Why would anyone feel the need to make another Ben-Hur?
It's not strictly accurate to frame this film as a remake of William Wyler's 1959 classic, since that film was itself an adaptation of the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and that film was based on Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, sometimes called the “most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century.” There's also the miniseries from 2010. And the animated film from 2003. (I'm probably missing some others.) But Wyler's film is the best-known version, and this new version could never hope to escape its orbit.
Then again, since the dawn of cinema, people have been making new movies about the life of Christ—including Son of God, the 2014 box-office success executive produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who serve the same role in the latest Ben-Hur. Burnett and Downey's involvement in a project usually means it's destined for the faith-based marketing niche, and certainly this Ben-Hur is settled firmly in that slot.
But just because it's done all the time doesn't mean it's okay—especially when a very memorable version of the story is still broadly watched and praised by audiences. If you're going to make a new version, you should have a good reason. (Or at least a reason.)
So last weekend, I fired up all 224 minutes of the 1959 Ben-Hur and watched a very non-Jewish-looking Charlton Heston journey, as Judah Ben-Hur, toward forgiveness and faith. Despite every story beat feeling almost too familiar by now, after years of running on TV at the holidays, the film holds up: it's a a stirring, operatic tale, and it's deeply watchable today, once you calibrate your expectations regarding casting and acting.
I watched, trying to decide if it needed an update. To my surprise, it does. Not in the iconic chariot race, which is still thrilling, or the war ship's galleys, which are still harrowing. But while the older film picks up on its plot's political themes, they're not really the point of the story, and often take a back seat to Hollywood epic standards: romance, tragedy, triumph, and spectacle.
And yet if Ben-Hur is actually “a tale of the Christ,” then it's exactly its politics that ought to be inescapable.
That's because at core, Ben-Hur is not just one guy's redemption story. It's much bigger than that, an argument that mingles politics and religion in a way that seems utterly modern. The plot sets up conflict between several ways of understanding the world—the Roman way, the Jewish way, and the zealot way—and then drives Christ straight through the middle of it as the great disruptor, a challenge to every human way of understanding the world. Christians often talk about the way of Christ as the way of the upside-down kingdom, because Jesus was a master of contradictory statements about the true state of things: the first shall be last, the great shall be made low. Blessed are the meek and the merciful, the poor in heart and the persecuted. Want to be great? Get down on your knees and wash the feet of your friends and your betrayers.
Assuming, probably rightly, that getting the faith-based audience in the multiplex door wouldn’t be the biggest box-office challenge, the film's marketing has focused largely on its action sequences. That makes some sense. Director Timur Bekmambetov has turned out his fair share of insane flicks—Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter among them—and his signature eye-popping bombast was likely envisioned as the hook for some epic-loving audiences. The cast is uniformly good, led by Jack Huston—who unlike Heston actually looks Jewish enough to be a Judean prince, owing to some Jewish ancestry—as Judah Ben-Hur. The sole weak point may be Morgan Freeman, not because he's not good as a wealthy African merchant who befriends Judah and ultimately engineers his charioteer's entry into the arena, but because he's so much more familiar than the rest of the cast that it's a bit distracting.