Ben-Hur is an example of a movie that tried to do too much for the awesome moments and didn’t spend the time making the real character motivations for anyone outside the two main characters clear.
A simple test for me is if you could replace a character and all of their dialog with a puppy and have the same emotional impact. The answer for Ben-Hur is a resounding “yes, it would make a better movie.”
Outside of the characters Messala Severus and Judah Ben-Hur there is no meaningful character development. There are a few one liners from Pontius Pilate and Ilderim (Morgan Freeman’s character) that are pretty decent, but without having built the character of either in a way that matters you could have given them to one of the main characters. Having Messala or a random person say that the people want blood and are Romans now because of it would have the same impact.
I feel like the John Wick creators understood that emotions with humans need complex writing to make it worthwhile these days. The John Wick writers replaced the human element with a puppy that represented emotions for a human. It doesn’t have the same kind of emotional impact if someone comes in and randomly kills John’s wife, since we don’t believe he would do that but not kill John. We can, however, believe that someone would kill a puppy and steal his car while leaving him alive as an insult.
Ben-Hur has the same problem. The love interest, sister, and mom could be replaced with a single puppy if you wanted to be adventurous. The characters don’t interact with each other meaningfully.
I can imagine every scene with a puppy replacing these characters.
- Messala plays with the puppy and it is obvious that they love each other and have bonded for both characters.
- Messala carries Ben-Hur back after he is injured, and a puppy is there to lick his wounds.
- Messala decides he is going to join the Roman army, and the puppy looks very sad while he leaves.
- The puppy growls at the zealot but Judah ignores it.
- The roman soldiers kick the puppy in the face! It must be dead.
- Judah comes back and discovers a sad, dirty dog awaiting him.
- Judah sends the dog to see Messala, and he knows Judah is back. He rejects the dog since he rejects his past. He has mixed emotions about this rejection.
- The movie ends with Judah and Messala hugging the puppy and crying that they just want childhood to return.
100% this would make for a better movie with more emotional impact.
Alternatively, I would have done 3 scenes at the start of the movie.
- Show Messala’s past and how he becomes a part of the family. Show his family and his history.
- Show a negative scene with the Romans chasing a zealot into their house. Have Messala as a child hitting a Roman. The Roman grabs the boy but sees that he is a Roman himself, and changes his mind since he now believes this family is good since they took in a Roman boy. He removes the zealot without harming the family.
- Have lines with the women in the family as the setting before the Roman shows up. Show their life and have the mother be strong once the Roman comes inside.
- Show a positive scene while they are growing up where a Roman soldier is training and Messala admires them. Have the love interest there with Judah, and have them both come watch and react differently than Messala.
You could go even further. Then have the scene with the racing at the start of the movie.
The racing scene and the naval battle were well done in this movie. The chariot race at the end felt kind of ridiculous since the ending was pretty well-known beforehand. The elements of the movie with Jesus didn’t feel like they added much to the story, and could have had more of an impact without them being as direct as they were.
With some small changes, this movie could have been very good. Personally, I like the puppy version.