I just don’t get why certain filmmakers are drawn to doing big-screen remakes of major Oscar-winning movies that should be untouchable. If you want to remake something, do movies that didn’t work the first time around, like Howard The Duck or Ishtar. But why Ben-Hur, which with 11 Oscars for 1959’s William Wyler-directed classic shares an Academy record with Titanic and Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King? This hasn’t stopped Paramount and MGM (which made that 1959 version) from trotting it out again for contemporary audiences, complete with a pop song over the end credits (!).
Of course the filmmakers don’t claim they are “remaking” that movie, or the celebrated 1925 silent version, but rather going back to the source material from Lew Wallace’s bestseller “Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ.” Filmmakers always say that when they are essentially copying someone else’s masterpiece. Not that Wyler’s epic was perfect, but it had much going for it including Charlton Heston’s Oscar-winning performance as Judah Ben-Hur, the wealthy prince who was forced into slavery for several years after being accused of treason by his best friend Messala, an officer in the Roman Army. After losing everything including his title, family, and the woman he loved, he comes back to seek vengeance in a chariot race to end all chariot races.
The basic bones of that story are all here in the 2016 model directed by Timur Bekmambetov from a screenplay by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, but the tone and theme has been tweaked a bit. What was clearly a story of revenge first and foremost now melts into one of forgiveness. You can see the studio meetings emphasizing that this movie has to be sold heavily to today’s faith-based audiences who can account for some lucrative box office revenue. And Jesus Christ, a shadowy sidelined figure in previous versions, is almost front and center in this one as played by Rodrigo Santoro, who is third-billed in the end credits — Jesus has moved on up.
As I say in my video review above, Jack Huston (grandson of the great John Huston) is a good actor, but just seems too soft to fill Heston’s sandals. What is etched in my mind as a stoic, brave and determined Judah Ben-Hur is now much less commanding. I had a hard time believing this slight bearded guy could actually handle the rigors of slavery and rowing in the galleys of that ship for several years, or ever last one lap in the chariot race. Toby Kebbell as Messala is now presented as Judah’s adopted brother in addition to best friend, but the portrayal lacks dimension and shading. Stephen Boyd was fairly one-dimensional in the 1959 take as well, so maybe it’s the nature of the role.
On the plus side, Bekmambetov has done his best to match the furious excitement I remember watching Heston command that chariot race, and at 10 minutes I have to say it is unquestionably the highlight of this film, just as it always has been in the other versions. Unfortunately, there is also a feeling of been-there-done-that. The thrill is gone, even if the filmmaking craft is still there. It was shot largely in camera over the course of six weeks, and the lack of CGI tricks is most welcome, but you have to wonder why the majestic long shots are largely missing in a race filled with close-ups. I did enjoy the scenes with Morgan Freeman as an African/Arab sheik who trains Judah to work with the beautiful white horses, and these sequences are terrific, also showing real camaraderie between man and animal. Freeman’s cool dreads were a real plus, too. The sea battle stuff is impressive, but again you wonder why bother when it was done in superior fashion 56 years earlier.
The producers who dared to try to take on the challenge of matching an Oscar-winning behemoth are Sean Daniel, Joni Levin and Duncan Henderson, but the real clue as to how this got made can be found in executive producer credits for Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the husband-wife Christian force behind History’s epic miniseries The Bible. You have to wonder if somehow this all started as an idea for a TV event that somehow morphed wrongheadedly to the big screen. It is certainly a handsome production with a powerful score from Marco Beltrami (though no match for Miklis Rozsa), but it still oddly feels like a cut-rate version, and at 125 minutes — nearly 100 minutes shorter than the 1959 roadshow running time — there is proof that it is. Paramount releases it Friday.
Do you plan to see Ben-Hur? Let us know what you think.