who says that forgiveness is better than hate”. Then, after escaping from slavery and defeating Messala in a chariot race, Judah happens to witness the crucifixion of Jesus where a bystander tells him Jesus has “taken the sins of the world upon himself.” The movie ends with Judah returning home and reporting that he heard Jesus on the cross praying that God would forgive those who were crucifying him, “And I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.”
This conversion seems rather abrupt, given that just the day before Judah confessed that getting revenge on Messala did not quench his “thirst”. He had said he still has unfinished “business with Rome” and was planning to join a zealot’s violent rebellion. Now merely seeing the “look of peace” in Jesus’s eyes and the graciousness with which he accepted his innocent suffering, Judah was instantly transformed into a pacifist. It doesn’t make a lot of sense as character development.
In fact, Messala’s betrayal of Judah at the beginning of the original Ben-Hur doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. But the remake succeeds in giving the characters intelligible motivations, at least for the majority of the film. It does this in large part by portraying the political context more clearly, emphasizing the role of the zealots in First Century politics. For example, it is clearer in the remake that Judah’s family are the sort of wealthy aristocrats who benefited from the Roman occupation and did not support the zealots’ political rebellions (somewhat like the Herodians mentioned in the New Testament). As one zealot accuses Judah, “you confuse peace with freedom”. Judah is a collaborator, willing to overlook the oppression of his people as long as his family is personally well off.
In the remake the conflict between Judah and Messala arises when Judah begins to have sympathy for the zealots. Early in the film Judah witnesses a zealot’s crucifixion and explicitly rejects the idea of resisting Rome. This might seem similar to Jesus’s teaching on non-violence, but Judah also explicitly rejects Jesus’s call to love one’s enemies, saying instead that people have to take of themselves. Unlike in the original film, Judah is portrayed here as a skeptic. He doubts there is a God, saying that God doesn’t do anything to help the poor and needy.
At first Messala and Judah agree that they should fight for “civilization, progress, prosperity, and stability”. Messala regrets joining the Roman army and recognizes its oppressiveness. Judah says he doesn’t care about politics, only peace. Both agree in avoiding violence and are complacent about Rome. But then Judah hears the story of a zealot whose father was killed and whose mother was raped by the Romans. This seems like a genuine political awakening for Judah who refuses to hand the zealot over to Messala, even after the zealot attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate.
The remake tries hard to show that both Judah and Messala have good intentions. Messala is just trying to find a scapegoat that can placate the Romans and prevent the sort of mass death a Roman military invasion would bring, and Judah is trying to protect those he sees as misguided victims of Roman oppression. This makes for good drama and helps us sympathize with the characters better than we did in the original. Yet the remake never finds a plausible political solution to the real sources of division. The film changes Messala from Judah’s childhood friend to his adopted brother, a Roman. Their family hopes this relationship will “be an example of unity in this divided land”. Like the original film, it simply asserts that “loving” and forgiving your enemies will somehow be enough to produce peace and political unity. What this has to do with Jesus is never addressed in the film.
Speaking of Jesus, there is a scene in which Jesus protects a leper from being stoned by shielding him with his own body. Jesus tells the crowd to love their neighbors as they love themselves and reiterates the film’s theme about unity as an alternative to the divisiveness of Roman ambition: “Hate, anger, fear — those are lies they use to turn you against each other.” Pilate witnesses this scene and declares that Jesus is “more dangerous than all the zealots combined” though, again, it is not clear why he would think so.
There is something right about all this – Jesus really is a threat to oppressive political systems and Christian love really is the only hope for social stability and familial harmony – but the film does not explore these themes deeply enough. By giving us a superficial appeal to “unity” as an alternative to political action, Ben-Hur seems to be denying the possibility of earthly justice and appealing to a kind of quietism and otherworldly spirituality.