When the original Ben-Hur came out in 1959, audiences were not discerning enough to catch the gay subtext and homoerotic undertones. It wasn’t until the 1991 documentary about queer influence in cinema, The Celluloid Closet, that Ben-Hur’s original screenwriter Gore Vidal revealed there was an implied love affair between the title character and Messala, the Roman who would eventually betray him. Vidal believed a lovers’ spat was “the the only way one could justify several hours of hatred between two lads – and all those horses.”Gay subtext in movies was surprisingly common back then, especially in sword-and-sandal epics that relied on the already-homoerotic Greco-Roman myths and imagery as source material. In 1960, a year after Ben-Hur, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus originally included a bath scene where a Roman general played by Lawrence Olivier tries to seduce his boy-servant by asking whether he prefer to eat snails or oysters. Very subtle.But that was back when gay characters and homosexuality could not be depicted openly in the big movies. Today, it’s a very different story. That’s apparently why the Ben-Hur remake got rid of those sneaky gay undertones. In 2016, hidden queer themes are “not necessary,” said Toby Kebbell, who plays Messala in the remake. “It’s a different time, thankfully.”Yes, thankfully it’s not necessary to subtly imply queerness in big blockbusters nowadays. After all, we have our first bisexual Spiderman and there will be a same-sex wedding in the upcoming Star Wars… Oh, wait a minute. No, that’s still not the case. Gay characters, especially in blockbusters, remain very, very rare. And according to GLAAD, the depiction of LGBT stories in Hollywood is actually getting worse.
So, saying that having a queer-bent in mainstream entertainment is no longer necessary is extremely smug and complacent. We need an LGBT hero now more than ever. So, the fact that the Ben-Hur remake had this unique opportunity but failed to deliver makes the movie this year’s biggest disappointment.
Today, entertainment is not all straight-forward, however. We do have hot steamy gay sex scenes that leave little to the imagination in shows like Game of Thrones and Spartacus’ own TV remake. The new Star Trek film ruffled some straight feathers when one of the main characters, Sulu, was revealed to be a gay dad. Despite some controversy surrounding Sulu’s sexuality and how it deviated from the original source material, Star Trek Beyond went on to make almost $60 million in its opening weekend and received a solid score of 68 on Metacritic.
By comparison, the Ben-Hur remake made a paltry $11.4 million in its opening weekend. The critics didn’t fawn over it, either. The movie’s Metacritic score stands at 38, with Rolling Stone calling it an “eyesore hobbled in every department by staggering incompetence.” Ouch! Maybe an explicitly gay Ben-Hur remake wouldn’t have been able to escape the film’s other flaws. But in terms of depicting two leading men once in love, Ben-Hur could’ve been a winner.