Well, friends, the new “Ben Hur” is a complete disappointment. I saw it last night and I am still shaking my head. There are so many flaws in this movie it’s hard to count them. This movie feels like a cable television production, and probably should have been released as such. No comparison to either the 1959 masterpiece or the 1925 classic! But here goes.
Jack Huston, as Ben Hur, reminded me initially of Ramon Navarro from the 1925 version with his puppy-eyed looks and soft hair cut. He is a decent actor, and in the first half he carries the movie pretty much with his cable TV-quality acting intensity. However, once he grows a long mane as a galley slave, and then again cuts his hair for the chariot race, the director seems to have given up on any in depth character moments. He’s just a puppet on a string for the really annoying Morgan Freeman, as Sheik Ilderim, to bark at. Toby Kebbell as Messala is given an interesting back story (his grandfather had participated against Julius Caesar), but as Messala he is much too soft. He is prodded into everything he does by all the other overly ‘bad’ Romans which surround him. There is never any true hate between Messala and Ben Hur (they are adoptive brothers for some reason)- it’s merely a sibling fight. Messala is also made to have deep affections for Tirzah, which means in this movie Drusus (of all people) saves Tirzah and Miriam from crucifixion and delivers them to some cave where they get leprosy (because Messala doesn’t have the guts to do it himself?). Ben Hur marries Esther early on in the film, and she keeps showing up at strange moments. There is no Quintus Arrius in the movie. There are no falling tiles! Ben Hur watches the Romans march into town and a young zealot (who has been hiding in his home), peers over his shoulder to aim an arrow at Pontius Pilate, thus giving reason for the Roman reaction. Once again, Messala has to be goaded into arresting them. There are exact bits of dialogue plucked from the 1959 movie between Messala and Ben Hur which appear here, especially in the first half of the movie. The chariot race is an overblown, over-the-top piece of film work. Incidentally, the chariot race in the book and the 1925 movie took place in the circus of Antioch, not Jerusalem. In the 1959 film version, Antioch is not mentioned so the race supposedly happens in Jerusalem. There was a Hippodrome in Jerusalem, but it was built by Herod the Great, not the Romans (as the new movie version says!) The vast scope of both the 1959 and 1925 film chariot scene is missing here. Instead you get lots of chaotic close-ups and some truly ridiculous, unrealistic moments – like a horse jumping into the stands, and some charioteer suddenly appearing under Ben Hur’s chariot screaming incoherently. I was actually laughing out loud it was so bad! The director seemed to think that Roman chariot races were gladiatorial in nature- a blood sport. They were not- they were races! So you get the idea that everyone of going to die in this race (yes, a little of the top) because that is how the races are run. What!? So the Pontus Pilate character stands around like Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator licking his chops while this chaos unfolds. Ben Hur even comes to the finish line on two wheels in video-game fashion, then without chariot, literally holding the reins in the dirt. After the race is over, Ben Hur runs off to Golgotha to briefly watch the crucifixion (Rodrigo Santoro is a spectacular looking Jesus, by the way. One wishes the movie had just been about him!). I honestly was more moved by George Cloooney’s moment with Christ in Hail Caesar! But Ben Hur heeds the Savior’s words ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do’. After Tirzah and Miriam are quickly healed, Ben Hur rushes back to the Hippodrome (which according to this movie was right beneath Golgotha!) and hugs the injured Messala and with forgiveness they make up as only good brothers should. Then everyone goes off into sunset happily forever with Morgan Freeman and his caravan. The End.