In 1956, the Paramount’s classic The Ten Commandments (Cecil B DeMille, 1956) proved the profitability of a massive Biblical epic, and the studio decided to do a remake of the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur. Based on Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel, the second production of Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959) was an instant hit. The producers built what was then the biggest movie-set ever constructed for the chariot race in the Roman arena. It received 11 awards from the total of 12 nominations at the Oscars. It was an intelligent piece of filmmaking, as it never showed Christ’s face, but it captured the reaction on people’s faces upon seeing him.
To repeat in 2016 the effect of an empire which is an affront to God, producers decided for the use of 3D. They probably thought that 3D would accentuate or lend a new meaning to the chariot race, but they failed. The second remake of Ben-Hur is a poorly constructed historical epic film, and not as clever, witty or thought-provoking as the 1959 version. It arrives under the stigma of industrial cinematographic forces that support the status quo. The creators of the protest hashtag #OscarsSoWhite are probably appalled at the Ben-Hur’s lack of diversity.
First of all, Bekmambetov trusts that his audience is incapable of following the film narrative. Since the beginning, the story has to be explained by a homiletic voice-over. Such didacticism suggests that there is something intrinsically wrong with the film, unable to rely on dialogue and images for the purpose of storytelling.
The costume design is far from immaculate. Some of the clothes are of modern day origin: Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), for instance, appears wearing trousers, at a time when females wore stola (tunics). Ben-Hur is not an adaptation of a classic tale to current days, such as Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011). In order to prove that Shakespeare can still be relevant in modern context, Fiennes offered a televised debate between the Roman generals Martius and Volscii. The effect of the costume design in Ben-Hur consists of anachronisms, continuity and factual errors to the point that Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) climbs up from the dusty ground in the arena in his clean tunic. A film likely to become a constant feature in Robert Webb’s BBC show ‘Great Movie Mistakes’.
Judah Ben-Hur is a Jew that becomes a Christian at the end of the film. He was helped by Jesus Christ, he was turned into a slave and he witnessed Christ’s suffering. But for some reason this change of faith under brutal captivity is mostly ignored in the movie.
The film is also filled with gender stereotypes. Whilst the male characters Judah Ben-Hur and Messala are driven by revenge, the female character Esther is all compassion and patience. She tries to avoid blood and hate in the family. She is also a frigid, passive and conformist figure.
Maybe the most dangerously sanitised aspect of Ben-Hur is the role played by Morgan Freeman. It is offensive that after #OscarsSoWhite, Freeman plays a secondary role whose only task is to help the white hero. He represents the Africans in the Roman Empire, as a sheikh who recognises Ben-Hur as a fugitive slave. He instigates the governor’s (Pontius Pilate/ Pilou Asbaek) greed and convinces the Romans to accept a brutal and grueling race between the two brothers.
The conflict between a Roman Empire against Jews in the Middle East is symbolic of the modern struggle of the US against certain Arab countries and “terrorists” in the Middle East. It is a thinly-veiled argument in favour of international belligerence and meddling. The happy ending of the movie suggests that the balance will be restored and harmony will prevail after the military intervention.
The film is out in UK cinemas on September 9th, and you can watch its trailer below: