Well, I could hardly not go and see the new movie version of Ben-Hur which opened today. Films set in the ancient world, if they are successful, such as Gladiator (2000) and 300 (2007), make a difference to how people think about the ancient world, and if you want to teach students ancient history, you have to have a sense of what might have influenced their imagination. That, and I love films set in the ancient world. Most of the time.
This will need a bit of thinking and probably another viewing before I can make up my mind a bit more clearly, but I thought I’d post a few thoughts that occurred to me immediately. Of course, when I watch a film set in antiquity, one part of my brain is constantly preoccupied with spotting details – good ones (writing tablets and papyrus scrolls on the desk… wait… what exactly do we know about Roman desks?) and bad ones (stirrups…. OK… insurance issues… but what’s that? Trousers… wait, what? Trousers?!! What’s with everybody’s trousers?) and possibly clever anachronisms (bust of Augustus. OK. But next too him- is that Vespasian? And if so, is that choice intentional?). But while detail spotting is fun, I wouldn’t recommend getting obsessed about that too much. It just spoils thinking about various other things, and, obviously, enjoying the story.
So let’s start with the story. Let’s be clear about this: Ben-Hur (2016), just like the monumental Ben Hur (1959) and Ben Hur (1925) are based on a pretty bad book, Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur. A Tale of the Christ (1880). The book is mostly sold in abridged form, and if you have read the whole thing, you will know why. It’s a mix between almost unbearable preachiness and an overwrought, not very logical story, which suggests a very devout knowledge of the Bible, but an incomplete knowledge of antiquity, mixed with some hefty orientalism.
Ben-Hur (2016) abridges the story and takes out most of the more outlandish detours which take the hero to various locations in the Roman Empire, turning him, eventually, into both an eminent Roman and a very rich man. In this new version, we are mostly in Jerusalem, with a short interlude at sea, representing Ben Hur’s five years as a galley slave. We lose one bit of the original I rather like, where Ben Hur saves the Roman commander Quintus Arrius, who adopts him as his son, giving him freedom, status and a completely new and legitimate identity. The new version strands him somewhere on the eastern Mediterranean coast as soon as he finally manages to free himself, and we are back in Jerusalem in no time. This saves a lot of complicated exposition, but they never quite manage to explain properly how a man who is recognised as an escaped galley slave, and still remembered for the crime for which he was convicted, can actually get to compete in that all-important chariot race. The story ends up being a bit thin, but it sort of zips along nicely and doesn’t get boring at any time.
One thing I always want to think about when watching a film set in antiquity is what idea of the ancient world is actually represented in the film. Usually, there are some contemporary parallels in script writers’ and directors’ heads: after all, somehow there has to be something we can relate to. I think in this one, they haven’t quite made up their mind about how to deal with the Roman Empire and their more or less oppressed subjects, the Jews.
We are given to understand that Judah Ben-Hur is the member of a wealthy, fairly assimilated family which tries to make the best of life under Roman rule, despite the fact that they do not have the same religion. At the same time, there are the Zealots – fanatics who seem to be causing a lot of trouble, such as sabotage and assassinations. And in this version (not in the earlier ones), it’s a false suspicion of collaboration with those Zealots which causes Ben-Hur’s family’s downfall, although they are clearly against rebellion. There are some scenes where Ben-Hur’s plight reminded me of Muslims who have to deal with suspicion because of the acts of fundamentalist terrorists who kill in their religion’s name – and I am pretty sure that this informed part of how this story was presented here. But at the same time, modern politics and a long tradition of how we are supposed to see the situation in the Roman province of Syria/Palaestina, based on the Gospels, means that such an association could never be played out completely. So the Zealots are also represented as a kind of social liberation movement, and the whole idea becomes a bit muddled.
