Just as epic a story today as it was during Hollywood’s golden age! Paramount Pictures and MGM Studios present the reimagined classic historical drama of Ben-Hur. Appropriately released by two of the most recognized names in the industry harkening back to the early days of cinema, Ben-Hur plays out almost as well as it did decades ago. Sitting in the auditorium last night, I wondered what it was like to see a larger-than-life nail-biting story on the silver screen when the original was released in 1959, just before the final decline of the former powerhouse of motion picture production, the studio system. The grand experience of this film is only overshadowed by the unusual pacing. Typically epic stories require a minimum of two hours, and often come close to 3-hour runtimes in order to do the story justice and tell it visually and emotionally in the most impactful way possible; however, this film is just over two hours. This moderately quick pacing hinders one’s ability to really appreciate the foreground and background stories. The grandeur of the Roman Empire fails to show as prominently as it should have in this film that bares a striking resemblance to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in many respects. There are many sweeping shots of the Circus (chariot racing arena) that are disappointingly mostly CGI’d. Still, there is something remarkable about this story. Whether you are approaching this film from a historic standpoint (historic in an appreciation for classic Hollywood stories), religious perspective (forgiveness and sacrifice), or simply for the bad ass racing of chariots in a grand arena, you will likely find something to enjoy about this movie.
On the backdrop of the final years of the messiah, Ben-Hur is about a Jewish prince named Judah Beh-Hur (Huston) who is falsely accused and betrayed by his adopted Roman brother Messala Severus (Kebbell). Sentenced to a life of perpetual rowing of Roman galleons in battle, Ben-Hur endears harsh treatment and near-death experiences in order to one day seek his vengeance. Meanwhile, Messala becomes a war hero and favorite of the people and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. When the destruction of his ship opens the door for escape, Ben-Hur finds himself washed upon the shore to be picked up by a wealthy African (Freeman) who races chariots–or pays for young men to race chariots. Striking a deal between them, the wealthy African and Ben-Hur work together to train for Ben-Hur to defeat Massala in the circus in order to reclaim his name and truly hit the Romans where it hurts–losing at their own game.
One of the most unique aspects to this film is the parallel plot between the background and foreground, the plot and subplot. At the end of the day, the message of Ben-Hur is one of forgiveness. The forgiveness between brothers and the forgiveness of Christ. Although this is not a film based upon the story of the messiah (or passion), the character of Jesus is an important element in the journey from vengeance to forgiveness. On three occasions, Ben-Hur encounters Jesus, not knowing who he is. Each of these chance meetings can be read as symbolic of the different acts (or stages) in the film itself. As the story of the passion of the Christ is one that many recognize (even those who are not Christians), it helps to get an idea of what is going on in the background at the same time at the story at the forefront of the film.
Cinematically, the film was a little disappointing. It feels like a lot of potential and opportunity for incredible cinematography and production design was wasted. Although there are many wide or establishing shots, the majority of the film consists of American medium shots. It would have been exciting to see more of the physical world of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire but instead we spend a lot of time indoors or in close proximity to our cast. Likewise, I would have liked to have seen more in the way of physical production design. The world on screen should have been one that I could have almost felt. Furthermore, I find that the pacing of the film was not adequate enough to actually tell the story in the manner in which it should have. It’s mostly like there was a 2.5-3hr movie condensed into a typical 2hr runtime. Sometimes epic films are guilty of way too much exposition, but Ben-Hur definitely could’ve benefited from additional development and exposition. Everything just happens too quickly and with minimal challenge.
Chariot racing. That is synonymous with Ben-Hur. And you will get plenty of horses, chariots, and crashes. Not unlike NASCAR of today, chariot racing was all about the violence and crashes. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch heroes battle it out on the ground of the circus (or race track) to see who will be the “first to finish…last to die.” Many early films were more concerned about the spectacle of cinema more so than the story or message. After all, MGM’s famous logo states Ars Gratia Artis (latin for “art for art’s sake”), meaning the goal of cinema was to contribute to the world of the visual and performing arts. Not necessarily to entertain, although that is certainly part of it, but to create beauty, intrigue, and push the boundaries of the mind and eye. One of the most mesmerizing elements of the original Ben-Hur was the chariot racing. Likewise, the most exciting parts of this new incarnation are the sights, sounds, and spectacle of the chariot races.
Although there are certainly areas of the film that disappointed me, as I have mentioned, I highly recommend for anyone who appreciates historic dramas that wax nostalgic the days of the golden age of Hollywood. And who doesn’t love a great chariot race???