An excellent review and much more, from Crisis Magazine.
Not having seen the recent Ben-Hur, I can only imagine how excruciatingly awful it must have been for audiences to have to sit through this latest box office bust. I say that, not because I possess clairvoyant powers, but because I’ve seen too many reviews predicting the movie would almost certainly go into the tank, which it pretty much already has given millions of dollars lost in revenues since its release last August. And, of course, in talking to people who have actually seen both versions, there is really no comparison with the earlier one starring Charlton Heston. A film of truly epic proportions, it deservedly won the eleven Oscars it was given when it first appeared in 1959.
I was a young boy back then and, like most everyone else, was entirely mesmerized by the experience. Up against the stunning grandeur and sweep of the original, this latest remake—“thuddingly dull-witted,” as one critic put it—is a digital disaster.
But it wasn’t—surprise, surprise—the chariot race that did it for me. Oh, it had a riveting effect, all right, which is exactly what director William Wyler had in mind with his four million dollar investment, along with the ten weeks and fifteen thousand extras he hired to shoot it. But what really stole my heart was the scene with Heston at the well where, en route to the galleys as a prisoner indentured to the army of Rome, he is confronted by a strange bearded fellow who steps out of the crowd to give him a drink of water. It is clearly the figure of Christ. And although we never see his face, nor hear his voice, there must have been something extraordinarily telling in the look he gave the guard, because it so utterly disarmed him that, all at once, he allows the character Heston is playing (Judah Ben-Hur) to drink the water. It is a look that sears itself upon his soul; he will never be the same again.
It was just that arresting scene from the 1959 film that has stayed with me ever since. Which is why, were I to see the truncated version in which it has been left out, I doubt that I’d be able to stifle my dismay at the sheer mindlessness of Hollywood film directors who, as Chesterton would say, “don’t know what they’re doing because they don’t know what they’re undoing.”
We have come a long way since 1959, having witnessed the undoing of a great many things along the way. Including, I fear, the sense of wonderment awakened by the Event of Christ itself. It is that loss, it seems to me, which more than anything accounts for the missing scene from the current movie. It is simply not there because the impact of what happened so long ago is no longer felt in any sort of elemental way, at least not among the cinematic story tellers who, in feeling no compunction whatsoever in leaving it out, have pretty much gutted the whole plot of the story they’re telling us.