It’s stunning to believe that in less than two weekend’s time Ben-Hur has become a byword for flop, failure, studio-breaker. This proud legendary story that gave the world a perennial best-seller, a Broadway sensation and two epic movies that shaped film-making in their respective generations – has become a laughingstock in ours.
How did this happen?
As a student and lover of both the 1880 novel and the ’59 classic film – and as a story-teller – I think I can put my finger on a number of things that should be warning bells for writers and movie-makers alike.
Compare running times for the two films. 1959 – 3 hours, 44 minutes. 2016 – 2 hours, 4 minutes. Right there going in, you knew there was going to be trouble.
The producers of the reboot claimed up-front that their movie would draw more from Lew Wallace’s novel. Which leaves my head-spinning, as I count the ways they abandoned the substance and spirit of Wallace’s tale. Some small:
- Judah and Messala were not step brothers, just good friends.
- Messala’s father was not a traitor but had the respect of Caesar.
- A loose tile from the roof struck the governor, not an arrow from a Jewish zealot. (Really? Really?)
In the ’59 film Messala dies from his injuries in the chariot race. In the book, Messala survives as an invalid, then hires an assassin to kill Judah, before being slain by a jilted lover. There is no Touched By An Angel moment where he falls blubbering into Judah’s arms begging for forgiveness, after which they then ride off into a Judean sunset. (The knife that Messala drops to the floor mid-hug will come in handy in a future “How Ben-Hur Should Have Ended” video.)
More egregious by far is eviscerating the entire middle act where Judah is adopted by the Roman commander Quintus Arrius after rescuing him in battle.
Judah’s Roman chapter is pivotal to the rest of the story, for it restores Judah’s honor and prepares him for his confrontation with Messala as equals. Eliminating that crucial element (no doubt for budgetary reasons), leaves Judah as a convict of the state, makes Sheik Ilderim a felon for harboring him, and sets up a host of ridiculous narrative leaps in ’16.
Having a good story is great, but can it be supported by page-turning moments? Ben-Hur is filled with them.
Judah’s break with Messala. His wrongful arrest after the loose tile strikes the governor. Jesus giving Judah water while he is marched to the galleys. The shipwreck. Judah, his honor restored, returns to Jerusalem to confront Messala. Sheik Ilderim and his wager with the Romans. The chariot race. The healing of Judah’s mother and sister from leprosy.
Each of these are extremely powerful moments in the ’59 film which the reboot attempts to duplicate. But only the shipwreck and the chariot race – thanks to CGI – come close to the power of director William Wyler’s original handling of these dramatic beats.
“Make your first ten pages crackle,” every aspiring screenwriter is taught. The ’59 film begins by immediately opening up the volcanic fissures between Judah and Messala. “Rome is an affront to God!” Heston bellows as only CH can bellow (“Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty Roman!”) What dramatic tension opens the ’16 version? Judah falls off a horse and gets a headache. Good Lord, who signed off on this.
At every level, the characters are weaker in the new movie compared to the old. It begins from the top, with Judah and Messala coming off as spoiled rich kids from Yale needing safe spaces. Judah of ’16 wants nothing to do with fighting the oppressive Romans while Judah of ’59 makes clear from the beginning he despises the Roman occupation. Messala of ’16 needs constant coaching to play it tough while Stephen Boyd’s unforgettable Messala is relentlessly ambitious.
Morgan Freeman starts with an advantage over Hugh Griffith in playing Sheik Ilderim because he is…well, Morgan Freeman. But given the screenplay, Freeman can pull off none of the charm of the earlier role, and Griffith will be the only one holding the Oscar in the end.
Esther of ’59 begins tender and ends as the story’s moral compass. She singlehandedly holds Judah’s broken family together, as the Messiah’s teaching infuses her heart with grace. Esther of ’16 tries hard, but with no backstory to animate her character, she comes off lifeless and whiney. Same with Judah’s mother and sister who are rudely shuffled off the screen, then reintroduced just as unexpectedly – and unrealistically.
Even Pilate of ’16 can’t hold a candle to the layered, shrewd governor the ’59 story depicts.
Saddest of all was the film’s depiction of Christ. Wallace’s book – though subtitled ‘A Tale of the Christ’ – purposefully presents Jesus from a reverent distance. Wallace was alive when the Broadway version was prepared, and insisted that Jesus not be visible. The ’59 film never shows Jesus’ face, and never allows him to speak. We hear him through others. After watching Jesus die, Judah returns home and says in stunned reverie to Esther, “From the cross he said, ‘Father forgive them.’” “Even then,” Esther replies in disbelief. “Even then,” Judah quietly echoes. And those few simple words are all that is needed to convince us of Judah’s conversion.
