Generally, when movie-goers refer to the original Ben-Hur, they’re talking of the epic 1959 Charlton Heston film. But if you count the 2003 animated feature (voiced by Heston) there are now five big screen versions, plus a 2010 TV mini series and an 1899 spectacular play that ran for over twenty years.
The novel was written by a civil war general who subtitled his book A Tale of the Christ, even though it’s really about two childhood friends who lived in Jerusalem at the time of Christ; in reality, Jesus is a distant support. Despite the belief among some that the tale of Ben-Hur is true, it’s not. There’s no Ben-Hur in The Bible and there are no historical references to the man or his family. It was fiction, written by General Lew Wallace who, at the time of writing the book, was agnostic. He neither believed nor dis-believed the miracles, but something happened during the writing. After working on the book for five years, the general converted. Curiously, his own writing inspired his religious transformation.
Why, after so much history and so many re-tellings of the story of Judah Ben-Hur, was there a need to tell the tale yet again, particularly when the 1959 version was such a colossus of a big screen adventure? With a growing audience interest in faith-based films, Hollywood will always turn its attention to where the money might be. After Ridley Scott’s retelling of Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings and Russell Crowe as Noah, it was inevitable that the industry would look to other familiar names and stories to capture that same audience potential. And so there’s now a fifth telling of Ben-Hur for a new generation employing all the technical know-how of modern cinema but resulting with an oddly underwhelming adventure that fails to either stir or inspire. The arc of the story may be there, but whittled down to two hours, watching the new Ben-Hur feels more like the script was adapted not from the general’s sprawling and heavily detailed classic adventure but from the Readers Digest library of edited novels for those who don’t really like to read.
While director Timur Bekmambetov may want his audience to forget the previous version and concentrate solely on the new, whether he or the studio likes it or not, that’s going to be difficult. William Wyler’s previous three and a half hour epic is such a landmark film that comparisons between the two are not only inevitable, they’re mandatory. You can’t ignore a film that won eleven Oscars when reviewing a new adaptation that won’t be considered for a single one.
The new Ben-Hur is touted as a new interpretation, a story concentrating more on the relationship between a Jewish prince in Roman-occupied Jerusalem and his adopted Roman brother. Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) are inseparable childhood friends, but as they grow older, the division between the Romans and the Jews divides those within the house of Hur. Now adult, Messala leaves his adoptive Jewish home and becomes an officer in the Roman army. Upon returning to Jerusalem but with his allegiance now to the Roman Empire, Messala sentences his Jewish brother to a life of slavery.
Events occur fast. With a lot of editing and streamlining of characters and their sub-plots, what previously took time to unfold and develop, here takes minutes. It doesn’t feel long before Judah is already pulling the oars in the galley of a Roman slave ship, then finding himself in the care of a Nubian sheik (Morgan Freeman) and getting ready to race at the Roman Circus in a chariot. There’s a lot missing, including visually striking, big screen images.
The book’s two big moments, the sea battle and the chariot race, are both here yet neither dominates the widescreen in the way they should. That sense of big screen spectacle – the very thing that sold the ‘59 film – is missing. The sea battle occurs but it’s a chaotic mess, shot with an unsteady hand-held and viewed from down in the galley of the slave ship where Judah spies the events at angles through holes in the side of the Roman vessel. You’re never quite sure what’s happening, which is certainly the way Judah would have experienced it, but by filming the event from the central character’s restrictive point-of-view, the audience is robbed of a lavish, cinematic impact.
The chariot race fares better, but again, with the hand-held and flashy, quick edits, it’s not always clear where Judah or Messala are in relation to everyone else. When Messala’s chariot flips, the events are shot in such a chaotic, unclear manner, it’s difficult to determine exactly what occurred to make the chariot fly; it’s all so murky.
There’s also the issue of casting. Curiously, everyone, including the two leads, Huston and Kebbell, look modern; teen idol dreamboats whose faces might adorn posters on the walls of a young girl’s college dorm. And unlike the previous version where the portrayal of Jesus was more suggested than seen – the ‘59 version had mostly over the shoulder shots of Christ but none of his face – here the faith-based crowd are treated to a fully-fledged character. Brazilian actor and model Rodrigo Santoro plays Christ, but with his tanned and modern-day, rock ‘n roll hair and handsome good looks, he makes the Messiah appear more like Superstar than even Ted Neeley could.
Even the impact of the climactic family leprosy cure which had audiences moved to tears in ‘59 is here more of quick, passing event. There is no inspiring final fade out. Instead we get – no joke – two reunited friends on horseback riding slow-mo into a sunset while a modern, FM-friendly power ballad plays over the final credits. Imagine hearing Doris Day’s Que Sera, Sera while Charlton Heston looked with inspiration to the skies at the ‘59 fade out. Never has a theme song sounded so ridiculously out of place as it does here.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 124 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)