Now let me get this straight. The Hur family were rich Jews in Jerusalem. They got along fine with the Romans, and raised little Massala as their own. He and Judah Ben-Hur thought of themselves as brothers. But Judah’s sister, Tirzah, was involved with a group called the Zealots, who wanted to kick the Romans out of Judea. This is fine with me. I would have been on their side.
(On the other hand, remember Reg of the Judean People’s Front? His rousing speech went like this: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”)
One night Judah discovers her in the stables with a badly wounded Zealot, Dismas. Though he wants no part of it, he treats the man and then lets him stay at the Hur manor to heal. Massala, returned from the wars in Germania, pleads with Judah to find out who the rabble-rousers are because the new guv’ner, Pontius Pilate, is arriving and will be having a procession. Judah feels there will be no threat, and won’t rat out his fellow Jews. So far, so good. I wouldn’t have named names, either.
The procession rides by the house and who should appear above them but Dismas, with a bow and arrow. He shoots Pilate, though not badly. He can’t even do that well. The Romans naturally storm into the house and take everybody down, but Dismas, the cowardly, betraying piece of garbage, has fled. They keep asking Judah “Who was it? Tell us his name.” And Judah won’t. There he is, face to the floor, looking at his mother and his sister in the same position, and he won’t talk. Instead, he falsely confesses that it was him. He’s willing to take the blame, big man that he is. But it doesn’t do them any good. Take the women away and crucify them, says a centurion. And still he won’t reveal the name.
My question: Are we supposed to admire him? Me, I’d be shouting his name so fucking loud it would hare-lip everybody from Damascus to Cairo. “His name is Dismas, dee-eye-ess-em-ay-ess, he’s about five-seven, hundred and forty pounds, stringy black hair, short beard, he’s wearing a jute skirt and burlap shirt and sandals with one thong broken on the left one. Here, centurion, here’s a bandage that he had on, give it to the hounds and see if they can track him. If not, I know all the places where he might be hanging out, so let’s go!” I mean, this asshole attacked a Roman bigwig from the balcony of our house! This man whose wound I tended. This man I fed and nursed back to health. So Massala shows up and he is disgusted, but spares Judah’s life and sends him to the galleys for some aerobic exercise on the rowing machines.
Let me tell you, I knew there were going to be a lot of things about this movie that I wouldn’t like, but I never expected to be rooting for Massala! But I did. He was the better man. He bent over backwards to give the Judean people a break. He didn’t want to kill and crucify. And I hated Judah. He could have spared his women eight years of leprosy just by ratting out a man who had betrayed his trust and spit on his kindness. This is our hero? He can go fuck himself.
Trying to find something good about this horror of a totally unnecessary movie, all I can think of is the big sea battle. It is shown entirely from below decks, among the galley slaves, only peeking out through the oar holes to see something of the larger scene. (“Listen up, you maggots! I’ve got some good news. You’re getting a ten-minute break. The bad news is, the captain wants to water-ski!”) That was good. The photography of the chariot race is pretty good. They used real action when they could, and the two stars trained for months to control all those horses. Each chariot had three identical teams, so the horses could get days off to rest. The carnage among the horses appears to be horrific, but clearly those images were CGI. The Humane Society monitored, and added its usual endorsement at the end: No animals were harmed in the making of this movie. Oh, yeah, the portrayal of Jesus isn’t overly reverent, and I like that. He sweats like a real carpenter, and when they tie (not nail) him to the cross, he is really hurting.
Everything else sucks. I was moved to read the summary of the original novel at Wiki to see how much it deviated. While all three versions made changes (the original was by far the most faithful), this one threw out 90% of the story, and some changes were really, really stupid. I mean, in the end of this one Judah and Messala bury the hatchet, despite the fact that Messala had just lost a leg in the race. They go chasing off into the desert at the end, happy as boys. It even begins badly, with a short preview of the start of the race, foreshadowing what was to some. Did anyone need that? No. Then we get Morgan Freeman’s solemn narration, which sucked, and his shouted instructions during the race. Brilliant lines like “Shorten the reins, Judah!” “Watch out, Judah!” And the ever-popular “Go, Judah, go!” Take a look at the 1959 race, if you can. There is no dialogue. None was needed. We didn’t need a fucking cheerleader! (BTW: In the novel, it was Judah who used dirty tactics!)
Also, in the 1959 version there was a wonderful lead-up to the race, the pageantry of the entry of the chariots accompanied by the magnificent music of Miklós Rózsa. (In my high school band we played it at football games.) Then there are the nervous moments as the chariots are being brought into line, giving us plenty of time to goggle at and worry about those lethal spikes on Messala’s ride. In this new version they drop a weight, a bunch of gates fly open, and they’re off! just like at Santa Anita.
Neither of these actors is qualified to tie Charlton Heston’s or Francis X. Bushman’s sandals.
That’s enough, I guess. The real mystery, to me, is who the hell this Russian dwarf, Timur Bekmambetov, had to blow to get $150,000,000 to make and market this gobbler? The man has virtually no track record. The last movie he directed was the classic masterpiece Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. What, you didn’t see it? Neither did I. Nor will I. As with the remake of The Magnificent Seven, the question that keeps swimming into my stunned mind is … Why?