It’s hard to make a new movie about Jesus. True, the Gospels are full of intrigue, betrayal and violence, rich material for cinematic adaptation. But film versions of the New Testament are plentiful. Between the products aimed straight at the Sunday School crowd, and the torture porn of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” does anyone need another one?
However, “Ben-Hur” isn’t a movie about Jesus. Although the original novel, published in 1880 by Lew Wallace, a retired Civil War general turned man of letters, was subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” that was false advertising. The innovation of “Ben-Hur” was to tell a story set at the time of Jesus, but with the Christian savior as background. In the 1959 movie adaptation of the novel, starring Charlton Heston as the prince Judah Ben-Hur, Jesus appears just a couple of times and his face is never shown. What we learn about him, mainly, is that he has amazing hair.
The latest “Ben-Hur,” directed by Timur Bekmambetov, is cast in the mold of its predecessors, which include the novel, the 1959 movie, and several earlier adaptations for stage and silent film. Although Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) does show his face, he remains a peripheral figure (he still has amazing hair). A few Christian platitudes are mentioned, but this isn’t really a movie about Jesus, or even about the Jews. Rather, it’s a movie about the Roman Empire.
The story centers on Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), the scion of a wealthy and aristocratic Jewish family from Jerusalem at the beginning of the first century. Since childhood Judah has been friends with a Roman boy named Messala (Toby Kebbell), here described as an orphan brought in by the Ben-Hurs and raised as a member of the household.
Like any such adopted son, Messala knows he is not truly a Ben-Hur. And when he goes off to Rome to earn his own reputation as a soldier in Caesar’s army, he and Judah drift apart. Eventually Messala returns to Judea as a commander tasked with subduing the Jewish zealots. Although the two men vow to renew their friendship, it’s clear that they are on opposite sides of a festering conflict.
The story, going back to the original 1880 version, is meandering and tedious, and the current “Ben-Hur” is only a slight improvement, despite the fact that the plot has been tightened to a runtime of about two hours. When Judah is falsely accused of trying to assassinate the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), it is Messala who condemns him to enslavement in the Roman galleys and throws his mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), and sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’elia), into a dungeon. Naturally there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The story is only half the point, however. The real goal of “Ben-Hur” has always been to give the viewer the feeling of what it might have been like to be alive at the time of Jesus. And because it is a contemporary swords and sandals epic, with all the production values 2016 can muster, the latest “Ben-Hur” is the most successful.
Each iteration of “Ben-Hur” is a reflection of its own time more than an accurate portrayal of the past. Wallace’s novel pandered to its readers with insufferable orientalism; the 1959 movie was afflicted with the archness of a mid-century biblical epic. With its emphasis on visceral spectacle and sentimentality, the latest “Ben-Hur” is also a product of its time, even straying occasionally into the TV movie of the week territory you might expect of a Christian-themed historical flick. But for all that, it gives us as vivid a picture of Roman Judea as we might hope to see.
There are the Roman legions, marching resplendent through Jerusalem in their gleaming uniforms. There is the famous chariot race, which is teased at the beginning of the movie before returning in a flurry of blood and mayhem near the end. The most impressive part of the movie is an extended action sequence showing Judah as a galley slave, chained to an oar in the hellish below decks of a Roman war ship as it speeds into battle. Rome had its glory, but also plenty of darkness and despair.
At several points in the story Judah is cautioned towards pragmatism, and reminded of Rome’s undeniable power. “Know the world you live in. The world you live in is Rome’s,” says Ildurim (Morgan Freeman), a horse breeder and gambler who becomes Judah’s patron in the later part of the movie. Here we are shown the violence and suffering of that world, for all those not fortunate enough to belong to its privileged classes. Enslavement and brutality were the order of the day, as was, of course, crucifixion.
As in earlier versions of “Ben-Hur,” Jesus’s crucifixion is a part of the story, and there is more Christianity this time around than there used to be. Jesus shows up to give Judah water as he is being led away in chains, to lecture his fellow Jews on the values of love and compassion over hatred and violence, and to be put to death by the Romans.
Fortunately, the Christianity is not heavy-handed. Instead it is presented as a background element of life at the time, an undercurrent to the legions and circuses and warships. Granted, the rest of the era’s feuding sects and powers are not given similar consideration, but that would be an impossible demand of a two-hour action movie. This isn’t real history after all, so much as a dramatic recreation. In that goal, however, “Ben-Hur” is a success. It recreates the Roman world, and it does so dramatically.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward and editor of “Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction From the Forward.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @EzraG
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.