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Film / Ben-Hur (2016)

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Ben-Hur is a 2016 epic historical drama film directed by Timur Bekmambetov and based on the Lew Wallace novel of the same name.

At the time of the The Roman Empire, Jewish nobleman from Jerusalem Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted Roman brother Messala are best friends despite their different origins. Everything changes when Roman governor Pontius Pilate is attacked by a Jewish faction known as the Zealots. Ben-Hur housed some of them, and despite not being part of the movement, he is arrested and sent to the galleys, with Messala doing nothing to help him out of perceived betrayal. Ben-Hur will then live a journey through hell and back, eventually making his way back to Jerusalem as a chariot racer.

This version stars Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell as Messala, Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, Ayelet Zurer as Naomi, Pilou Asbæk as Pontius Pilate and Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus.

See also the 1907, 1925 and 1959 versions of the story.

This film has the examples of:

  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Messala is truly remorseful for his betrayal and he suffers elements of PTSD from the wars he fought in for Rome.
  • Adaptational Badass: Messala's wartime experiences are shown via flashbacks and he is shown as a skilled swordsman and also a competent commander. He is so good that in one battle the panicking Roman general in charge even gives him direct command of the Roman army.
  • Adaptation Distillation: This version cuts out Judah’s adoption by Quintus Arrius and instead has him wash up on a beach where Sheikh Ilderim is staying and befriending him. It also compresses the last third where Judah angsts about his family being lepers and most everything after the chariot race. It compensates for this by having a longer opening.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • In the novel, when Judah is on a sinking slave ship, and finds himself unchained, he immediately gets off the ship. As in the earlier Charlton Heston version, this film has Judah taking the opportunity to punch out a guard, steal his keys, and free all the other slaves on the ship, before escaping himself.
    • Messala gets this, because the incident that kickstarts the plot is not a dislodged roof tile but an arrow fired by a zealot from the top of the House of Hur as an actual assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate. Messala even finds evidence that the Hurs had been harboring the zealot and nursing his wounds for some time. This means that he actually has valid reason to do what he does to Judah and his entire family. On top of that, Messala is also shown questioning some of the orders of his superiors both in the Jewish revolt and other wars he is shown participating in against enemies of Rome and even does his best to find a favorable settlement between the Jews and the Romans. Also he is shown saving Ben-Hur in his childhood and later truly begs for forgiveness from Ben after the climatic chariot race that Ben chooses to rescue him in his crippled condition.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The Romans can be seen randomly wearing a mix of armor from several points of their history, including loriga hamata (chainmail, by this point quite obsolete) and loriga segmentata (the kind used in the period, although it gets oversized shoulder pads here).
    • Even more bizarrely, many of these Romans sport stubbles and even moustaches, which would be considered downright scandalous. Romans of this period placed a big emphasis on shaving, and the moustache in particular was considered a Gaulish style no sane soldier would have sported.
    • Judah wears trousers, by this point an utterly foreign, northern item of clothing that would have resulted a thing of barbarism to both Romans and Jews.
    • Before the naval battle against the Greek rebels, Arrius screams no Greek will set foot on his ship, so we know better how chauvinist these Romans are. In reality, the slur is pretty random — by this point of history, Greece had been a Roman province for almost two centuries, and even the most patriotic Roman nobleman of the period would have business in Greece and a Greek education for his children.
    • Ilderim's dreadlocks would have been completely bizarre for an Arabian. This hairstyle was more proper of Numidia and Lybia.
    • The film fully adheres to the incredibly Dated History of Christianity being the cause of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, with Messala and another Roman discussing how Jesus's compassion will poison their souls.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Quintus Arrius is a total and complete bastard in this version. He abuses the galley slaves so badly Judah doesn't lift a finger to save him.
  • Badass Pacifist: Jesus. Two Romans comment to each other that his peaceful preaching and messages are far more dangerous than the zealots themselves.
  • Became Their Own Antithesis: Invoked by Pilate after the climatic Chariot Race. Pointing out how the crowd enjoyed the (arguably horrific) spectacle, he notes that they have clearly started to accept and adhere to those Roman values they had despised and rejected as barbaric until very shortly before. Of course, this is before a certain Nazarene dies on the cross, blessing his murderers...
    Pilate: Look at them. They all want blood. They're Romans now.
