This movie has a lot of great pieces that don't quite tie together.
Perhaps they felt so beholden to the original (1959) that they felt
compelled to follow the same story line.
But there are a lot of disparate elements here.
The main story is about the Hur family, prominent and wealthy
citizens in Jerusalem, circa 33 A.D. They
are not shown as practicing Jews (no synagogue attendance, no rabbis, and
not even prayers at mealtimes), but one fateful night some Zealots hide
out in their stables because one of them was wounded in a confrontation
with Roman soldiers. Judah Ben
Hur (Jack Huston), hearing the
commotion, treats the arm wound, but calls them troublemakers and urges
them to leave. Finally, he
agrees to provide shelter for the wounded man, but only until he recovers.
That apparent kindness would be his undoing.
Judah grew up with Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman boy whom his
family adopted, and while young, they were both close and competitive.
But when Messala came of age, he decided he needed to go make his
own way in the world, and so he joined the Roman army, and there found
prominence in his leadership skills on the battlefield.
He returns to Jerusalem on his own terms, as a tribune in the Roman
legion, but his reunion with Judah is decidedly mixed:
he wants Judah to be an informant on Jews who are secretly the
Zealots, the commandos who attack Roman soldiers by night and melt into
the general population by day. Judah
doesn't want to condone violence on either side, but his attempts to stay
neutral go awry when the wounded Zealot he was hiding takes a bow shot at
the Roman commander, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), during a military
parade that happened to ride by the Hur house.
The entire Hur household is arrested ---by Messala himself---for
aiding and abetting a seditionist, and Judah finds himself a galley slave,
where the life is short, brutal, and miserable, and the mortality rate is
Except that during a sea battle with Greek rebels, his Roman galley
gets sunk, and Judah somehow escapes.
He lands in the company of a wealthy African merchant, Ilderim
(Morgan Freeman), who quickly discovers Judah's equine (and veterinary)
skills. Best of all, their
entourage is sojourning to Jerusalem, where Judah can finally discover
what happened to the rest of his family.
Alas, his mother and sister were thrown in the dungeon and there
contracted the dreaded leprosy, and are nearly driven mad with their
constant deprivation. His
fiancee, the beautiful Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) has been following this
itinerant local carpenter named Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) who teaches
non-violence, but Judah is too set on revenge against Messala.
Ilderim advises him to ride in the chariot race against Messala, a
popular blood sport where there are no rules.
Yes, the chariot race scene is memorable, but so is the aftermath.
Judah wins the race, but finds that revenge to be strangely
unsatisfying. He seeks out
Esther again, but now Jesus has been arrested and is condemned to death by
crucifixion, so there, at the foot of the cross (where a crowd still
gathers to mock and deride the dying carpenter), Judah undergoes a
So, we have a potpourri of ingredients here:
the rivalry of step-brothers, the cruelty and oppresion of ancient
Rome, the Jewish contingent in Jerusalem divided into militant rebels and
quiescent merchants (not to mention Orthodox and non-practicing).
We have life as a galley slave and as a horse whisperer among
itinerant Africans. The
spectacle of the Roman Circus, where bloodthirsty crowds enjoyed watching
the death-struggles beneath them. And
a Jesus whose message was persistently non-violent.
(Never mind that that's only a portion of Jesus' teachings; it
would have been beyond the scope of this film to present a fuller
Yes, sometimes the swords-and-sandals scenes seem a little
contrived. And the ending
feels a bit hokey, like we've suddenly veered into a faith-based movie
about unexplained miracles. But
the winding story line is easy to follow, and some of the dramatic scenes
are dazzlingly spectacular. But
the weird part is that you may well exit the movie thinking not about Ben-Hur,
who got all the screen time, but about this peacenik Jesus, who seemed to
instantly affect everyone He encountered.