Just as Saving Private Ryan and, to a different extent, Blackhawk Down have set the standard for war films, The Passion of the Christ set the bar for Christian movies that take place in the time of Christ. While Ben-Hur is not a Biblical story, it does feature a lot of Christian themes – even weaving Jesus Christ into the movie throughout, drawing parallels between Christ’s and Ben-Hur’s journeys. Unfortunately, Ben-Hur doesn’t come close to the genre’s best, instead offering a watered down experience full of half-measures and missed opportunities to tell a truly gripping story of revenge and forgiveness.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince, and his adopted Roman brother, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), are nearly inseparable. Unfortunately, their different backgrounds drive them apart, with Messala joining the Roman Legion to seek fame and fortune and Judah staying behind to keep the peace in Jerusalem. However, the hegemony of the Roman Empire grows every day, and Judah soon finds his city occupied by soldiers and his citizens constantly at odds with them in violent clashes. When Messala, now a decorated officer, returns with his superior, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), they are set upon by Jewish insurgents, and Judah takes the blame, begging for the life of his family. But Messala is uncompromising and sentences Judah’s mother and sister to death while sentencing Judah to slavery in the galley of a ship. By chance – or divine intervention – Judah escapes only to fall into the hands of traveling sportsman Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who enjoys chariot races. When Judah learns that Messala is going to compete at the next race, Judah hatches a plan to confront Messala and steal the pride of Rome by winning the race.
The biggest problem with Ben-Hur is that it is uninteresting, which is a shame because there are a lot of segments that could have and should have been explored but weren’t – most likely due to time constraints. For example, Judah spends five years as a galley slave after having lived life until then as a pampered aristocrat. More exploration could have been spent here as Judah is robbed of his former life and humanity in general. In fact, the movie could have started with Judah as a slave, flashing back to his easy life and his loving family that was robbed from him by his treasonous brother. Not only would the story get to the inciting incident faster, but the audience could grow with Judah’s sense of vengeance and purpose, instead of watching him try to be neutral for half the film.
Beyond being uninteresting, Ben-Hur is downright boring in many parts. There are long spoken exchanges where characters describe the dangers that surround them or the stakes that are at risk instead of the filmmakers delivering this information visually. Show. Don’t tell. Even segments that should have been exciting somehow become perfunctory exercises. For example, Judah’s slave ship is involved in a sea battle, but all audiences get to see of it is what Judah sees through his oar hole. And while that can be artistically provocative, no time is taken to heighten the tension within the galley. We never feel the fear of the helpless men below. The chaos feels largely controlled even when a fire breaks out. In short, the presentation is more TV and less big screen.
Ben-Hur tries to be a lot of different movies but ends up being a watered down version of each of them. Story-wise, it’s close to The Count of Monte Cristo. An innocent man is sentenced to die in prison by someone as close as a brother. The prisoner escapes to return home and get his retribution. While the loss and desire to be made whole is palpable in Monte Cristo, in Ben-Hur Judah never reaches the depths of a driven man with a singular focus. Which is too bad since the overall theme in this film – forgiveness – could have been truly cathartic. Comparisons to Gladiator are also inescapable. Freeman’s character will instantly remind of Oliver Reed’s Proximo as Freeman gives Judah sage advice on racing chariots. Additionally, the final act takes place in a coliseum of sorts with a bloodlusting audience cheering on the violence. Unfortunately, the violence is rather muted, and there’s no progression for Judah, competing in bigger and more dangerous races, the way Maximus faced growing challenges. Finally, Ben-Hur does its best to recapture the authenticity of The Passion of the Christ, but with anachronistic dialog that includes “going through a phase” and contemporary platitudes, like “fight the good fight” and “always keep the faith”, the filmmakers should have just modernized the whole film and called it Ben-Hur Superstar.
Creating films specifically for Christian audiences is commendable, especially in these times when Hollywood seems to shrink from that idea. The problem is that Christians like a well-told story just as much as non-Christians do. So it’s not enough to simply present a Christian story and expect Christian audiences to support it. When Hollywood takes time to understand this, then it will have a revenue stream even more lucrative than comic book films. For now, they just have another mediocre movie.