There’s a cavernous difference between this film and previous screen adaptations of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” Earlier iterations camouflaged the brutality under a thick fog of piety. This latest version pays only lip service to the weepy religiosity of the previous adaptations, which include a mini-series, two silent films (including the 1925 blockbuster starring Ramon Novarro), an animated version and the 1959 juggernaut. Here, a handsome, moist-eyed Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) pops up now and then to mouth nuggets of sage wisdom and compassion to anyone who will listen, but his followers, one of whom is Judah’s sweetheart, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), are barely noted.
The movie pauses just long enough to observe the Crucifixion, which, like every other biblical element, comes across as a rushed, perfunctory nod to tradition, devoid of emotional or spiritual resonance. The fates of Judah’s mother and sister are treated as items on a checklist of familiar characters to be cited and then forgotten.
The best-known actor here, Morgan Freeman, coifed in long gray dreadlocks, plays Sheik Ilderim, a horse trainer, who becomes Judah’s coach and champion as the big day approaches. He also serves as the film’s occasional narrator.
Mr. Huston’s performance, however competent, is no match compared with Heston’s heaving, oratorical gravitas, which gave even casual remarks the ring of Scripture declaimed from a mountaintop. If anything, Mr. Huston’s Judah is smaller than life. He seems physically too fragile to withstand the horrors of being shackled on a slave ship where he and his fellow prisoners row to an incessant, booming drumbeat as their captors stand over them with whips. It is in these galley scenes that the new “Ben-Hur” finally finds its rhythm after a frustratingly long and confusing dramatic setup.
Overseen by a director not known for his human touch and lacking a name star, except for Mr. Freeman, “Ben-Hur” feels like a film made on the cheap, although it looks costly. It needed a star like the Russell Crowe of “Gladiator” to provide dramatic heft. What is “Ben-Hur” without a platform of moral grandeur? Not much.
“Ben-Hur” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for violence and disturbing images. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.
WritersKeith R. Clarke, John Ridley
StarsJack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer
Running Time2h 4m
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Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
Lew Wallace was born in Indiana in 1827. His father, a West Point graduate who left the U.S. military for politics, was the state’s sixth governor. Wallace’s first career was in the military, serving but not seeing combat during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He then turned to law and local politics, but returned to the U.S. Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865), as a general. Afterward, he became the governor of New Mexico and then the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Wallace and his wife, Susan, wrote during their travels. Wallace finished Ben-Hur while in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and continued his literary career while a diplomat, before retiring to Indiana to focus on writing. Ben-Hur was the most successful of his seven major works, which included two other historical novels and a Roman-themed play. Ben-Hur was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and has remained in print.
Ben-Hur is not often regarded as a well-done literary piece. The plodding first section, the long descriptions of settings and characters, and the extensive historical notes belie the excitement promised by the chariot race made famous in the film adaptation of the story. However, the novel frequently appears on lists of significant literary works. For Wallace’s early readers, the novel was their introduction to the historical events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, to the seemingly exotic Near East, and to novels themselves, accepted alongside the Bible in many American households.
The early twentieth century literary critic Carl Van Doren credited Ben-Hur with overcoming the nineteenth century American public’s Puritan-inspired opposition to reading novels. Wallace reported that the novel was inspired by a personal quest for spiritual understanding. In the course of a conversation with a well-known atheist, Wallace became a believer in Christian doctrine and resolved to study the events of the Bible for himself, leading to his interest in the Christmas story. He was not conventionally religious, and he used the pseudepigrapha, some of nonbiblical books, as the basis for his later work, The Boyhood of Christ (1888). He feared that a novel with Jesus as protagonist would not be well received, so instead he told his story through a...
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