Deep Focus: Ben-Hur
At the start of Timur Bekmambetov’s grueling, chaotic Ben-Hur, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a complacent Hebrew one-per-center in ancient Jerusalem, Messala Severus (Toby Kebell) is a red-blooded goy who joins the Roman army to see the world, and Ben-Hur’s beloved Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) is an early adopter of Christianity. By the time we get to the unlikely Kumbaya climax, we expect them to declare that they’re “stronger together.” Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, has already served as the source for one great action epic (directed by Fred Niblo in 1925) and a deluxe spectacle with a superb chariot race (directed by William Wyler in 1959, with the race by Andrew Marton). Because of its failed inspirational ambitions, confusing exposition, pedestrian style, and clumsy, gory details, Bekmambetov’s Circus is strictly Minimus, not Maximus. His Ben-Hur doesn’t rise to the level of a decent carnival.
The contention of screenwriters John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and Keith Clarke (The Way Back) that they cut closer to the novel is spurious. They sprinkle contemporary platitudes about political violence and military occupation into Wallace’s tale about a literal Jewish prince, Judah, who seeks revenge on his childhood pal, Messala, for turning him into a galley slave and punishing his family as scapegoats. There’s no question that Judah will also find spiritual redemption. Esther relentlessly advocates faith, love, and charity, and Judah’s insistence on Old Testament justice crumbles once he connects to Jesus. This movie makes a questionable moral equivalency between Judah’s desire for vengeance and the Romans’ exploitation of fear and hate to divide their enemies. Of all the Biblical proverbs in the movie, the one that actually underlines the action is “live by the sword, die by the sword.”
The film’s sermonizing flaws surface right away. In a misbegotten stab at fair and balanced dramaturgy, the moviemakers transform Messala from a Roman tax collector’s son into part of the Hur family. Judah’s father, we’re told, took him into the House of Hur as an orphan, hoping to prove that Jews and Romans could live as brothers. (In a 180-degree turn from Wallace’s text, the film’s Messala was born into disgrace because his grandfather played a role in Julius Caesar’s assassination; in the novel, that ancestor reconciled with Caesar’s allies, and Augustus “showered the family with honors.”) Most of this information comes from the mouth of none other than God himself—Morgan Freeman, who sets the scene in awkward, pompous voiceovers before we realize that he’s spouting off in character as Ilderim, a Nubian sheikh and gambler who raises Arabian racehorses.
Messala’s main problem is that Mom (Ayelet Zurer) always liked Judah best. If Judah gets thrown from his horse in the Judean Desert, Naomi Hur blames Messala. “We were racing,” Messala explains. “Racing,” she sneers, appalled that Judah has taken up this Gentile pursuit under his influence. (In a Yiddish Ben-Hur parody, she’d be muttering “Goyishe kop.”) Naomi also disapproves of Messala wooing his knockout adopted sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia). No wonder he can’t wait to enlist. The movie begins with a brief cut to the chariot race, then flashes back to Judah’s accident. It’s as if the filmmakers want to assure us that no matter how much they mess with the narrative, they’ll still provide us with a demolition derby, circa 33 A.D. Unfortunately, they foul that up, too.
The screenwriters suffuse their portrayal of imperialism in antiquity with 21st-century attitudes about conquest and terrorism. After Messala returns from wars in Germany and Africa to head up the garrison in Jerusalem, he’s as conscious about the evils of colonialism as Colonel Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers. He confesses to Judah that the army simply laid waste to its enemies and destroyed primitive cultures, rather than spread Roman civilization (as he dreamed). Now Messala hopes to prove he can suppress rebellion without resorting to slaughter—by defusing the freedom-fighting zealots of Jerusalem. Messala is no racist; he understands why activists ambushed soldiers who were stealing Jewish gravestones to build a Roman circus. And Judah is no extremist. He regards militants as troublemakers, maintaining his focus on his family. But he won’t name names, not even after a young zealot aims an arrow at Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) from his own rooftop.
