Arts & Books Comment

Film: Epic failure as wheels fall off chariots classic

Utterly botched: Jack Huston in the chariot-racing scene in the new Ben-Hur

To say that this new 3D version of Ben-Hur comes to British cinemas on a downer is something of an understatement. The film cost a whopping $100 million to make, but flopped spectacularly at the US box office, making a paltry $11.4 million on its opening weekend. Having sat through it, it’s not hard to see why.

Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has been adapted numerous times, most famously, of course, in epic cinematic form in the late 1950s, starring Charlton Heston as the titular hero. Here, the main arc of the plot remains the same, with Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince (Jack Huston), cast out of Jerusalem on a galley ship by his adoptive Roman brother, Messala (Toby Kebbel). Judah vows to seek revenge, with a showdown occurring years later as the siblings go head-to-head in a
chariot race.

Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov makes some tweaks to the story, such as replacing the falling tiles that kick off Judah and Messala’s feud with a flying arrow, in an attempt to ratchet up the stakes. The fact that he fails in this regard is the least of his worries.

The problems with this Ben-Hur are many and various. First, the script is risible. When it’s not forcing the actors to declaim reams of lumpen exposition, it has them awkwardly trying to get their mouths around cringey aphorisms, “Spend your life on hatred and you’re still a slave,” being one of my favourites. And when Morgan Freeman turns up with flowing grey dreadlocks like he’s just wandered in from the Notting Hill carnival, I lost any sense that this was a film to be taken in any way seriously.

The action set pieces – the battle scene on board Judah’s galley ship and the climactic chariot race – are utterly botched, done as they are in that hideous modern mode of fast cuts and flashes of violence, all played out at a deafening volume. The 3D adds nothing, and no sense of tension or danger is allowed to develop in these scenes because everything happens so quickly and noisily. The film’s marketing has traded heavily on the religious aspects of the story, yet, unfortunately for the PR people, this is one of the most flawed aspects of the whole enterprise.

Jesus Christ is returned to throughout as he preaches his message of peace amid Roman brutality and the Zealots’ bloody rebellion, with the action culminating in the Crucifixion and Judah’s conversion to Christianity. This attempt to give the film some moral and spiritual weight would be worth something, if the story it was underpinning had any sense of authenticity or drama. This rebooting of Ben-Hur has neither. It wants to be an epic, but is just an epic disaster.

This article first appeared in the September 9 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.