By Cynthia Biddlecomb
“Ben-Hur”, a fifth re-make based on the 1880 novel, was released Friday, Aug. 19. Did it need to be remade? Perhaps not—attempts made in 2003 and 2010 bombed.
The best-selling novel was first made into a film in 1907 and again in 1925. Our favorite version came out in 1959 staring Charlton Heston, winning 11 Oscars. So why make a new one? Modern film technology can make a better chariot race. The tag line for the recent release is “Brother against brother. Slave against Empire.”
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) have grown up as brothers since the wealthy Hur family of Jerusalem adopted the orphaned Roman boy. The sport the boys most love is racing against each other on horseback.
When Messala displays affection for her daughter Tirza, mother Naomi Hur rebuffs him. So Messala leaves to earn his own fortune, soldering in the Roman Army. Somehow he survives five years of fierce battles, returning to Jerusalem as a favorite of Procurator Pontius Pilate. In those same years, Judah has saved their household servant Esther from an unhappy betrothal and has married her himself. He now heads the Hur family.
Apparently, sister Tirza gets involved with the Zealots. Meanwhile in Jerusalem, the popular carpenter Jesus of Nazareth is preaching love for one’s enemies. Judah and Esther encounter him once in the marketplace.
In a later scene, Jesus brings a cup of water as Judah is led off to slavery in the galleys. Judah’s offence was to have helped heal a wounded Zealot who later takes a shot at Pilate. In order to save his mother and sister from torture at the hands of the Romans, Judah takes the blame, forcing Mesalla to arrest the whole family.
For the resulting ruin of his family, Judah Ben-Hur becomes intent on revenge against Mesalla. For five years he suffers the slavery of the galleys, kept alive by his hate. When Judah’s boat is sunk and he washes up on a beach, he is rescued by an African charioteer named Ilderim (Morgan Freeman).
Eventually they make their way to Jerusalem where the big chariot race against Messala is arranged. Judah’s desire for revenge is fueled, but he is not satisfied. After beating Messala, Judah witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus and breaks down, realizing the error of a life of hatred. This is Ben-Hur for a new generation. It is shorter than our favorite old version and has the technical effects we expect of today’s films.
In 3D, some of the background effects were too obviously painted, flat characters floating above flat scenery. Roma Downey and her husband Mark Burnett are two of the executive producers of this film, which might tell you something about the quality. The action in the film will grab you, even if the actors don’t move you—Morgan Freeman being the exception. Ben-Hur is “Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.” The portrayal of the violence of the Romans is realistic, and not for the tender hearted.