I went to see the Ben-Hur remake, because I remember the chariot race being exciting in the Charlton Heston one. Though I'm agnostic, not Christian, the religious part of the story didn't bother me too much, and I liked that Morgan Freeman was in this. He narrates the beginning and the ending of the movie, and in the middle part plays a wealthy sheikh who trains Judah Ben-Hur to race chariots. Jesus of Nazereth does feature in the movie, but it's in the background of the main events. Rather than preaching, this a story about love triumphing over hate, and forgiveness verses vengeance.
Anyway, the story begins 8 years before the chariot race, with Judah and his adopted brother Messala recklessly racing horses around the countryside. They are competitive but friendly, and when Judah gets injured, Messala carries him home to be treated. Much is made of Judah's family being wealthy and privileged Jews, while Messala is the poor Roman orphan they took in. There are even hints that Messala's grandfather was one of the assassins of Julius Caesar, though I didn't recognize Messala's last name. Also, they cast the young women too similarly, because I couldn't tell Judah's sister apart from Judah's eventual wife Esther, which made things confusing. I thought for a moment that Judah and Messala were in love with the same woman, but apparently not. Messala feels he must prove himself and make his fortune, so he leaves to join the Roman army fighting in Germania. He's gone for three years and becomes a successful soldier. When he returns, Messala is friendly and gives Judah a dagger he used in battle.
The movie depicts Roman occupation of Palestine as brutal, with soldiers constantly harassing the locals and even stealing tombstones to build their local Roman coliseum. There is a secret resistance movement by Zealots who attack and kill Romans. Judah discovers that his sister is a member, when she brings an injured Zealot to the stables to be treated. He strongly disapproves and lectures them, but he allows the wounded man to stay hidden until he recovers. Apparently, Judah's privilege as a wealthy prince blinds him to what the poorer classes suffer under Roman rule. He believes in being passive and coexisting without violence. I thought about the current troubles in Israel, and wondered if this was political/social commentary about Palestinians fighting Israeli oppression, but I am not sure the filmmakers meant anything more than parallels to Nazi anti-Semitism.
Messala tells Judah that Pontius Pilate is going to parade through town and he hopes to round up troublemakers, but Judah refuses to name names of Zealots; Messala takes this as obstinacy and betrayal from his friend. Later, during the parade, the injured Zealot in the house actually shoots an arrow toward Pontius Pilate, causing the Roman soldiers to storm the house in search of the assassin. Judah yells at the guy, "What have you done?" yet allows him to escape rather than face punishment. The rest of the household are not so lucky. They plead with Messala to spare them and vouch for their loyalty to Rome. Messala, though, discovers the bed where the Zealot slept, so they must have been harboring him and collaborating. He feels he must prove his own loyalty and effectiveness to Pontius Pilate, so he arrests them all. Hoping to take the burden, Judah confesses that he shot the arrow, but the Romans still do not release his mother and sister. He is sent to be a galley slave on a Roman ship.
After five years on the galley ship, there is a disastrous battle near Greece. It's a creative scene, watching a sea battle from below deck where the rowers can glimpse what's going on outside. All the Roman commanders on their ship are killed, and then a ship rams through their galley, killing most of the slaves, but Judah manages to release himself from his chains and float away on the wreckage. He lands on the beach where Morgan Freeman's character discovers him. I'm not sure if I ever heard his name in the movie, with many people simply calling him the African. He at first wants to turn Judah in to the Romans, but Judah offers to heal his sick horse and begs to be taken back home to Jerusalem. The sheikh agrees and becomes more of a mentor to Judah with the chariots. When they arrive in the city, Judah finds that his wife Esther has become a follower of Jesus, tending to the poor and hungry on the streets. She says his family were killed in his absence, and that Messala is now a champion chariot driver for Rome.
Judah sends Messala his old dagger as a message to meet him at the old abandoned house; I was highly skeptical that Judah would have been allowed to keep that dagger all his years as a galley slave, but I guess maybe he left it at the house before his arrest, and got it from there. Judah wants vengeance and attacks Messala, but Romans storm the house, and Judah gets away. Pontius Pilate orders twenty Jews to be killed in retaliation, and one of the twenty is a friend of Esther's. She meets Judah at the sheikh's campsite and tells him what his vengeance has cost. She pleads with him to give up his hatred and just enjoy that they were given a second chance to reunite after all these years. He refuses to give up, especially after learning from another Roman that his mother and sister are alive after all, but are in prison, suffering from leprosy. This inflames Judah's hatred against Messala, but the sheikh tells Judah that there's a better plan than simple assassination. He could beat Messala in a chariot race, publicly humiliating him and Rome. So the sheikh negotiates with Pontius Pilate and bets that if his Jewish driver wins, all charges against him will be dropped.
So we have the dramatic chariot race. In this version, Messala doesn't cheat with his chariot, and we watch the other chariot drivers each fall out of the race through disaster. It's like how a NASCAR race will have huge car crashes, and crews will try to retrieve the injured before getting run over themselves. With the horses too, there's added chaos, and it was a really dangerous, grandiose spectacle. The crowd begin chanting Judah's name, eager to see Roman pride take a hit. Judah does win, but soon feels regret and concern for the badly injured Messala, whom he can't reach, because of the crowds. Pontius Pilate pays his wager, but tells the sheikh he's not defeated, for the Jews are now bloodthirsty like Romans. Then Jesus of Nazareth, viewed as more dangerous than Zealots, is betrayed by Judas and arrested by the Romans. Judah recognizes Jesus on the streets and tries to offer him water, but Jesus restrains him from lashing out at Romans. Judah attends the crucifixion and weeps, reconciling with Esther, now that he realizes vengeance was worthless. There is a rainstorm that miraculously heals Judah's family, and the sheikh buys them out of prison to reunite the family. Judah then goes to Messala, who has lost a leg and threatens him with that old dagger. But instead of fighting, Judah speaks of their childhood as brothers and offers to carry him. So the power of love overcomes all, and they become one family again. I thought it was a good message, and worth changing the story. (Apparently the original book had Messala continue to seek vengeance for years, but this happier ending reinforces the theme of forgiveness and redemption.) I liked it, even if other reviews were bad.