The Romans are of course oppressive occupiers, especially once the splendidly creepy Pontius Pilate appears on the scene. Romans can be given all sorts of different kinds of image, depending on the context and the source material – but go to Palaestina c. AD33, and their role is clearly defined by 2000 years of Christian tradition. We have a few scenes which paint the typical actions of an occupying force, but there were two less usual details which struck me. One was a montage showing Romans fighting, ruthlessly, in forests, deserts, snowy mountains and various places, representing their cruel quest for world domination all at the same time. The other was the emphasis on the Romans’ use of Jewish grave stones for the building of the Hippodrome. We see protest when they take the stones from a cemetery outside the city. Later on, those stones are clearly visible in the wall of the finished building. And just to drive the message home, they are designed a bit like Jewish grave stones from the turn of the 20th century, quadratic Hebrew script and all. Here we are given a not-so-subtle suggestion to contemplate similarities between Roman occupation and the Holocaust, with its camps where tomb stones were used as paving slabs.
And then there is Jesus. This marks a return to focusing on that part of the ancient world around Jesus or the earliest Christians – a genre very fashionable in the 1950s. The ‘new wave’ of ancient world films following the success of Gladiator (2000) was initially not interested in Christians at all, but just a bit later, Mel Gibson rode the new swords-and-sandals wave back to the Gospels, so to speak, with The Passion of the Christ (2004). This apparently spawned a whole genre of made-for-mega-church-consumption films, which essentially retell biblical stories with some claim (more or less justified) to historical accuracy in terms of setting and context; and there are apparently many more than those which did get to mainstream cinemas (e.g. The Nativity Story 2006).
Ben-Hur 2016 is trying to do justice to the Christian intent of the original book. You really would have to change the story completely if you didn’t, but still I was wondering until halfway through the film whether they’d somehow leave it out anyway. Of course, following The Passion of the Christ, it is clear that there is a huge market for Jesus films, and there is even a poster for Ben-Hur which is not shy to remind a devout audience of Mel Gibson’s film (not a poster I have seen in the UK anywhere!). At the same time, they are clearly trying to keep on side the audience who is not interested in Christian themes and who has mainly come for the chariot race. Thus, it is quite possible that some might not even recognise the mild-mannered carpenter in two early scenes as Jesus – his lines only vaguely stick to gospel script and while he does not quite deviate from the standard iconography, the visual cues are not overly obvious, either. At the same time, people who know the Gospels better might ask what on earth he is doing there working as a carpenter in Jerusalem all along (not a mistake the 1950s film would have dared make, surely).
There are a few moments where the films cleverly ‘dog whistles’ to the part of the audience which still gets the Christian tradition, without overloading the film for those who don’t. For example, at one crucial moment people carrying palm branches are seen walking through the city (we do not see Jesus on his donkey) – enough to tell those in the know that this is five days before the Crucifixion without having to disturb anybody else with biblical detail. Of course, those in the know might ask how a triumphal entrance into the city might make sense, if Jesus had been living there all the time already! All that fairly subtle hinting at the Christian story falls by the wayside once the chariot race is out of the way, Jesus is crucified, and Ben-Hur is converted. That part of the story races past almost as if they were faintly embarrassed about it, and actual religious conversion is expressed in images, while what we hear is talk about finding personal happiness and giving up fighting the Romans the old-fashioned way. In 2016, it’s a lot harder to merge a heroic adventure story with an unapologetically Christian message than it was back in 1959 (and even then it seems a bit awkward!). I am not sure this film has found a way that works, but I found the awkwardness of it all rather amusing.
That said, I think they have done a better job at drawing some of the characters, especially the Roman antagonist Messala (although his family backstory and main motivation is rather unconvincing), and until the last ten minutes or so, the story remains reasonably entertaining. And Morgan Freeman is effortlessly cool, even if he seems completely misplaced in the scenery. After playing God quite so often, doing heavy lifting as Deus ex Machina and narrator is evidently a bit of a doddle for him.
And the chariot race? Not bad. But even a lot of CGI cannot make this look better or more gripping than the 1959 version. Not even close.