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 virtually 100%.

            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 spiritual conversion.

            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 picture.)

            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.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What's your familiarity with step-siblings, and how did those relationships evolve as the children got to be adults?

2)                  Is it accurate to depict Jesus as a kind of 1st century Mahatma Gandhi?

3)                  The United States was founded by rebellion.  When are the revolutionaries heroes, and when are they mere seditionists?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association