Nobody You Care About in Ben-Hur
In case you missed it, Paramount’s adaptation of Ben-Hur—already an iconic 1959 film starring Charlton Heston—sh*t the bed in a BIG way over the weekend, becoming one of the biggest flops of the summer. So, naturally, I went to see it. What I discovered is that Ben-Hur’s great sin is being boring, and a large part of why it’s boring is that this new iteration of the story—based on the 1880 novel—removes all the interesting subtext that made the 1959 William Wyler film such an engrossing story.
In the documentary The Celluloid Closet, about Hollywood’s High Repressed years, Gore Vidal—one of several uncredited screenwriters on the 1959 Ben-Hur—talked about his decision to weave homoerotic subtext into the story, in order to justify the hatred between Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted Roman brother, Messala. Vidal claims Wyler was supportive, though he allegedly said, “Don’t tell Chuck,” referring to famously conservative Charlton Heston. Wyler would dispute Vidal’s account, and Heston wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times refuting the gay subtext in Ben-Hur, but it’s there. You don’t have to be hip to mid-century cinematic language to get that Judah and Messala were more than just brothers. It’s BARELY subtext.
So the new movie, because it can’t remake the 1959 movie—rights issues—has to go back to the source material for inspiration. Which means the homoeroticism is mostly erased—what does survive is mostly unintentional—and the novel’s cherry-picked message of conditional forgiveness is put back as the main function of the narrative. In the novel forgiveness is painted as “destroy your enemy and only once he’s defeated, pat him on the head and forgive him.” And Jesus is A-OK with this version of forgiveness. It’s easy to see why such a message might catch on in post-Civil War America.
In this version, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, Boardwalk Empire) and Messala (Toby Kebbell, who has appallingly bad luck with blockbusters) fall out when a young Judean Ben-Hur is nursing back to health takes a potshot at Pontius Pilate (Euron Greyjoy, looking desperate to get back to Westeros) from the roof of Ben-Hur’s house. Messala, forced to make a show of “justice” for the glory of Rome, and also pissed because Ben-Hur won’t hand over names of local rebels, sentences Ben-Hur’s sister and mother to death, and has Ben-Hur enslaved.
Oh, Messala is now in love with Ben-Hur’s sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia, The Night Of), and Ben-Hur is smitten with his servant, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi, one time Potential Tom Cruise’s Girlfriend). This is to prove explicitly that Ben-Hur and Messala are super not in love with one another, and there’s nothing remotely gay about their relationship. 2016 Ben-Hur works so hard to distance itself from the legacy of 1959 Ben-Hur, all without realizing that the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala is what made that movie work.
After Ben-Hur is forced into
Ancient Roman SoulCycle slavery, it takes f*cking forever to get to the famous chariot race. Director Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to stylized action (see also: Wanted), so you can’t fault the chariot race for technical accomplishment—it’s a good looking action sequence, barring some dodgy computer effects in the wide shots. And Marco Beltrami’s score is quite good and almost tricks you into forgetting that you don’t actually care about what’s happening
Because you don’t. The female characters are so underwritten it is literally impossibly to muster one single f*ck to give when Ben-Hur’s mom and sister are presumably sent to die. Later, when Ben-Hur finds out they’ve actually become lepers, we still don’t care. Literally nothing about his arc—emotional or narrative—changes when he learns this information.
Ben-Hur is rescued by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman, in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves mode), who tells him to f*ck up Messala during a chariot race because the only way to beat a Roman is to humiliate him, which is really f*cking bleak for a movie that also features Jesus preaching compassion. (Rodrigo Santoro stars as Ripped Renaissance Jesus.)
The end of the movie is an awkward portrayal of Jesus’s crucifixion in which Ben-Hur suddenly decides to be forgiving, now that he’s gotten his revenge and permanently maimed Messala. Where the 1959 movie gets by on its allusions to thwarted love and the tragedy that spins out from damaged pride and broken hearts, the new version has something really unpleasant at its core. Be a dick, it says, just so long as you don’t gloat too much when you win. Without the romantic subtext, Ben-Hur is left with a rather ugly moral about destroying your enemies at all costs and only forgiving them once you’ve ruined their lives. You know, just like Jesus said.