The film about betrayal in biblical times was an epic fail at the box office. Its opening weekend, it took in $11.2 million in domestic markets and $10.7 million in international ones, reports Variety, a dismal sum given to its production budget of over $100 million.
Ben-Hur ranked sixth at the box office, failing the cinematic chariot race to a top 5 position. It lost to films in their second and third weekend, including Suicide Squad ($20.9 million), Sausage Party ($15.5 million), and Pete's Dragon ($11.3 million).
Prior to its release, Ben-Hur was criticized by The Advocate and other outlets for not including the gay subtext present in the 1959 classic, a critical and commercial success that went on to win a slew of Oscars. In the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, out screenwriter Gore Vidal revealed he had convinced the film's director to incorporate this subtext in order to explain the tension between the film's leads, a prince and a Roman soldier who betrays him.
Various excuses were offered as to why the gay subtext was not present in the story's most recent iteration. At Ben-Hur's premiere, star Tony Kebbell (Messala, the soldier) said it wasn't needed in the present day. In a conflicting report, screenwriter Keith Clarke claimed copyright law prevented him from incorporating it, as he could only adapt what was included in Lew Wallace's 1880 book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
As a result, the film placed more emphasis on the novel's religious themes and fleshed out the character of Christ. It also marketed heavily to Christian audiences, holding special screenings and releasing promotional videos that featured reviews from religious leaders.
But not even Jesus could save Ben-Hur from bad reviews. The film currently has a score of 29 percent on the film aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Critics called it "an amateurish effort," "something soulless and empty," "a compete snore-fest," "gutless," and a "digitalized eyesore hobbled in every department by staggering incompetence."
"The filmmakers of this stagnant remake display all the technical tools needed to achieve greatness, but they lack that most basic of functions: a reason why this story needs to be retold," wrote the Washington City Paper.
In a media landscape where LGBT characters are almost absent from blockbusters, this reason, which Vidal had grasped almost a half century ago, should have been apparent.