  • Black Vikings: Black Arabs in this case, as the Arab Sheikh Ilderim is played by the black Morgan Freeman. It gets subverted by promotional materials, which in any case only give a weirder explanation: apparently, this version of Ilderim, despite retaining an Arabian name and a title of nobility that refers to a chief of Arabian tribes, is somehow a Nubian.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: We see flashbacks of Messala in battles, as well as a few crucifixions and punishments. It’s subverted a little in the finale, though.
  • Composite Character:
    • Quintus Arrius does not appear again after the galley scene, so Ilderim takes some of his role as Judah's mentor and benefactor.
    • Pontius Pilate becomes Governor much earlier in this adaptation, becoming the catalyst for the Hur's downfall instead of Gratus.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The film omits Judah's time in Rome entirely (what with Quintus Arrius being an irredeemable bastard who dies early on) and goes straight from his galley ordeal to him meeting Sheik Ilderim.
  • Day of the Jackboot: There are hints at this trope when Legio X Fretensis marches into Jerusalem, chanting "Legio Aeterna Victrix" note . There is even a short scene with a soldier inciting a black dog to attack the stunned citizens.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • Quintus Arrius doesn't survive the naval battle where Judah gains his freedom. Not only does Judah not rescue him like the previous versions, but he also makes sure Arrius dies.
    • Simonidies is killed by a Roman soldier during the Hur Family's arrest. Unlike previous versions, he doesn't survive arrest, interrogation, and torture to later help finance Judah in his revenge.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Messala has a scar across his ear from a campaign, helping establish him as war-weathered.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Messala survives his crippling in the arena and makes peace with Judah, becoming his brother once more. It's implied that he even gets together with Tirzah.
  • Honor Before Reason: Judah causes his mother and sister to be crucified and himself to be enslaved because he takes responsibility for an assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate by a Jewish assassin, rather than turn in a fellow Jew.
  • Hotter and Sexier: The costumes and actors are this in comparison to the 1959 version. Having Jesus played by international underwear model Rodrigo Santoro is probably the best example.
  • Lighter and Softer: Zig-zagged. Some things are darker, but the general look of the film is literally lighter and cleaner, and the direction of the plot is less hard-hitting than its predecessor.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The Romans behave like this.
    • Marcus Decimus dresses Messala down for having subjugated a village without razing it to the ground and killing all the inhabitants.
    • The Romans desecrate an old Jewish cemetery by stealing the tombstones and using them to build their circus. The zealots are not happy...
    • When the X Legion enters Jerusalem, it is preceded by soldiers who incite black dogs against the citizens.
    • After Judah attacks Massala in the old Ben-Hur's house, Pilate orders a brutal reprisal. Twenty Jews are taken in the road and crucified.
  • The Queen's Latin: The only Latin spoken is the Legion's marching song as they enter Jerusalem. This is also played straight with the Romans.
    • The Hurs speak with British accents, but this is likely to reflect their adapting to Roman rule. Morgan Freeman’s character notably doesn’t have it.
  • Related in the Adaptation: In the ‘59 version, Messala was implied to be a close childhood friend who’d stayed in their home and could be considered a spiritual brother. In this adaptation, he’s a Roman orphan (albeit of well-known lineage) who was full-on adopted by the wealthy Hur family as a young boy and lived his entire life with them before leaving.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Messala is shown escaping Jerusalem alongside Ben and Esther after he reconciles with the Judah household.
  • War Is Hell: Discussed. Judah tells Messala not to join the army because he’s just a body that’s meant to be mowed down. When he returns, Messala admits that Judah was right, and that it was only luck that saved him many times.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Ilderim has to call out Judah in the second half, reminding him that many people (himself included) have lost loved ones to Rome, and if he acts like HIS revenge is all that matters, it’s gonna get many more people hurt.
  • Young Future Famous People: The zealot Judah harbors early in the film who tries to assassinate Pilate is named Dismas. If you’re familiar with Catholic theology (or played Uncharted 4), then you’ll immediately recognize him as the penitent thief crucified alongside Christ. And sure enough, the finale has this happening.
    • In a more typical sense, we see Jesus in the intro when he would be about 25 years old, giving a lesson about loving your enemies.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Judah is openly skeptical about the zealots' actions, even if he does not hand Dismas over to the Romans and hide him in his house (possibly, out of loyalty for his sister who has apparently joined them). He repeatedly points out that it is unlikely that they will ever be able to drive the all powerful Roman legions out of Judea and that, as a matter of fact, they are only making the Roman rule more oppressive and ruthless. He is dramatically proven right when the Roman High Command orders an entire legion into the sacred city of Jerusalem as a show of force.
  • Younger and Hipper: Feels like this in comparison to the 1959 version. While the former was an Epic Movie, this tries to imitate the style of things like Game of Thrones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. YMMV on its success.