Film Torments: Ben-Hur (2016)

THIS WEEK on Torments, Dan looks at a surprisingly interesting bomb.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a staggeringly popular novel at the turn of the 20th Century. Set in the time of the titular saviour, it follows a pair of brothers-turned-nemeses and encompasses themes of love, vengeance and sweet, sweet Jesus. The story, not entirely unlike that of Pharaoh and Moses in the Book of Exodus, bears all the hallmarks of a blockbuster literary sensation, and was only briefly overtaken in the best-seller charts by Gone with the Wind following the film adaptation’s insane success.

It reasserted itself in American hearts with the landmark, Charlton Heston-starring Ben-Hur from 1959, which scored a then-record 11 Oscar wins. Widely regarded as one of the best films ever made, William Wyler’s monumental epic provided a template for endless imitators, popularising the peplum (‘swords-and-sandals’) genre and extending its influence into pop culture. Its famous chariot race sequence, taken from the novel, became the stuff of legend. It also, to some extent, killed the epic for several years. It was simply too big, too consecrated.

Try telling that to Paramount. Their 2016 version of Ben-Hur is a strange, malformed film that’s forever uncertain of the ground on which it stands. It relies on visual cues from its epic forebears but clocks in at little over two hours. It clothes itself in period tunics but shoots at modern sensibilities. It boasts impressive physical stunts but throws so much digital imagery at them that they look fake. “Rankly incompetent,” said the Financial Times. “Epic fail,” ran the Guardian. Its box office reflected the vitriol: On a $100 million budget, it made back around $94 million. With marketing costs, it’s projected to have lost $75 million.

Beyond the figures and quarterly reports, however, is a fascinating piece of work that, while not especially great, isn’t the disaster its takings would suggest. It’s perhaps more interesting to discuss the context in which it was delivered, but there’s a bit more to this Ben-Hur than replicating glories past.

Unfortunately, its first half doesn’t make much of a case for re-appraisal. Beginning with a supremely ill-advised flash-forward to the chariot race – which featured incredibly prominently in the marketing, as you’d imagine – sets up expectations that take an eternity to reach fruition. Much of this plodding time is spent establishing the relationship between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince, and Messala (Toby Kebbell), his adoptive Roman brother. It’s a real slog, with neither actor being given much scope to flesh out their respective characters. In fact, they spend most of their on-screen time apart; Judah mills about his boring Jerusalem life, while Messala swans off as a soldier in Roman wars. It’s not particularly inspiring.

By the time they’re driven apart and swear vengeance against each other, as the story dictates, we don’t really know a whole lot about them or, most crucially, their brotherhood. The script’s focus is torn between too many disparate plot threads, forcing itself to incorporate Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), a Jewish rebel group and the inter-marital affairs of Judah’s family and friends. The narrative gymnastics Ben-Hur forces itself to perform in the first 40 minutes or so are excruciating, and it only ramps up with the introduction of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro).

Jesus, obviously, figured in the original novel and the 1959 film. I’ve not read or indeed seen either iteration, but I doubt they’re as brazenly pandering as his interpretation here. It’s all the sourer given the spate of ‘Godsploitation’ movies sweeping America in the past couple of years, and the Jesus we see here is inserted so obviously and to such obvious effect that we’re taken out of the film entirely. It ties into director Timur Bekmambetov’s emphasis on the themes of forgiveness, contrasting with the central figures’ single-minded vengeance, but it’s as flaccid and non-committal as you can get.

“This movie is about the Roman Empire,” Bekmambetov has said, “It’s about power and competition.” There’s, frankly, little of that to be seen in the film proper. There are plenty of Romans, most certainly, but little emphasis is placed upon them, their way of life or how the brutal spectacle of the Games applies to modernity. Messala could have been the shatterpoint of this idea, but after Judah’s exile he turns into little more than an objective. It’s a credit to Kebbell that he gives Messala any character at all, conveying much of his emotion through small gestures and expressions.

Huston fares little better. He spends most of the first half whispering earnestly and most of the second half shouting, with most of Judah’s development coming in his haircuts. But the second half is where the film finally gets going, kicking off with a visceral naval battle where the CGI enhances the experience. We see most of it from inside a cramped, sweating galley, opting to frame the scene with characters’ perspectives rather than a bird’s eye view of the action. The effect is heightened when Judah receives a concussion and proceedings take on a dazed, surreal quality, especially when there’s a dude on fire drumming like a madman.

Morgan Freeman promptly shows up as a crafty old geezer – who’d have thought? – and the Rocky-style montage that ensues is a lot of fun. Characters begin to crystallise here and the film, inevitably, strives toward the chariot race. The momentum of this surge sweeps us along, and the race itself is actually very well done. It’s surprisingly long and brutal for a 12A, even with copious use of CGI, but the editing is too frantic at crucial points for it to have the same impact as the naval scene, where the quick cuts bolstered the occupants’ sense of anxiety. Here, it distracts and, given the sheer amount of man hours, painstaking craftmanship and physical hardship involved, it’s a shame the scene as presented doesn’t have quite the same impact.

And the less said about the horrendous, straight-to-DVD ending the better.

That’s also, fundamentally, part of the issue. I’ve spent more time discussing the two grand set-pieces rather than the characters or the writing. That’s because they’re perfunctory, designed to take us from one point to the other, only offering brief glimpses of something deeper. Though the film is very competent – it’s well-made, generally filmed with clarity and boasts some stunning visuals in places – it fails to connect on an emotional level. Gladiator proved that you can make a modern-day peplum with contemporary sensibilities and compelling characters, and its rapturous critical reception and box office receipts proved there was an audience as well.

So why did Ben-Hur fail? “It’s a remake,” you might say; so was William Wyler’s. 2016’s Ben-Hur is the fifth version of the original novel, released in a time when Christian-themed films are doing gangbusters with American audiences. While remakes have a bad reputation, there’s nothing to suggest they can’t be as good or better than their forebears. Really though, the fundamental problem with Ben-Hur is that it feels compromised. It’s torn between adhering to the epic standard and pacifying the more modern lust for quick spectacle. 300 pulled this off spectacularly, but that film also had a strong, idiosyncratic visual style. Ben-Hur is more derivative, both visually and generically, but its narrative is also hamstrung by its desire to get to the next big set-piece. It’s a toxic soup of miscalculation, one that neither the director nor the studios could hope to set right.

But box office flops are no longer a unique event in and of themselves. From the same year alone, the Ghostbusters reboot, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Gods of Egypt posted similar losses, achieving little beyond ignominy and adding more entries to Wikipedia’s list of cinematic bombs. Gone are the day of failures like Heaven’s Gate single-handedly sinking a studio; now, a summer of flops is almost expected. (Just look at that Wikipedia list and see how the last few years are the most populous. It’s staggering.) Beyond their takings, they all share one thing in common: No one was asking for them. No one.

If it is remembered at all, Ben-Hur will be remembered as a footnote on a chart of dollar signs. It’s a perfectly acceptable slice of Roman-themed pulp that, provided you can endure the first 40 minutes or so, should give you some disposable entertainment on a Netflix eve or two. Hopefully, it won’t be remembered as an affront.

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