Every serious movie-lover must surely remember the chariot race from the classic 1959 version of Ben-Hur, but there is much more to be said about this epic tale of the prince of Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston). Written by author Lew Wallace and first published in 1880, this story has captured the imaginations of plenty of filmmakers. Now, it has been placed in the hands of director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer). This modern adaptation takes some liberties with the original tale, but manages to stay true to the heart of the story of sibling rivalry gone bad.

Judah still falls victim to false accusations of treason by his adopted brother and Roman officer, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbel). Judah is forced to be a slave on a Roman ship for five years, before being jettisoned into an unexpected freedom. Eventually, this brings him in front of his brother and accuser. Through the pain and anguish that has befallen his family, Judah is given an unique opportunity to clear his family name.


Wallace’s story is still familiar to many movie watchers and has stood the test of time because of the richness of the visceral journey he created. One that is a brilliant mixture of drama, action and the spiritual realm. Here, in this Bekmambetov’s updated outing, he provides this generation of movie-goers with a historical tale loaded with a modern look and fresh special effects.

Bekmambetov’s version is shorter than the classic 1959 version with Charlton Heston. Some could interpret this as being disrespectful to the classic novel and, while it does diminish some of the story’s richness, the decision to go shorter should be seen more as a means of maintaining the attention span of modern audiences. A casualty of this scaled-down approach, though, is the Ben-Hur timeline makes significant jumps which cause lapses in believability.

Huston and Kebbel do an admirable job in delivering the needed sibling rivalry. Morgan Freeman is a strong on-screen presence and an effective mentor for Judah, but his primary role seems to be left to delivering monologues for the majority of his screen time. Except for one key character, the rest of the cast becomes window dressing to Huston’s Judah Ben-Hur. The one other character that gets a significant cameo appearances is Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro)

Only the hands, feet and profile elements of Jesus were sighted in 1959’s Ben-Hur but he is given lines in this adaptation. These words do honour the original writings of the Bible, but still will be a big challenge for the resident historians in the audience. Plus, most of Jesus’s scenes felt a bit tacked on, even as they do assist in moving the story line along. So, while his inclusion is important for the narrative, it did not have the natural feel that could have complemented the film in the end.

Action aficionados will love the chariot scene, but it is hard to determine if this action sequence adds or distracts from the heart of the story. This opens the key concerns about this Ben-Hur, which will inevitably be unfavourably compared with Gladiator — let alone the 11 Oscar-winning version from 1959.

For fans of the Christian film genre, they will be pleased with the quality of this production and that Jesus does get a mention. For those looking for an action-packed drama, they will enjoy the portions that do occur throughout the poorly written dramatic scenes.

Ben-Hur is an admirable outing for the Jewish prince, but does not measure up to it’s celebrated predecessor.

What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?

What do you believe? Ben-Hur challenges the notion of what it is we believe in. Throughout the film, there are references to different faiths and beliefs, but it does give a very pointed answer to this question. So, back to the original question: what or who do you put your faith in?

Where do you go in the Bible to find answers on belief?

Leviticus 19:31, Psalm 19:14, The gospel of John, 1 John 4:1-2

Russell Matthews works for City Bible Forum Sydney and is a film blogger


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