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Non-Review Review: Ben Hur (2016)

What does a biblical blockbuster look like in the twenty-first century?

Hollywood has wrestled with the question of how best to resurrect old genres. The past couple of years have seen a resurgence in revisionist westerns like The Hateful Eight or Bone Tomahawk or The Revenant. There have even been a smaller number of contemporary swords-and-sandals epics like The Eagle or Centurion or Pompeii. These genre were once a staple of Hollywood production, but they fell by the wayside in the intervening years. Barring an occasional breakout success, they are considered dead genres.

Chariots of fire!

Chariots of fire!

Biblical epics are very much an example of such a genre, to the point that Hail, Caesar! focused on the production of such a film as a celebration of the Golden Age of Hollywood. More people can probably point to the iconic version of Ben-Hur starring Charleton Heston as the eponymous chariot rider than can name Lew Wallace as the author of the book upon which it was based. When Hollywood attempted a blockbuster adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, they did so by stripping out a lot of the more overt Christian themes.

Ben-Hur is part of a mini modern revival of these classic biblical epics for a new age, alongside films like Exodus: Gods and Kings or Noah or Risen. It is a film which struggles with the question of what a biblical epic needs to look like in this day and age, but is primarily useful as a counter-example. Whatever a successful modern biblical epic might look like, it is not this.

"Is Game of Thrones hiring, by any chance?"

“Is Game of Thrones hiring, by any chance?”

Religion will always be a touchy subject, but is particularly in the context of 2016. Ben-Hur invites this sort of contemporary debate, with its portrayal of terrorism in the Middle East. Ben-Hur is pointedly the tale of bloody-thirsty “zealots” seeking freedom from foreign “occupiers” who hold little respect for their beliefs or customs. It is quite a problematic narrative, for this moment in time, particularly given the film’s push as a Christian blockbuster to the religious right.

The result is a film that feels caught between two extremes. There is a potentially provocative subversive religious blockbuster here that draws uncomfortable parallels that might make the audience squirm, but that version of the film is largely lost in editing. Ben-Hur has the feeling of a film that was torn apart and put back together at various points in the production process, with certain scenes cut sort and others sutured in at the last possible minute. Anything that might be uncomfortable is cut short, while a more conventional narrative is grafted on.

Ahead of the Hur-d.

Ahead of the Hur-d.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the approach that Ben-Hur takes to Jesus Christ. Christ was always a character in the narrative. The subtitle of Lew Wallace’s book was A Tale of the Christ. However, the character lurked on the edges of the classic fifties biblical epic, the film-makers trusting a few small appearances to make the point. However, Jesus Christ threatens to hijack Ben-Hur out from the eponymous protagonist, gradually stealing more and more of the narrative. First he steals a scene; then he steals another character’s role; then he steals the ending.

After all, the role of Jesus Christ is given over to Rodrigo Santoro. Although Santoro is hardly a big-name draw in his own right, he is at least on par with headliners Jack Huston or Toby Kebbell. The scenes featuring Christ are striking, often featuring the character interrupting the drama on screen while engaged in his own business. In his first appearance, he randomly offers political commentary to Ben-Hur while working as a carpenter, even making a few pointed remarks about the lead character’s romance.



Indeed, it frequently feels like Jesus Christ is appearing in a very different film than the rest of the cast. Of course, this makes a certain amount of sense; naturally, Jesus Christ has his own narrative unfolding in parallel. However, while Ben-Hur slots in iconic moments from the character’s life, it does little to frame them within the context of the narrative. It almost feels as if Ben-Hur is begging to be positioned alongside a non-existent adaptation of the life of Jesus Christ starring Rodrigo Santoro, in some sort of biblical shared universe.

This demonstrates the biggest challenges facing Ben-Hur as a biblical blockbuster. The question of what a mainstream religious spectacle should look like in the twenty-first century is rooted as much in aesthetics as in politics. Old-school biblical blockbusters were designed to showcase production techniques that no longer exist; they unfolded on massive soundstages with hundreds of extras featuring incredibly risky stunts. They were grand and stately affairs, unfolding at a relaxed pace because a large part of the charm was luxuriating in the sheer spectacle.

A horse outside.

A horse outside.

These expectations do not apply to modern blockbuster cinema. Modern movies rarely build huge sets on the scale of those biblical blockbusters, delegating the task to computer-generated animation. Large crowds are no longer required at the same volume as in those old-school studio films, because they can be readily copied and pasted with a single mouse-click. Given that the audience knows that the spectacle is not real, films have to compensate. Computer-generated imagery has pushed the boundaries of what is possible, with audiences wanting more, faster.

