Racing for the glory of redemption and forgiveness | Sunday Observer

Racing for the glory of redemption and forgiveness

5 January, 2020
Toby Kebbell plays Messala and Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur Paramount Pictures Corporation and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.
Toby Kebbell plays Messala and Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur Paramount Pictures Corporation and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.

A review of Ben-Hur

‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’ by Lew Wallace was a phenomenally successful novel, published in 1880. The adaptations of this work to the medium of moving images has seen no less than five works including the record setting Academy Award winning colossal cinematic success of 1959, with Charlton Heston in the lead role, which won no less than 11 Oscars that year.

The newest Ben-Hur movie is the one directed by Timur Bekmambetov in 2016, which was written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley. The movie stars Jack Houston as the eponymous Ben-Hur, the Jewish nobleman - Prince Judah Ben of the House of Hur. The role of the principal antagonist Messala is played by Toby Kebbell. Hollywood screen legend Morgan Freeman plays the role of Sheik Ilderim.

This latest Ben-Hur is not merely a new remake of the 1959 classic, but something of a re-adaptation with new interpretations. Compared to the classic starring Heston, Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur shows more background into the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala portraying them as ‘brothers’ based on the latter being an adopted son of Ben-Hur’s parents. Wallace’s novel as well as the film of 1959 present the two characters as childhood friends who grow up to represent two very different political beliefs that bring them into open conflict with each other. Therefore, the way in which the turbulence the two characters face when their paths collide also has a more complex and interesting angle to examine. Best friends and brothers by adoption, Ben-Hur becomes a sympathizer of the Zealots, Jewish resistance fighters against the Roman imperial occupation of Jerusalem, and Messala, a Roman by birth, becomes an ardent soldier fighting for the military might of imperial Rome.

Believing that there is no real future for him in the home of his adopted family, Messala enlists in the Roman army and gets sent to fight in the Roman Empire’s war in Germany. Leading the peaceful life of a family man, Ben-Hur gradually develops feelings for the family slave Esther. Due to their different stations in life Esther compels him not to pursue her. But when her father Simonides seeks to give her in marriage to a Roman, Ben-Hur declares his love for her and takes her as his wife.

Three years pass and Messala returns to Jerusalem as a decorated Roman officer. At the time of his return there is a rising insurrection by the Zealots. After reuniting with his former adoptive family, Messala asks Ben-Hur to become an informant for the Romans and help quell the Zealot rising. However Ben-Hur doesn’t commit himself to betray his people. Messala meanwhile tells Ben-Hur’s family that a new Roman governor, Pontius Pilate will be taking residence in Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate marches ceremonially into Jerusalem, and Ben-Hur and his family watch from a balcony of their house. A zealot who had been sheltered in their home makes an assassination attempt on Pilate and results in the Romans storming Ben-Hur’s household and arresting him and his family.

Rather than betray a fellow Jew, Ben-Hur accepts responsibility for the assassination attempt. His mother and sister are sentenced to be crucified and Ben-Hur is sentenced to serve as a slave. While being led to the prison galley, Ben-Hur encounters Jesus Christ, who gives him some water. Ben-Hur endures five years of slavery as a rower aboard a Roman prison galley. During a naval battle against Greek rebels in the Ionian Sea, Ben-Hur’s galley is boarded, and colliding with another ship is destroyed. Ben-Hur manages to cling to a floating mast and gets washed ashore and is found by Sheik Ilderim, who realizes that the ship wrecked man is as an escaped slave.

Ben-Hur convinces Ilderim not to hand him over to the Romans after proving his usefulness in treating one of the Sheik’s Nubian racing horses. After Ben-Hur develops a bond with the four racing horses, Ilderim trains Ben-Hur to be a chariot racer. And thus the road opens to the spectacular circus where the famous chariot race is set to unfold. Following Sheik Ilderim’s efforts Ben-Hur is allowed to compete at the newly built Roman circus in Jerusalem. It is then learnt that Messala is the Roman champion chariot racer, and that Ben-Hur will be competing against him.

In Jerusalem, Ben-Hur encounters Esther, who has become a follower of Jesus and is devoted to charity work. She tells Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are dead. She advocates love and forgiveness over hate and revenge and thus the two find themselves in contrary positions on Ben-Hur’s insistence on seeking revenge against Messala.

When Messala and Ben-Hur meet alone in their former home a confrontation arises and Ben-Hur is forced to flee when Roman soldiers show up. In reprisal the Romans carry out the execution of twenty random Jews in the city and Esther blames Ben-Hur for their lives. Sheik Ilderim develops Ben-Hur’s skills in chariot racing to prepare him for the spectacle.

Through a former Roman soldier Ben-Hur learns his mother Naomi and sister Tirzah are still alive. He is however horrified that they had been condemned to a fate worse than death, on realizing that they have become lepers.

At the grand spectacle, where in Roman circus tradition the chariot race unfolds to put on a show where anything goes, and it is indeed a game where the strongest survive, Ben-Hur follows Sheik Ilderim’s instructions carefully and plays out the course of the brutal blood sport on wheels, to claim a magnificent victory over Messala.

Despite emerging the victor, Ben-Hur remains despondent over the fate of his mother and also the state of Messala, his once best friend and adopted brother, since the brutal chariot race leaves him a cripple.

After the events at the circus have ended the narrative brings the viewer to the point where Jesus is arrested by the Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane. Much public commotion is caused when Jesus is forced to carry his cross through the streets.

And when Ben-Hur and Esther witness a bruised and beaten Jesus, recalling how he was shown kindness by Jesus when he was being cast into the fate of a slave, Ben-Hur tries to offer Jesus water, but is beaten by a Roman soldier.

Following Jesus’ crucifixion, a rainstorm occurs. The rain brings with it miracles for the innocent Naomi and Tirzah who become healed by rainwater. With the help of Sheik Ilderim who pays a bribe to have them set free, Ben-Hur is finally reunited with his mother and sister.

The end of the movie is one that builds on the Christian belief of unconditional forgiveness. Messala renounces his enmity towards Ben-Hur and the Hur family takes Messala back into their fold. It is thus a movie where the teachings of Christ are shown to have taken root in the most bitter of enemies and gives rise to the promise for a new beginning.