August 28, 2016


(Don't watch the trailers. There are no good ones. Don't do the film justice.
But if you must, watch this one: Only Halfway Decent Ben-Hur Trailer)

The latest big screen "Ben-Hur" is a fresh take on the beloved 1880 historical fiction novel: "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" by Lew Wallace, that deftly and intricately weaves the story of Judah Ben-Hur into the Gospel account of Jesus. However, this re-make sadly limps in the faith department, which, of course, is the punchline of the whole shebang. With that, I am signaling that I assume you know the story and so shall be dropping SPOILERS in this review. 


Judah is from a wealthy Jewish family living in Jerusalem along with his adopted brother, Messala Severus, a pagan Roman. At the beginning of the movie, they are best of friends and both avid horsemen (foreshadowing the famous chariot race between them at the end of the film). Messala leaves the family to join the Roman army. He wants to marry Judah's sister, but he feels he has lived off the charity of Judah's family long enough, and wants to build his own life and fortune first.
Enmity between the Jewish Zealots and the Roman legions is heating up. Judah, a friend of Rome, openly opposes the rabble-rousers and believes in "keeping the peace," even at cost of Jewish freedom. Judah truly lives what he believes, doesn't want to see harm come to either side, and takes active measures to calm animosities. But his flaw was in trusting Rome too much. When he and his family are mistakenly taken for Zealots and arrested, he loses everything and winds up a galley slave. In his absence, Esther, his wife, becomes a follower of Jesus.


The cinematography is impressive from the get-go. The film wastes no time in back story, but plunges us into the hoof and heart pounding antics of Judah and Messala. Familiar characters like Pontius Pilate and Dismas pop up here and there, reminding us of the destiny that Judah is poised and privileged to be a part of. Certain scenes could have been a little more gritty (although this version is much more gritty than the Charlton Heston version), particularly when Judah becomes a galley slave and then escapes and is afloat on the sea (he could've/should've been more beefy/burned). Morgan Freeman--who despite his overused narrator's voice, and in my opinion, tired old ways of almost non-acting, not trying any more--puts in a solid performance as Ilderim, the wealthy horse owner. Ilderim's role is rather major to the story's turning, and Freeman accomplishes the task with aplomb.


A few shoddy oversights mar the film throughout: at times the everyday hair (especially the women's) and everyday garb is almost indistinguishable from twenty-first century styles (think Eileen Fisher). I also question whether Jewish women went about with their hair uncovered as a matter of course. It's darn distracting, as are the moments (quite a few) when the filmmakers evidently couldn't figure out how to have characters "find" each other again, serendipitously meet up, etc. What happens is a character will just emerge from "stage left": "Hi!" Also very distracting. Esther's role is extremely one-dimensional, and the actress plays it thus. If you're looking for the red-hot romance of Charlton Heston and Haya Harareet...forget it.

In general, the acting is good, but not great. However, in the hands of a director who milked some of the well set up scenes (and epic scenery) for every ounce of danger and tension, it could have been much better. However, I cannot say this of the final chariot race which is the centerpiece and masterpiece.

The best fleshed-out character? Rome itself. The character of the Romans is constantly bandied about and three-dimensionally depicted. I felt that the "worthy nemesis" (Rome) needed a "worthy protagonist" (Jesus, and Judah's eventual following of him) which the film did not deliver. There were some noble attempts, but it needed to be much stronger. Jesus' unexplained: "Love your enemies" in the face of the "might makes right" of Rome was screaming for so much more "showing" of how socially transformative Christian charity is--even at its birth. God's love needed teeth (ideally in the depiction of Judah's character arc)--teeth that were a match for Rome's violence. I don't think the film succeeded here. Judah's mother and sister were not even cured by the blood of Jesus from the Cross (as in the 1959 "Ben-Hur"), but by rain running off the Cross.


In some overall ways, this "Ben-Hur" is an "almost" film. It's "almost" a great re-make. Except for the chariot race which succeeds in every way. (And I'm all for remakes: Let's see what you can do. Give us your perspective. What are your new insights? Can you best  the original? Show us what you've got.)

After two hours of building a well-paced drama, the end is a mad dash to neatly wrap things up in a blatantly inconsistent way. The end needed to take its time. Even though in first century Palestine (and elsewhere for that matter) religion and belief in God/gods was assumed, we do not observe Judah nor Messala doing very much existential seeking. There is hardly any religion/Godtalk. Then, suddenly, at the end, Jesus' Crucifixion and forgiveness is understood and assimilated. Judah (and Esther) had brief and meaningful encounters with Jesus prior to Calvary, but for the message of Jesus to rather immediately coalesce with our characters' hearts and wipe out years of horrific betrayal, abuse, and bloodshed did not ring true to me in the least.

