The current cycle of sword-and-sandal films has been riding the wave of the success of Gladiator since 2000, and its end has been projected many times. In the introduction to his edited anthology Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film, scholar Michael G. Cornelius projected that these films, hereafter referred to as neo-peplum films, were already seeing a periodic decline in 2010/2011. After Gods of Egypt (2016) had performed poorly at the box office, Pamela McClintock of The Hollywood Reporter noted that other recent neo-peplum films such as The Legend of Hercules (2014) and Pompeii (2014) had also performed under expectations, thus also mimicking Cornelius’ thoughts that the cycle was in a rut.
Despite this apparent low point in the cycle, 2016 has seen the release of five neo-peplum films thus far: Hail, Caesar! (a post-modern take of the historic epic within the confines of 1950s Hollywood); Risen; the aforementioned Gods of Egypt; Young Messiah; and Ben-Hur which is currently playing in theaters but failing to reap any critical or commercial success. Perhaps a victim of being portrayed as an unnecessary remake (ironic, since the source story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, has been adapted to the big screen five times), this newest incarnation of Ben-Hur should not be dismissed so quickly. It deserves a little extra critical attention than what is being afforded to it currently, and this review hopes to supply additional dialogue to the assessment of the film.
Despite the lack of marquee value (save for Morgan Freeman), the film is comprised of cast and crew that are veterans of neo-pepla. Director Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to the genre, as he directed the 2001 neo-peplum The Arena, a rare instance of a female-centric peplum film. In both The Arena and Ben-Hur, Bekmambetov has to cater to two audiences: the sport spectacle of gladiator combat and chariot racing to the crowd audience within the film and the actual audience (theatergoers) viewing the movie proper. Bekmambetov is the type of director who mostly deals with adaptations of other source material, such as The Arena remake, Night Watch (2004), Day Watch (2006), Wanted (2008), and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), so the decision to have him direct a Ben-Hur remake is appropriate. It also seems appropriate that Ben-Hur was made at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, a studio that churned out much of the original wave of Italian pepla during the 1960s and the “original” Ben-Hur (1959).
In regards to the cast, Jack Huston who portrays Ben-Hur had been cast in prior neo-pepla Outlander (2008), the miniseries of Spartacus (2004) and Hail, Caesar!. Toby Kebbell stars as Ben-Hur’s adoptive brother Messala who was also in Alexander (2004), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), and Wrath of the Titans (2012). Rodrigo Santoro who plays the role of Jesus also played the role of Xerxes I in both 300 (2007) and its sequel 300: Rise of an Empire (2014). And, of course, Morgan Freeman, who had previously worked with Bekmambetov on Wanted, acts as the narrator via the character Sheik Ilderim in Ben-Hur and had lent his voice-over talents to the remake of sword-and-sorcery classic Conan the Barbarian (2014).
Both the onscreen and off screen talent of Ben-Hur is a strong enough ensemble to at least guarantee proficiency operating within the neo-peplum genre, and for the most part that is certainly correct. There are aspects that Ben-Hur excels at when compared to other recent neo-pepla. For example, the centerpiece of the film, the iconic chariot race sequence, is executed extremely well in that it has to overcome a huge hurdle of displaying horses, kicked sand, riders, chariots, and quick action with quicker edits against the green screen and CGI incorporation. Viewers of the film Pompeii can attest that this is not an easy feat. Towards the end of Pompeii, Senator Quintas Attius Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) attempts to flee the erupting Mount Vesuvius by riding a chariot out of Pompeii amidst the raining fireballs. The results are less than spectacular, as Sutherland looks comically out of place against the obviously terrible rendered CGI and green screen. While Ben-Hur still has moments of not quite depicting the CGI action just right, it is league better than Pompeii.
Structurally, Ben-Hur follows the riches/prestige to rags to reclamation/redemption template adhered to by most other neo-pepla. In Gladiator, Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) begins his story as a brilliant general who is betrayed by Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), enters the life as a gladiator slave, and must claim his vengeance by rising through the ranks of the arena. In Gods of Egypt, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) loses his eye and his kingdom to Set (Gerard Butler) and also must enter a hero’s journey to reclaim what is rightfully his. In Ben-Hur, the titular character is a Jewish nobleman who is betrayed by his adopted brother and seeks revenge via his hero’s journey of being a galley slave and later a chariot racer. The Joseph Campbell formula is followed flawlessly in these narratives.
