By Bradley Griffith
It’s that time of year when the movie industry hits a lull. The summer blockbuster season is over and the more serious dramatic films of fall have not yet hit theaters. Thrust into this gap is “Ben-Hur,” yet another re-make.
The movie begins in 25 A.D. in the Roman-controlled province of Jerusalem. Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) lives with his mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Ilia), and adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), in a large home. As is befitting a royal family, they have many servants. Judah is in love with Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), one of his servants.
While the rest of the family is Jewish, Messala is a Roman. The Ben-Hur family took him in as a child and raised him as one of their own. While Judah’s father died long ago, Judah and Messala were inseparable, brothers in heart if not in blood. Their favorite pastime was racing against each other on horseback in the desert surrounding Jerusalem. They battled until the finish line and never gave an inch.
Despite his relationship with Judah, Messala never really felt like a member of the family. The rest of the family was not only Jewish, but Jewish royalty. Messala decides to make his mark in the world on his own. He joins the Roman army and spends years fighting the enemies of Rome.
As the years pass the Roman Empire becomes less of a ruler and more of an oppressor. Jews were not free in their own land. Still, Judah preached peace. He was willing to do whatever it took to avoid conflict with the Romans, to avoid bloodshed.
When Messala returns three years later he is head of the garrison of Roman soldiers in Jerusalem. Messala is glad to be home, but Judah can see that his brother’s allegiance now lies with Rome rather than the people of Jerusalem. After an assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), Messala betrays his family. Naomi and Tirzah are arrested and Judah is made a slave on a Roman ship. Judah vows revenge.
I must make a confession, I haven’t seen the 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” with Charlton Heston, but I imagine that it must be better than the current version. It’s not that the current version is a bad movie, the problem is that there’s nothing special about it.
Jack Huston does a credible job of playing Judah Ben-Hur, though he looks more like Jesus, who is a minor character in the movie. Huston’s problem is that he’s not Charlton Heston. The role of Judah needed someone larger than life, someone who stole every scene to the point that all other actors were invisible. Huston’s Judah was the main character of the movie, but nothing he did made him stand out. Sadly, there are no longer any actors like Charlton Heston.
“Ben-Hur” is in many ways reminiscent of “Gladiator,” the epic film starring Russell Crowe. Both movies are set during the time of the Roman Empire and both involve main characters who had considerable standing in their community before being betrayed and sold into slavery. Both main characters fight their way back to their betrayer in the arena. The difference is that “Gladiator” had better acting and, more importantly, better storytelling.
One redeeming quality of the movie is the historical aspect. Both Pontius Pilate and Jesus are characters in the movie and Jesus’s crucifixion and death are shown. There are even a few scenes of Jesus preaching that love is greater than hate.
Overall, there’s nothing special about “Ben-Hur.” By this time next year it will be a forgotten movie.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.