‘Ben-Hur’ Falls Short of its Predecessor

Photo Credit: Paramount

You don’t have to have actually seen the 1959 Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston to know the story. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish pacifist who learns what it means to hate when his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) allows he and his family to be labeled as traitors. While Judah endures years of slavery and nurses his hatred, Messala gains the favor of his fellow Roman soldiers, rising through the ranks to become a bona fide champion. The two meet again during a blood thirsty chariot race where the old adage of pride coming before a fall plays out quite literally.

The summary of the story of Ben-Hur always make it sound like it’s action packed, ready to take the audience’s breath away, but this is not that movie. Let me be clear: there are plenty of people who don’t necessarily even like the 1959 version who are going to be drawn to this film thinking the action will provide a bigger spectacle because this movie is marketed as an action film, but it won’t.


With all the cinematic innovation, new camera technology, and experience in Hollywood in the nearly six decades since the last time the story came to the big screen, you would expect the movie to take some cinematic risks. Maybe you expect to be right in the middle of the action. Maybe you expect to have clean computer generated imaging to give the chariot race a larger than life, high stakes, feel. Instead, what you get is go-pro cameras in actor’s faces and messy CGI planted in the middle of the race meant to pacify you after three-quarters of the film is essentially a character study told in bits and pieces of Judah’s journey.

I’m going to be controversial for the classic lovers here and admit that I do think Huston is fantastic in the role. He has more emotional depth than Heston had in the previous film, and I do understand the want to showcase his abilities. Unfortunately, the story of Judah’s life leading up to the big race feels like vignettes chopped together from a longer series of scenes that could have provided the movie with a better flow. I would have even preferred bouncing back and forth between Judah’s history and the climactic race as was hinted would be the case from the opening moments of the film - something to quicken the pace of the beginning and actually make you anticipate that big confrontation as the hate is just too much for the former brothers. We don’t get that. Instead, the movie drags on, slowly pulling the audience into the big finish.


It doesn’t help the movie’s case that Morgan Freeman seems to have been cast simply because he’s Morgan Freeman. He becomes Judah’s benefactor after five years of slavery, but at no point in this film is Freeman a character. He walks, he talks, he breathes, like Morgan Freeman. He feels out of place when everyone else is doing their best to embody the well known roles that audiences have ingrained in them from other actors. And it’s a shame because, you know, he’s Morgan Freeman. We all know how good he really is.

The truth here is that outside of Huston’s embodiment of the title role and Kebbel’s worthy work as an antagonist, the movie falls short of the 1959 film. Ben-Hur is not worth a trip to the theater where the studio wants you to see it in 3-D, but instead it’s worth the wait for an afternoon with Netflix.