One of the greatest films of all time, a sacred touchstone of classic Hollywood cinema is no longer sacrosanct. “Ben-Hur” previously immortalized by the flamboyant Charleston Heston is reimagined by director Timur Bekmambetov.
You might recognize the Russian-Kazakh director from other films like “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer,” or “Wanted,” starring Angelina Jolie Pitt. He regularly directs intense action-packed dramas, often times with overblown CGI effects.
Yet perhaps he was the best choice to revisit the monolithic “Ben-Hur” story. The movie follows a similar path as the first, at least at first glance. But unlike the original, which centers on the friendship between a Judean prince and a Roman solider, the reimagined story has Judah Ben-Hur and Messala Severus as brothers—although Messala is adopted.
The change works—at least for this adaptation. It gives grounds for the intense bitterness when the two, now brothers, have a falling out. The story is set mostly in Jerusalem. The city is spectacularly rendered with its hills and cliffs. How close to reality it is can be debated, but there is something to be said for modern day historical fictions. While the city looks amazing, the citizens, namely the Ben-Hur family, appear only somewhat historical in their garments.
There are moments in costuming that will leave the historical purists scratching their heads. (There’s a moment when Ben-Hur and his new wife, Esther, are riding the same horse and Esther is wearing something like white yoga pants). Leaving aside the questionable costume choices, the story continues to unfold in a familiar pattern.
Ben-Hur and Messala start off as close as brothers can be, then Messala joins Emperor Tiberius’ campaign against Germania, eventually winning renown and prestige as he fights across the empire. He returns to Jerusalem in the company of Pontus Pilate and is set in a position to quell the “troublesome” Zealots. The Ben-Hur family doesn’t help nor do they hinder the Romans, but fortune frowns on them. An unfortunate incident forces the Romans’ hands and Ben-Hur’s mother and sister are arrested. The women are sentenced to death and Ben-Hur to a slower death via galley slave.
Surviving that he returns to Jerusalem after meeting with an African who specializes in chariot racing. There is the obligatory chariot race between Ben-Hur and Messala and you can probably fill in the rest. Woven throughout is the story of Jesus Christ.
Acting is what worked for this film. Jack Hudson, you might recognize from “American Hustle,” plays the hero Judah Ben-Hur. Opposite him Toby Kebbell as Messala. Also starring is Ayelet Zurer – one of Israel’s most acclaimed actresses, allegedly; Pilou Asbæk as Pontius Pilate; and Morgan Freeman, who plays the African, Ilderim.
A valiant effort was made to infuse the story with intensity and authenticity. Unlike Heston, Hudson’s Ben-Hur is down to earth and authentic. (You may recall Heston’s version as loud and dramatic). There is a real sense of pain between Ben-Hur and Messala. But this story is more about forgiveness rather than revenge. In the end, differences are reconciled.
However, the film struggles with balance. In terms of pacing, the movie starts slowly then rushes to a conclusion. There is a palatable “whiteness” in the casting that in this day and age is really unacceptable. Yet, perhaps the most unfeasible part of the entire film is Freeman. He did a remarkable job—in fact, Freeman can do no wrong. (He’s truly one of the gods of Hollywood). But that is exactly the issue. Instead of seeing his character, Ilderim, you see Freeman. He’s become too big to be put into a secondary role as the African chariot master.
As for the effects – director Bekmambetov did an admirable job. There seemed to be special attention paid to practical effects as well as CGI, which was a relief in many ways. The climactic chariot race scene will have you gripping your seat, despite some unrealistic elements.
It appears that Hollywood has an interest in remaking Biblical films. “Ben-Hur” follows on the heels of the disastrous “Noah” and the surprisingly good “Risen.” But does it compare to the original? Not really, but then this iteration is its own movie and really shouldn’t be compared to the original.
– Mesa resident Kaely Monahan is producer of Popcorn Fan Film Reviews.