Jo Paul: Was Ben-Hur Really an Epic Fail?

Last month, I kicked off our new film and TV theme with my post on why many recent ancient world films have been so disappointing. Since those musings were prompted by this summer’s blockbuster-that-wasn’t, Ben-Hur, I promised I’d follow up by sharing some further thoughts on that film.

Now, this is not intended to be a comprehensive review, and it’s certainly not a ‘considered scholarly response’. As my colleague Kim Shahabudin pointed out in her comments on my post, quick-response blogs aren’t necessarily suited to careful reflection, not least when the film’s only been seen once. But they are, I think, a good way of trying out ideas, and perhaps sparking a few thoughts to which later posts in this blog series might return.

Poster for Ben-Hur (2016)

Poster for Ben-Hur (2016)

My first Ben-Hur thought was to do with the importance of all of the ‘packaging’ that surrounds film releases, particularly in terms of marketing and media attention. When I first saw the widespread advertising for Ben-Hur, alarm bells started ringing: the poster was formulaic (sepia-toned hero, Trajan font) and seemed to reveal a rather desperate desire to convince audiences that here was a bona fide blockbuster. But the first reviews (summed up by The Guardian’s one-star verdict, ‘Chariots of dire’) were anything but convinced, and so it was with extreme reluctance that I headed to the cinema one grey Monday morning.

Maybe that was a good thing, though. If you go into a film expecting it to be one of the worst you’ve ever seen, there’s a fair chance that you’ll actually be pleasantly surprised. 2016’s Ben-Hur, I soon decided, is not awful. It’s not good, but it’s not awful. Much of it was perfectly watchable, so there was a clear lesson in how the extra-cinematic noise had prejudiced my reception of the film.

George-Clooney-Hail-Caesar

‘A truth we could see if we had… but…’

There were even one or two things that I quite enjoyed about it. When, for example, the eponymous protagonist Judah Ben-Hur is consigned to the galleys as a slave,  the action hinges around a furious and frenzied naval warfare sequence which (as in earlier film versions) rivals the chariot race for impact. And I especially liked the emphasis on Judah literally becoming part of the Roman war machine (‘This ship is your body’, the slaves were told.) The production design was enjoyably lavish and luxurious, as you might expect from a Hollywood epic, particularly in the scenes set in Judah’s palace home. The script — while hardly likely to win any awards — did at least benefit from an accessible, modern tone. Ben-Hur zipped along at quite a pace, which hasn’t always been the case with epic films. The genre has, conventionally, striven after an elevated diction which quickly becomes turgid, if not laughable. Just watch George Clooney’s character stumble over his line, ‘A truth we could see if we had… but…’, in this year’s glorious takedown of the 50s epic genre, Hail Caesar (a film to which I hope we’ll return later in this blog series), and you’ll see what I mean.

But for every positive feature, there was much that left me inwardly groaning, starting with the lacklustre casting of the lead roles. For Variety magazine, this was the next lesson that Ben-Hur quickly teaches: dispatch with proper movie stars at your peril. Say what you like about Charlton Heston, but there’s no denying that he was possessed of a gravitas befitting the epic movie greats, from Ben-Hur to El Cid to God. 2016’s Judah, Jack Huston, might come from an acting dynasty, but his star power scarcely troubles the Hollywood firmament, and his Ben-Hur turn didn’t seem all that different from his Boardwalk Empirerole as a First World War veteran, largely acted from behind a mask. Variety explains that we are now in a world of ‘post movie-star movies’ where big-budget epics like Ben-Hur are preoccupied only with high-octane CGI spectacle, and no longer provide vehicles for actors with the calibre of a Liz or a Dick, a Charlton or a Russell.

Chariots of dire?

Chariots of dire?

This depressing reality might be bearable if the spectacle was exceptional, but this was another Ben-Hur disappointment. The 2016 film was entirely unabashed about the chariot race being its main draw, to the point of actually beginning with the race, before returning to the earlier action through a flashback. But what was jaw-droppingly exciting in the 1959 version (still more so in the groundbreaking 1925 silent) now seems entirely routine. No amount of choppy editing, extreme close-ups, or implausible stunts (chariot surfing, anyone?) could convince me that we needed another version of this ancient spectacle.

Nor was the narrative able to compensate: character development was thinly sketched, and I really lamented the fact that, in today’s version, Judah no longer goes to Rome as the adopted son of the naval commander, Quintus Arrius. In the 1959 film, we see Judah becoming essentially Roman, which makes his ultimate revenge against Messala, and everything he represents, all the more complex and interesting. No such nuance here. And finally, the ham-fisted conclusion to the film sealed its miserable fate. I’ll avoid spoilers here (although I’m not sure why, for the clunky denouement already spoils things well enough), but the coda’s failure is an interesting consequence of the film’s strategy for adapting the original novel by Lew Wallace (1880). The prominent religious themes that made sense then fall rather flat today.

So yes, Ben-Hur did feel like another nail in the coffin of the current wave of cinematic epics. It left me yearning for a fresh approach, for a filmmaker who could find a different way of telling ancient stories, or — more to the point —  for a studio who would be brave enough to make such a film. But it didn’t entirely kill my love for Ben-Hur itself. In recent years, I’ve seen some truly innovative and engaging versions of this hoary old story, but it’s striking that they’ve been live-action stage performances where audiences have been placed in a very different relationship to the spectacle. Productions in London and Bath were immersive, requiring more engagement from audiences, and making us part of this ancient narrative instead of glazed, apathetic observers of the screen. As a result, the Ben-Hur story felt like it continued to have some currency for the modern world. If we’re going to keep on telling the same old stories, we at least need to find new ways of telling them – so why does cinema sometimes seem so unwilling to meet the challenge?

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One Response to Jo Paul: Was Ben-Hur Really an Epic Fail?

  1. Tony Keen says:

    Interesting read – it may not be a considered scholarly response, but it’s certainly thoughtful.

    I’m probably going to include the 1959 in my syllabus for the Classics and Cinema course I’m teaching in the spring, and I shall return to this then.

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