by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 19, 2016

Jack Huston stars in 'Ben-Hur'
Jack Huston stars in 'Ben-Hur'  

If the Gospels, which recount the ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, were a film franchise -- akin, say, to "Star Wars" -- then films like "Ben-Hur" would count as what's now called "expansions," which is to say, stories that take place on the periphery. (Think along the lines of the upcoming "Rogue One," a "Star Wars" side-project that looks, to judge from the preview, more fun and impressive than any of the main franchise films made since the original trilogy.)

Seen another way -- from an old timer's point of view -- the new remake of "Ben-Hur" would count as nothing more than an epic scaled down for the modern audience's attention span.

"Ben-Hur" is based on a novel by General Lew Wallace (a military man and, yes, an actual general), the full title of which is "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." The novel was published in 1880 and went the way of movies as soon as movies became a thing, first appearing onscreen with the 1925 silent film version. In 1959, Charlton Heston starred in the MGM remake, a wide-screen, full-color epic photographed by Robert L. Surtees and directed by William Wyler that clocks in at just under four hours -- a running time that includes an Overture and an Entr'acte.

Of the positive things one can say about the newest remake, which is directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, is that its running time is half that of the 1959 behemoth. Its footprint, sad to say, doesn't even measure up to that extent against Wyler's masterpiece.

That's not to say the film doesn't have promise. Though the new version differs significantly from the 1959 film, the story is still quite recognizable. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince, and Messala (Toby Kebbell), his adopted Roman sibling of about the same age, grow up as close as any two brothers can be. But matters of nationality, faith, and temperament intervene: Their home is Jerusalem, right around the time of Christ, a place ever more in the grip of the Roman Empire, and ever more roiled by zealots willing to die, and to bring the wrath of the Romans down on their more timid countrymen, in order to assert their claim to independence and self-direction. While Judah is content to see a fragile peace maintained, both the Romans and the zealots keep increasing the pressure on that peace.

After an extended period away, serving in the Roman army, Messala returns to Jerusalem as a respected officer who has earned a place in the retinue of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek). Being that he's from a troubled family background and his brothers in arms question his loyalties, Messala is sensitive to a need to demonstrate absolute support for Rome. At the same time, he has another brotherhood to navigate: That with Judah, who downplays the social disruption caused by the zealots and refuses to name any names.

Things go sour between the two men in a big way. Those who have seen the 1959 version know the precipitating event has to do with a loose roof tile and a skittish horse; it's somewhat different here, and it arises directly from Judah's determination to tread a middle path between the Roman occupiers and the city's ragged resistance. Suffice to say; Judah loses everything: Home, status, wealth, freedom, and his wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). He spends long years as a galley slave, manning the oars of Roman warships, until a twist of fate puts him on the road back to Rome -- and revenge.

The centerpiece of the 1959 film was the famed chariot race, a contest in which Judah and Messala face off amid a conflagration of thundering horses and splintering vehicles. (If set in the present day, the big showdown would have to take place on a NASCAR track.) That, of course, is the anchor around which the new film is built. With its shorter run time, leaner and cleaner narrative structure, and simplified hero's journey (this is a movie that literally cuts out a middle man, and an entire significant epoch from Judah's life, in the interests of moving things along), the new "Ben-Hur" almost gallops to the climactic action sequence -- but not without requisite training scenes in which Judah receives equine wisdom from a dreadlocked Morgan Freeman.

A violent maritime skirmish and the great horse race may provide thrills and excitement, but the new film is careful to preserve the source material's central moral theme, which revolves around a quite different contest: That of hatred and rage versus love and forgiveness. This is, after all, meant to be a "Tale of the Christ," and the Christian savior casts a long shadow (or perhaps spirit is a better word) over the story. In a smart move, Jesus is given more of a role in this remake; in the 1959 version, he appeared at crucial junctures, always seen at a distance or facing away from the camera and never heard to speak. This time around, he's a much more interactive character, and he's played by Rodrigo Santoro, who easily qualifies as moviedom's latest Hunky Jesus. In words and actions, this Jesus models a radically new and different way of living, and his focus on peaceful integration and self-abnegation in the name of greater understanding worries the Romans; after all, it's so much easier to subjugate a divided people.

This film is more A Tale of the Wronged Man than one of the Christ, though, and that's where much of its dramatic thrust emanates. Much like the zealots he once denounced, Judah becomes so consumed by fury and a wish for vengeance that the very thought of compassion is impossible for him; he'd rather lose Esther (who, during his long absence, has become a follower of Jesus) than relinquish his hatred. It takes some pretty brutal mano a mano competition with Messala, and a considerable race track body count, for the things Jesus (and Esther) are saying to sink in.

Such mediations are timeless, because while man is a political animal, politics is ever fraught with anger and resentment, and force always remains an easier option than either reason or unqualified generosity. In this age of farcically demagogic presidential candidates and Bernie or Busters, a tale of irrationally driven zealots and the calmer voices that seek to contain them ought to resonate; it's a feat in itself that the film misses that mark, its morale overshadowed by action-oriented set pieces and drowned in sentimental malarky that's even more mawkish than in the 1959 version of the story.



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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.