Modern audiences would not sit through an old blockbuster like the fifties version of Ben-Hur or The Robe. Audience expectations and narrative conventions have changed, and this is a significant hurdle for any film attempting to bring the genre into the twenty-first century. Various films have struggled with the question of how best to frame a religious film in the modern era, acknowledging that the old model simply cannot work in this day and age.

Yes, he does narrate the film. Why do you ask?

Yes, he does narrate the film. Why do you ask?

Exodus: God and Kings and Noah offered subversive takes on the biblical blockbuster, challenging their audiences as to how best to respond to a God who would commit genocide on such a massive scale. Risen opted to put a clever twist on a well-known story in keeping with the remix/mash-up aesthetic of modern pop culture, reframing the Resurrection as a first-century police procedural. Ben-Hur opts for the most narratively conservative of these approaches, revelling in classic biblical imagery. The Christ is here; the crucifixion is here; even the crown of thorns.

However, this very traditional storytelling style clashes with the aesthetic that director Timur Bekmambetov brings to the film. Bekmambetov is working with a script steeped in a classical approach, but he insists on filming it like a modern action movie. The results are jarring and disorientating, watching classic biblical scenes play out in uncomfortably tight close-ups shot with hand-held cameras. There is a bizarre dissonance to the film, with the script feeling to awkward and stilted for the direction and the direction feeling too consciously hip for the script.

Carry on.

Carry on.

The cast seem to believe that they are starring in BBC adaptation of the tale. There is a very “stagey” quality to the dialogue and line-readings, eschewing any sense of naturalism in favour of a more theatrical approach. Emotions are drawn rather broadly, and there is a heavy emphasis on looping and ADR that simply does not fit with Bekmambetov’s fondness for close-ups. The hand-held camera work is similarly distracting; at one point, the camera is shaking so much that it is difficult to tell that a given character is nodding to offer confirmation.

The action is frantic. At several points during the film, Bekmambetov cuts to a first-person perspective of the chaos. There is a particularly breathtaking shot in which the protagonist finds himself thrown overboard during a heated naval battle, and Bekmambetov uses the technique during the climactic chariot race. However, these stylistic choices jar with a script that bends over backwards to offer all the conventional biblical set-pieces. Any adaptation of Ben-Hur will have to feature a chariot race, but the result is so awkwardly stitched together as to be unsatisfying.

Fair shakes.

Fair shakes.

Ben-Hur is a disappointment. Producing a biblical blockbuster for the twenty-first century is a sizeable challenge. The best than Ben-Hur can contribute to that debate is to offer one more way of how not to do it.

6 Responses

  1. “Exodus: God and Kings and Noah offered subversive takes on the biblical blockbuster, challenging their audiences as to how best to respond to a God who would commit genocide on such a massive scale” I wonder what your thoughts are on Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt. I am not religious, so I was surprised how much I liked it. I was impressed by how that film decided to focus on the human element, and made the supernatural elements almost seem like background elements.

    I suppose this is as good as a place as any to say that I finally got around to seeing Hail Caesar because of your recommendation. I really enjoyed it, and I am baffled that it has only an imdb score of 6.4. I do with there had been more Robert Picardo, however, as I thought he totally stole the one scene he was in.

    • Whoa! I didn’t even recognize Picardo as the Rabbi, and he plays my favorite character from ST: Voyager.

    • Glad you enjoyed Hail, Caesar! It’s one of my films of the year, although I’ve always been fonder of Coen Brothers comedies than most.

      Picardo’s scene is brilliant, isn’t it? “A child? What, does he have a dog too? No, God is a bachelor. And VERY angry.” Which was the conclusion I’d kinda reached in early secondary school with regards to Old Testament God; my little narrative arc for God suggested that having a kid really mellowed him out. But then, having a kid will do that to you.

      Interestingly enough, Hail, Caesar! is the second consecutive Coen Brothers film to feature a prominent role for a Voyager cast member. Ethan Phillips popped up in a supporting role Inside Llewellyn Davis, which I liked a lot less than most. (Although Phillips does not get to walk away with a scene in the same way Picardo does.)

      It has been years since I saw Prince of Egypt, but I remember quite liking it.

  2. “It almost feels as if Ben-Hur is begging to be positioned alongside a non-existent adaptation of the life of Jesus Christ starring Rodrigo Santoro, in some sort of biblical shared universe.”

    I sort of like the idea that Judah Ben-Hur and Messala are ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Ancient Rome’ to be honest, though I agree the actual handling was a bit of a mess.

    I’ve only just finished writing a novel (my first and still very much in the seeking an agent stage) set in Ancient Rome about charioteering that I started long before I heard about this remake so I had pretty mixed emotions watching it. I think I liked it more than you did, but that might be because I’d immersed myself in charioteering for the past two years.

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