Ben-Hur | Review

BEN-HUR is actually the sixth adaptation of the historical character based on Lew Wallace’s famous novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880. Words that ran through my head when I heard they were making this movie included “what the actual **** are they thinking?” I couldn’t even bring myself to view it so offered it to the Kernels. Kernel John, with his penchant for leather sandals, put his hand up. Enjoy John’s review of BEN-HUR, it is out now from the fine folks at Paramount Pictures Australia (although their website hasn’t been updated in a very long time). BEN-HUR is rated M and runs for 123 very ling minutes. All the best………….JK.


My, how studios love their remakes!  It does not seem to matter whether the original was a box office bomb or bust, executives are more than happy to roll those dice again and aim for a winner.  Problem is, there were very good reasons why the originals received critical praise or abuse, and trying to reclaim or redeem those glory days is a fool’s errand.  For those celluloid masterpieces that have since passed into the cinematic hall of fame, the expectations placed on the remake are far too high to ever be attained.  Yet, like a drunken gambler trying to relive that one lucky win from decades ago, the relentless Hollywood machine looks to its archives to repeat history, much to audience chagrin.

BEN-HUR is the latest in this class of resurrection stories.  A remake of the record 11 Academy Award winning 1959 William Wyler film of the same name, BEN-HUR follows the struggle of a deposed Jewish prince in his quest for revenge.  Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER) and staring Jack Huston (AMERICAN HUSTLE) in the titular role, BEN-HUR fails to live up to the hype on almost every level.


Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur image


BEN-HUR Synopsis:

Set in Roman controlled Jerusalem between 25 and 33 CE, Judah Ben-Hur lives with his family and adopted Roman brother Messala, played by Toby Kebbell (FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)).  Frustrated by his station and lot in life, Messala chooses to leave the comfort afforded him by Ben-Hur and goes to fight with the Romans in their conquest of the known world.  During Messala’s absence, the Romans begin construction of a great circus to host chariot races, using stones from sacred Judean burial grounds.  Angered by their desecration, several locals begin to fight back against the occupiers, killing Romans by the score.  When Messala returns to Jerusalem as a captain in the Roman army, he warns his brother of Rome’s interest in Jerusalem.

The increasing zealot warfare and unrest in the city has frustrated Rome long enough.  The new Judean governor, Pontius Pilate, has chosen to enter the city at the head of a legion, to crush any resistance once and for all.  Messala pleads with Ben-Hur to convince the locals to make peace, as should Pilate witness any violence towards the Romans, he will not hesitate to exact vengeance tenfold.  When an attempt is made on Pilate’s life by a guest staying in Ben-Hur’s home, the Romans storm the compound.  Fearing for the lives of his family, Ben-Hur admits to the crime in front of Messala and begs for mercy.  His confession notwithstanding, Ben-Hur is sentenced to live out the remainder of his days as a galley slave, and his family is summarily executed.

Years pass for Ben-Hur chained to his oar, until one day he is able to escape his prison ship and vows revenge on Messala for his actions.


Morgan Freeman as Ilderim and Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur image



Nobody seems to know what they are doing in this movie.  During the film’s beginning, Huston plays a painfully clueless nobleman, so detached from his surroundings you want to just reach through the screen slap him.  You feel no remorse for him at all when Messala passes his judgement on the Hur family, forced into the situation as he was by Ben-Hur’s blindness and arrogance.

Later on, Huston switches gears to show us a character of pointlessly single-minded purposes, who cannot be swayed from his ill-conceived vengeance.  Yes, Messala killed your family, but you admitted to treason, sedition and attempted murder in front of the whole Roman army, instead of just turning in the true culprit!  And this cannot be played off as Ben-Hur’s love for the common man, as later on, during his revengy stage, his actions cause twenty random Judeans to be executed, and not a single care is given.

Kebbell, on the other hand, kind of peaks mid movie, but starts and finishes with a whimper.  The scenes of Messala pleading with Ben-Hur to keep the peace and anguishing over his forced decision to execute the Hur family are possibly the best acted in the film.  Everything else bounces between whimpering “woe is me” rich kid mentality and irrational anger and rage.

Even Morgan Freeman’s Sheik Ilderim is little more than Ben-Hur’s entrance fee to the final chariot race.  Freeman’s inclusion adds a deal of gravitas to an otherwise lacklustre and underwhelming cast, but does not save the film.


Toby Kebbell as Mescal Severus in Ben-Hur image


Bigger than BEN-HUR (1959)?:

No, not even close.  Huston is no Heston, despite their frightfully similar name, Kebbell is no Boyd, and Bekmambetov is most assuredly no Wyler.  BEN-HUR (2016) pits some solidly B grade cast and crew against an A+ epic of literally biblical proportions.  At a little over two hours long, the film is almost 100 minutes shorter than the 1959 version, yet so little happens in such a slowly plodding pace, that it feels twice as long.

The naval battle during Ben-Hur’s enforced sailing days is shot entirely from inside the bowels of the galley, throwing away a fantastic opportunity for the production team to showcase a seafaring engagement of massive proportions.  The interaction between the characters and their motivations are woefully inadequate and impossible to get behind, with weird emotional shifts and polarising reactions.  The Christ aspects of this film are much more pronounced than in the previous, potentially pleasing some slightly, but only oddly distracting the rest of us from a plot already struggling to maintain audience engagement.  And that chariot race that every Ben-Hur adaptation builds up to!

The Chariot Race:

That sequence from BEN-HUR (1959) has gone down in history as one of the most spectacular ever to occur in cinema.  Restricted as they were with the technology of the time, Wyler still helmed a truly masterful piece of choreography and suspense.  BEN-HUR (2016)’s shameful attempt at recreating this wonder was achingly embarrassing to witness.  Grainy, poorly choreographed, reasonably un-suspenseful, and with genuinely horrible CGI, Bekmambetov’s attempt to combine savagery with splendour fails miserably.  Finally, Ben-Hur’s reflection and emotional shift at the end of the film is so unbelievable and out of the blue when compared to his actions throughout the rest of the movie, as to be fanciful beyond all rational judgement.


Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur image



It was always going to be an uphill battle when trying to remake one of the greatest films of all time.  And yes, I do see the irony in lambasting remakes in light of the 1959 film being itself a remake of a 1925 movie.  But that was then and this is now.  These days remakes are everywhere and it seems not even the classic untouchables are impervious anymore.  If there is one positive thing that can be taken away from this travesty, it is that it will hopefully stand as testament to any future producer contemplating a remake of GONE WITH THE WIND, CITIZEN KANE or CASABLANCA.  The classics are classic for a reason.  Try as one might to not compare the two films, viewing the latest dispassionately and in its own right, at the end of the day it bears the title of a giant of cinema.

Comparison is unavoidable and this remake is unforgivable.


2 Pops




A lifelong lover of the silver screen, Kernel John strives to engage and entertain his audience through the shameless use of humour in his reviews, even when it probably isn’t warranted. When not musing for Salty, you can often find John bouncing between his extreme states of either puppy watching down by the beach, or reflecting on the deepest mysteries of the Universe.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.