So, to the bad news: Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur is a pointless attempt to revise a classic which should be left to the annals of cinematic history.
So much so that it’s hard to know where to begin a discussion on this plodding, tawdry remake without stating the obvious – it’s a terrible film.
Swords and sandals have struggled since Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), and this feels like the latest in a series of extraordinarily tremendous flops in the genre (though nowhere near as bad as Tim Chey’s David and Goliath from last year).
The string of successes Iraq-invasion movies have enjoyed over the last decade may have affected how we like to consume our dessert at the cinema these days, with soldiers no longer in leather and iron, but instead covered head to toe in camouflage, helmet and composite body armor.
No-one could blame producers for shying away from big-budget biblical retellings after Russell Crowe’s Noah (2014), or Cristian Bale’s Moses (2014) but Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur, at $100 million,
isn’t a cheap film either.
Jack Huston, star of the strange time-travelling series Outlander and legitimate member of Hollywood royalty (nephew of Angelica Huston), plays the fallen prince Judah Ben Hur.
Huston is also a relation to true royalty as well: a direct descendant of both David Sassoon, the Treasurer of Baghdad, and Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who founded the Rothschild family; and his great grandfather George Cholmondeley was the 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley.
So in truth, our star is quite royally prepared to assume the mantle of the disempowered prince strategically crossing paths with Jesus at strategic moments through the Sinai peninsula.
None of this means that Huston doesn’t have the chops to pull off Judah Ben Hur but, to be honest, he truly never had a chance.
No-one could hope to ascend to the stoic oratory of Charlton Heston in the 1959 original, like Marky Mark’s vain attempt at repsising Heston’s “Taylor” in Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes in 2001 (though Wahlberg’s name was captain Leo Davidson).
there can be Only one
Basically, when it comes to Hur, there can be only one, and that will forever be our Charlton. Toby Kebbell plays Messala, Ben Hur’s childhood playmate, pseudo brother and eventual Roman Tribune come Chariot race champion. He’s better (un)known for recent Motion Capture performances as ‘Koba’, in Matt Reeve’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2011), and as the Orc Chieftan Durotan in Duncan Jone’s World of Warcraft (2016).
Again Kebbell should have left the MoCap suit on and stayed out of the sandals and laplap of Stephen Boyd’s 1959 original. Kebbell is neither arch villain nor tortured antihero: his Messala is slow-moving and all teeth, pursuing a strangely introduced love interest in the shape of Ben Hur’s sister.
This is obviously set as a complete refusal to acknowledge the homoerotic connection between the step-brothers clearly displayed in 1959, denying late-night chat rooms the renewed chance to analyse every stolen glance.
Instead, the new version focuses on seemingly disparate religious differences as the wedge separating the two, as well as an even stranger make-up and reunion post chariot race where both speed off together on horseback, rekindling their childhood rivalry (in spite of Messala’s now amputated leg – how unbelievable).
Messala surviving the chariot race remains true to Lew Wallace’s original novel from 1880, but the brotherly reunion and quick forgiveness on a stretcher is a strange and unnecessary twist.
Fifth time unlucky
Many may be unaware that this is the fifth attempt at bringing Ben-Hur to the screen. The first was a 15-minute silent film with a $500 budget from 1907 directed by Sidney Olcott, which focused mostly on the chariot race. It was filmed on a beach in New Jersey with local firemen and their horses playing the charioteers.
This original version is somewhat notorious as well, as it set the precedent for future copyright law when Olcott and others were sued by Wallace’s estate for copyright infringement. The subsequent ruling (in 1911) has meant that all motion picture production companies must now first secure the film rights of any previously published work before commissioning a screenplay.
There was also, significantly, a long-running theatrical adaptation of Wallace’s novel that played for 25 years on both Broadway and as a touring production from the late 1890s through to 1920.
Not long after the end of this near 25-year run, a second film attempt by Fred Niblo was made by MGM in 1926. With a $4-million budget and 143 minutes running time, this second silent film was the first feature attempt. And, post the 1959 classic, there was an animated straight-to-video version made in 2003, with the title character voiced by Heston – his last film. Which leaves us with our 2016 version.
We’ve definitely Ben Hur before, and it was much better then.
Banner Image: The iconic chariot race in Ben-Hur. Picture: Philippe Antonello © 2016 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Ben-Hur is on general release.