However, in Ben-Hur there is a bit of subversion on what becoming a hero is; in this film, to be a hero is to be a Roman. Early in Ben-Hur, Messala takes his leave of his family to join the Roman army and engages in many battles, raising through the ranks. He returns to his family as a Roman officer, as a hero. Ben-Hur on the other hand spend the first three-quarters of the film nondescript. As a nobleman, he blends in with the rest of the populous of Jerusalem and as a galley slave he is near indistinct from his fellow oarsmen. It is only when he grooms himself, cuts his hair, dons clean attire, and takes the reigns of the chariot before his race that he becomes distinct, confident, commanding – in other words, a hero. Shortly after Ben-Hur’s victory, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) looks to the crowd of celebratory Jews that have stormed the arena grounds and proclaims them to be Romans, a sentiment that no doubt extends to Ben-Hur. Like his adoptive brother Messala, Ben-Hur must become a Roman to become a hero, which is, of course, at odds with his Jewish identity as his people are being oppressed by the occupying Roman forces.
This is an interesting subversion and invites multifaceted dialogue about the film. Where the film does falter is exactly where it should have succeeded the most, and that is in regards to its chariot sequence, or more specifically the lead up to it. In this regard, Ben-Hur certainly suffers from the ills that plague remakes, that fine line of juggling what to adhere to and what to take in new directions. The new Ben-Hur incarnation follows the original Charlton Heston plot accurately, and for modern cinema audiences this may not be a good thing. The neo-pepla films enjoyed by audiences today are fundamentally different from the historic epics of yesteryear. One of those differences is the depiction of arena sports. In modern films, there is a progression of the hero through the gladiator system: in the beginning of the film the hero falls and must be able to fight their way via different skirmishes, games, and races. There are training sequences and bouts with lesser competitors. In Gladiator, Maximus must take part in many battles before he can duel against Commodus. Even in Pompeii, with the latter half being a disaster film, the first half has Milo (Kit Harington) proving himself multiple times in the arena.
In Ben-Hur, the first half of the film is melodrama. He lives his life of affluence, and although it shows he is competitive with Messala, it does not explore this characteristic in depth. Ben-Hur is later made into a slave, and he overtly states his hatred is what keeps him going, which, of course, provides the emotional weight to support the story. It is well into the second act that charioting is first brought up, and it is only brought up initially by Ilderim. From out of the blue, Ilderim decides to risk a huge sum of his fortune to have Ben-Hur compete in the arena against Messala. Until this point, Ben-Hur has never driven a chariot, and thus begins his montage training sequence to prepare him for his bout. Despite having never professionally raced, and only done so in practice around Ilderim’s tents, Ben-Hur, of course, wins. As Ben-Hur is of a subtype of neo-peplum film that focuses on the sports aspect of it (such as gladiator films), this progression of events is at odds with expectations. While Ben-Hur’s journey is certainly heroic in the classical terms, it is definitely not in regards to the sportsman journey, which is what this film should have followed. While the chariot centerpiece of the film itself was executed flawlessly, the build up to it was nearly non-existent. In other words, Ben-Hur as a gladiator-chariot film only has one scene of chariot racing when there should have been preceding races leading up to its climax. This is where Bekmambetov should have pulled from his director’s bag of tricks, as he had already successfully accomplished the sportsman-hero’s journey nearly two decades ago with The Arena.
This is the critical flaw of Ben-Hur. Its disappointing box office returns and critical resentment may be attributed to it being another remake in a sea of other remakes, or poorly marketed, or even audience apathy of the subject matter. Regardless of these hindrances, the movie could still be successful on its own terms. Its reluctance to take the risk and do something different with the Ben-Hur story is its biggest weakness, but the film does offer plenty of other successes, particularly with the relationship of Ben-Hur and Messala and their respective journeys to become heroes. It may not have been successful during its theatrical run, but Ben-Hur is successful at contributing and adding new material to the neo-peplum canon.