A besetting sin of faith-based filmmakers and story-tellers is not knowing when to zip it. Not knowing when to allow the silence to do the speaking.
The moment in the ’59 film when Jesus gives water to a parched Judah, and then stands silently to face down an antagonistic centurion is incomparable. The new Jesus speaks, and the more he speaks, the more he is diminished.
I’ve read numerous What the heck happened! autopsies since the new movie debuted, and most agree that the filmmakers made grave casting mistakes. Placing all your eggs in the Morgan Freeman basket – then hoping that a few cool effects will make up for the rest – is unforgiveable in a movie with a $100 million budget.
Movies are a visual artform, and it’s the nature of the business that you want people with the charisma, voice and looks to hold your attention. My Millennial daughter had her heart skip a couple of times with Jack Huston, especially when he cut his hair and showed up with a nice top from Abercrombie and Fitch for the chariot race. (And what in heaven’s name is Esther doing with pants on in 1st century Jerusalem!) But Heston or Huston – just watch the first 30 minutes of both movies side by side and you tell me.
You just don’t staff an epic story like Ben-Hur with an ensemble that could just as easily have stepped off the set of Downton Abbey and swapped out ascots for tunics. With apologies to DA fans, but the entire production had the feel of a spruced-up episode of A.D. or The Bible. Fine for TV or video, but come on – you’re announcing to the world that you aspire to reboot the most decorated movie in Hollywood history. You better come to such a project with requisite awe and wonder that will inform every decision you make. And part of bringing your A-game means the cupboard better be stocked with A-List actors.
Production & Advertising
The 2016 film was originally slated for a pre-Easter release which would have been a brilliant marketing maneuver. (The ’59 film was released in mid-November assuring Hollywood that it would find a hit under its Christmas tree.) Suddenly the film was held back for six months plopped into a late summer slot as dry as the Judean wilderness. Did they know they had a dog on their hands? And its advertising campaign was late, and spotty. And bizarrely ignored – until a last-minute push – the huge untapped faith-based audience that the film would presumably appeal to.
At the end of the day though it all comes down to this – the words that show up in that 120-page screenplay. And here, the most glaring weaknesses appear in the new film.
Truth be told, ’59 should to this day still be the #1 Oscar-winning film in history (rather than now share the title.) Because of a crediting snafu, the one award it did not win was for screenwriting. And yet, its screenplay is one of most magisterial ever written.
Some of the dialogue in the new film was plain look-down-at-the-floor embarrassing. Jesus wasn’t the only one who didn’t know when to shut up. Lectures about living non-violently abounded.
I know the intent of the writers was to so move us by their eloquence that we would beat our swords into plowshares (or at least turn in a few guns at a buy-back). But without providing any subtext, the words were hollow.
Case in point. Pilate happens to listen in as Jesus preaches a ‘love your enemies’ sermonette. (Quick rant: And what is Jesus doing practicing carpentry and sidewalk preaching in Jerusalem!! He largely stayed clear of the place till the end.) Pilate turns and says, “That is the most dangerous message I have heard.” Which is ridiculous without the context of Jesus’ message. Any tin-pot dictator would love a preacher to preach non-violence, because they wouldn’t be starting up any Jewish Lives Matter marches. The reason Jesus could tell people to love their enemies was because his followers would be part of a new kingdom, ruled by a Messiah and God who valued the simplest peasant among them and promised to right every wrong in a new paradise. Christians were dangerous not because they practiced non-violence. They were dangerous because they claimed Jesus as the King above all kings. From Caesar on down.
And then the ending…within ten minutes after the chariot race, we’re breaking out guitars and singing “Blowing in the Wind”. Years of betrayal and hatred are magically erased by a whimsical redemption. As a Christian and pastor, I love to bring people to Jesus. I love to bring them to the Cross of my Savior so they can see with their own eyes the heavy cost of redemption and freedom won for us there. And I love to bring them to a place where recognizing God’s amazing grace, they can lay their hatred, pettiness and unforgiveness for others down. But such a life just isn’t so neatly wrapped up in a bow in 2 hours and 4 minutes.
I love bringing people to all these places. I’m just not sure about bringing them to this movie.