A falsely accused nobleman survives years of slavery to take vengeance on his best friend who betrayed him.
The briskness was but one reason I found this quasi-Biblical epic strangely refreshing. This version of the strange novel concocted by Union Army General Lew Wallace in 1880 (a warrior’s apologia for Christianity that surpassed 1852’s previous record holder “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the best-seller lists) begins as Judah Ben-Hur (a steely Jack Huston) and his onetime friend Messala (Toby Kebbell) are facing off in a chariot race. Talk about beginning on a high note—the chariot race of the William Wyler-directed 1959 film, starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd, is that movie’s climax. But fear not, the scene is just a preview, and we flashback, after a few expositional points in narration from Morgan Freeman (who, fear not, is also a character in the picture), to Judah Ben-Hur’s noble household in Jerusalem eight years before, and see Judah and his Roman adopted brother Messala (note the slight change in relations) riding horses together carefree, until an accident places Judah in the care of his friend. It’s a bit of a one-set-of-footsteps moment that has a big payoff later on.
Wallace’s novel was subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” and this movie was produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who’ve parlayed Burnett’s success with reality television into a shingle devoted to making movies with pronounced Christian content. Hence, this “Ben-Hur” has more Christ in it than any previous version. And a lot of philosophizing in the dialogue. “You confuse peace with freedom,” one character opines at a certain point; at another the ideal of a “civilized world; progress, prosperity, and stability” is proffered, which sounds like a setup for a takedown of secular humanism. When first seen, Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is carving wood, and overhearing a conversation between Judah and his later-to-be-converted wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), he gently pipes up, “Love your enemies.” “Love your enemies? That’s very progressive,” Judah responds. Soon, when he’s stripped of his home and family and enslaved on a galley ship, he will have the opportunity to turn those words over.