Ben-Hur 2016 Movie Review
Having grown up watching the original movie, it is difficult not to draw parallels between the representation of Ben Hur from the 50s to that of 2016. The success of the original Book and the first movie representation in 1959 also means that they are many scenes in this book which stand out as iconic of the story as a whole.
Set in the Roman occupied Jerusalem of AD 26, Ben Hur is a story of brotherhood, betrayal, perseverance and ultimately redemption. It follows the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) a prince of Jerusalem and his adopted roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell).
The progression of this movie was somewhat forced with the opening scene serving as the impetus for a flashback and ultimately the beginning of a story which has been told several times in much more effective and moving ways.
While the original book was published in the late 1800, the first movie of the same name was released in 1959 to much success. The 1959 character of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) presented a stronger character rooted in his faith and people, making it easier to explain the eventual rift between he and his best friend / brother Massala (Stephen Boyd). However, the 2016 rendition of this character presents a somewhat aloof prince who fails to see the plight of his people, turning his back to their cause when he comes face to face with their rebellion. The portrayal of the 2016 character is driven more by personal wants and revenge making his motivations hollow and somewhat selfish for a prince. His responsibility to his people was lacking at best.
Stepping away from the motivation of the protagonist, I felt the movie portrayed the reality of Roman occupation in a much more realistic way than its 1959 predecessor. It highlighted the swift brutality of the Roman response to rebellion which involved the killing of all able bodied men in subjugated cities and often the rape of women, of child bearing age. This was the reality of the times and a subject which was not addressed in the 1959 movie.
Two scenes stand out for me in this movie as they did in the 1959 movie of the same name. Firstly my disappointment in the slave ship scene, depicting the life of a galley slave, rowing until death by exhaustion or during battle. The 1959 movie delivered a compelling story of restrained anger and frustration, of a prince fighting against his indignation and pride to achieve survival. However, in the 2016 movie, a combination of lackluster writing and acting produced a scene that showed Ben Hur as easily complying to his new reality.
Secondly, what I would call on of the best chase scenes ever written in movie history, the chariot race. To the credit of the 2016 movie, the portrayal of the scene stayed very close to its 1959 predecessor, however viewers are given an explanation of the importance of this race before hand, and the strategy commentary (delivered mostly as voice-overs) from Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) all come together to make this scene the most enjoyable part of this movie.
Through a combination of technology, great story telling and Morgan Freeman, I was surprised to walk out of the movie theatre actually impressed that the chariot race / fight scene was far better than what I remember of the 1959 depiction.
Ultimately the movie is a retelling with little to no changes or new vision. The filmmaker, in my opinion, missed some pivotal points in this movie where we could have seen a Ben Hur that was more relevant for this age. The nostalgia factor isn’t enough to justify the purchase of a movie ticket. In this reviewer’s opinion I would wait for this movie to be released on network TV or maybe on blue ray.