With Messala functioning first as a misunderstood kid and then a disillusioned idealist, and Judah coming across as an opportunistic sort of pacifist, the movie lacks rooting interest and dramatic push and pull. The bland Huston makes you appreciate his predecessors’ qualities all the more—Ramon Novarro’s vivid emotionality in Niblo’s extravaganza and Heston’s mulish power in Wyler’s. Kebell was more forceful as a bonobo in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes than he is as Messala. He lacks Francis X. Bushman’s aura of omnipotence and Stephen Boyd’s flair and gusto. Boniadi could be wonderfully soulful as a Muslim CIA agent in Homeland, but this screenplay turns Esther into a glib spokesperson for Jesus; she also doubles as pop psychologist, advising Judah to “let go” of his hatred.
The two earlier films carried the phrase “A Tale of the Christ” as a subtitle or an advertising tagline. Partly out of shrewdness and discretion and partly to honor a tradition set by Wallace’s literary executors, they contained only partial looks at Jesus and expressed his divinity via other characters’ reactions. In this Ben-Hur, Rodrigo Santoro strides into full view and paralyzes a crusty Roman soldier through the sheer force of his virtue. Snickering at these moments resembles giggling at church. Santoro was wonderfully robust as a Spanish Civil War hero in Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway and Gellhorn, and he was visually arresting as the giant androgynous god-king Xerxes in the 300 movies, but as Jesus he must lurch between mesmerist and masochist. When Santoro’s Christ, on the cross, says, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” you wonder if, Method-like, the actor is thinking of the filmmakers. Is it blasphemous to point out that Asbaek’s Pontius Pilate is the most magnetic presence in the movie? This Pilate doesn’t wash his hands of anything. He revels in discord. And Asbaek, the Danish star of TV’s Borgen and Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking and A War, is just the actor to deliver Satanic delight with a smile.
Oh yes, about those action scenes. Bekmambetov films the battle at sea strictly from the point of view of the galley slaves. Any hope for a scary study of claustrophobia goes up in flames. The director overwhelms this sequence with the ancient equivalent of napalm attacks—rebel Greeks pour flammable black liquid over Roman seamen’s bodies and ignite it with blazing arrows. In this movie, Judah no longer earns the gratitude of an admiral who frees him and encourages him to become the top charioteer in Rome. Here he simply washes up on shore near Freeman’s Ilderim, who ultimately engages Judah as his rider and bets a fortune on him against Messala because he knows something about horses, if nothing about racing.
Bekmambetov’s inspiration for the chariot race came from watching stock car and motorcycle videos on YouTube. As he explained to Don Steinberg of The Wall Street Journal, he loved the way they captured driver’s seat details with long lenses. He also enjoyed seeing cars pass by iPhones “at the speed of light,” so “they barely have a chance to pan and catch something.” In Ben-Hur, these everyday effects translate into klutzy inserted images of men getting crushed. The previous movies brilliantly exploit the contained space of the Roman circus and the repetitive movements of the charioteers. Their directors generate thrills from the volatile pressure put on drivers and horses and the excited responses of the gigantic crowd. Bekmambetov has a gift for cruelty (it’s what energized his black-comic comic-book movie Wanted), but he fumbles any chance to mix ferocity with grandeur.
In one of the few lines Pauline Kael wrote about Ben-Hur, she noted: “Movie moguls have always had a real affinity for the grandiosity of the old Roman Empire.” This Russian-Kazakh director doesn’t. (Sergei Bondarchuk, who did the Soviet War and Peace, might have pulled it off.) This film will rise or fall on its alternation of brute force with banal message-mongering. The melodrama culminates with Freeman uttering a string of bromides. He implores Judah Ben-Hur never to “look back” and to “finish the race.” It’s the kind of advice you might overhear in a lunchroom or waiting in line to see Ben-Hur. Both verbally and visually, Bekmambetov confuses the mundane with authenticity. He’s the worst possible director to re-create or pillory “the glory that was Rome.” Ben-Hur isn’t even a major fiasco. Bekmambetov thinks too small for that.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to FILM COMMENT and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He also curates “The Moviegoer” at the Library of America website.