After her "conversion," Esther talks and acts a bit like a West Coast Jesus Freak from the 60's and 70's, and the Christianspeak sounds like 80's posters, T-shirts and mugs. The lines/scenes of faith at the end are executed with almost robotic, "let's get this over with"-ness. I remember the final scenes also wrapping up rather quickly in the Charlton Heston version of "Ben-Hur," but it was done much more organically, synergetically, artfully, believably, and movingly. The current "Ben-Hur" makes faith and charity almost seem a simplistic, fundamentalist, but at the same time tenuous anchor in a storm. The pivotal reconciliation scene between Judah and Messala was laughably lame, and it could have been so much better! This film was well done in most respects and then it dropped the ball when it came to crafting genuine and authentic human experiences of redemption.

This version of "Ben-Hur" is an exciting, even riveting at times, quasi-biblical adventure, but it falls flat when it matters most. I've just re-watched the movie-musical "Les Mis," and couldn't help comparing the two. One is a CGI tour-de-force with fine action sequences. The other goes to the depths of human pathos and convinces us that misery and death will not have the last word, as it shimmers with divine hope.


Should you watch the Charlton Heston "Ben-Hur" again or for the first time? Yes! The eleven Academy Award winner (including "Best Picture," 1959) has aged well. Particularly poignant is the love story between Judah and Esther. True chemistry and passion! The chariot race changed filmmaking forever, did not have the benefit of CGI, and stuntmen lost their lives for it. Prepare to be astounded. And for true film buffs, there's even a silent 1925 black and white version available on the 4-disc collector's edition.

Due to the gorey violence and many CGI horses getting realistically destroyed, "Ben-Hur" 2016 is not for the kiddos.


--The galley slave really made me think of the consequence/curse of Adam's Fall: toil will become exceedingly difficult for men (as will bearing life become exceedingly difficult for women).

-- "They will invite you to their games to watch others suffer so you'll forget what you have lost."

--"They want blood. They're all Romans now."

--"The compassion that Jesus offers them is more dangerous than all the Zealots combined."


  1. I can't remember whose review I was reading the other day - John Stansifer from Wayward Pictures posted it on his personal Facebook page - but the reviewer absolutely blasted the director and producers for even letting the film see the light of day. One of the biggest complaints was the fact that the film didn't have a 'star' in the cast. John is currently on a nationwide tour gathering eyewitness testimonials from Korean War POW survivors who knew the Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun in preparation for his new project "No Bullet Got Me Yet."

    I simply told John to find deep pockets and get an A-lister!

  2. Morgan Freeman is big. The actors who did Judah and Messala were quite good.

  3. Anonymous12:19 AM

    It was the poorest attempt at a remake in the history of cinema. I walked out after the ridiculous scene where Jesus is carving wood 5 feet away from a crucifixion. I walked out because I knew the entire thing would be an offense to a Timeless Masterpiece. I walked out because I wanted the water scene when Jesus Does Not Stand Idly by and stared down sin. I went straight to the library to check out the original and wept at the scenes I have seen and heard many times now.. My only theory at this point is Burnett gave thi. Sisters convent a sizeable donation in hopes for the soft review. I will not shirk from my duty to tell all how boring, poorly shot (think history channel) and offensive this remake really is

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      Thanks for your review. I'm publishing your comment because I love your honesty and passion both for Jesus and film! I agree about the carpentry next to the crucifixion. It's almost as though the filmmakers thought we wouldn't notice stuff like that (and there are many more of these awkward glitches). I am highly insulted by the fact that you would think I would ever take a kickback for a positive review. I should leave film reviewing, the Sisterhood and the Church if I ever did such a thing. I cringe at all of the Downey-Burnett attempts at biblical filmmaking (but it seemed they were more distantly involved in this Ben-Hur?) I could have been much harsher in my review here, and maybe I should have been. I think the reason I "went soft" on it is because I feel it's coming from a good though mistaken place. It kills me to see all that money and effort FAIL. If this were a purely secular piece? I probably would have really panned it. Not that I generally give "Christian" films a pass, I don't. I guess the sheer volume of Christian film "misses" is really getting to me. But you're right. The answer is not to compromise. Because it's claiming to proclaim the Gospel, "Christian" films should be held to an even higher standard. Thanks for this examination of conscience! :)

    2. Anonymous5:11 AM

      It is I who need examine. The burnett kickback was a poor attempt at humor and I let my pride get the best of me. I am sorry

    3. No worries! You made good points! I have been seriously accused of being on studios' payrolls before (on air). Studios & promo companies can woo you in other ways (e.g., junkets). At least I know you're not Canadian ("humor"=USA spelling). :)