By Jeff Boudreaux
When I first saw the advertisements for this seemingly unnecessary retread of “Ben-Hur” in the lobby of my local multiplex, I must say that my initial reaction was a combination of both anger and bewilderment. How on Earth could there be even the most minute justification to remake a motion picture that not only garnered 11 Oscars, but is appropriately considered as one of the greatest films of all-time? Honestly, I thought that this production’s very existence was an insult, comparable to the prospect of Tinseltown deciding that it’s time for an updated filming of “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” or “The Godfather.” After all, the crowning achievement of “perfection” in filmdom cannot be improved upon, so what’s the point? How did it work out for Universal and Gus Van Sant, when they decided to do a scene-for-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” in 1998? To say the result was ill-advised is a vast understatement, but that’s the obvious risk filmmakers must be willing to take when they try to revisit a film property that is properly tagged as a “classic.”
Granted, Director William Wyler’s 1959 epic (released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during the last breadth of the corporation’s placement atop the classic Hollywood studio system) was in itself a remake of one of MGM’s own properties – a 1925 adaptation that was one of the recently-merged studio’s first major hits (and around the very same time when co-founder and legendary mogul Louis B. Mayer was just breaking into his decades-long, iron-fisted rule of the celebrated studio.) Yet, I believe that most people would agree that the advent of advanced photographic techniques (i.e. MGM Camera 65, the studio’s 65mm answer to Cinemascope at Fox, and the precursor to Panavision) and most importantly, the thirty-year-old existence of sound in motion pictures, managed to warrant an updated adaptation of General Lew Wallace’s timeless “Tale of the Christ.” Now, I could go on and on about that film and how great it was, but I’m not reviewing the “Best Picture” winner of 1959 or even the 1925 silent film. I’m here to tell you about the 2016 version of a story that I initially had no great desire to see. I was, and probably always will be, a slave to classic film. However, after viewing MGM’s third shot (with help from Paramount, since MGM is no longer a stand-alone studio) at the biblical (yet non-scriptural) epic, I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the differences between this new script by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley and that of Karl Tunberg’s classic screenplay (the lone loss out of 12 nominations in 1959).
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) is a wealthy prince in Jerusalem, where he lives with his mother Naomi, sister Tirzah and adoptive brother and best friend Messala (Toby Kebbell of “Fantastic Four”), a man of Roman heritage. Presumably, in part, because of Naomi’s disapproval of the attraction between her daughter and adoptive son, Messala decides that it is time for him to pledge his allegiance to Caesar and fight for the Roman Empire. Leaving Judah on good terms, he does just that and proves himself a great warrior, becoming garrison to the new Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk of “Game of Thrones”). Meanwhile, Judah finds happiness by marrying a slave girl named Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), even as most of the populace of Jerusalem isn’t exactly gung-ho about existing under Roman rule, showcased by an increasing number of “Zealots” that begin violently uprising against the invading soldiers. After Judah harbors and treats the wounds of an injured zealot, the man repays him by shooting an arrow at a passing Pilate from Judah’s balcony! Unwilling to name the man that caused such a display of insurrection, Judah is taken prisoner, away from his wife and family, even as he pleads with Messala not to punish them.
Taken as a slave and placed onto a galley where he toils as a rower for five long years, a twist of fate (in the form of a disastrous battle at sea) finally frees him from bondage when his ship is destroyed. As he makes his way to land, he is discovered by a Sheik named llderim (Morgan Freeman), who recognizes Judah as a slave but grants him his freedom when he proves his worth by saving a fallen horse from death. After all, the Sheik relies on the good health of his horses and as the two men become close, llderim trains Judah in the ways of chariot-racing, a new sport which has taken Jerusalem by storm. And once Ben-Hur realizes that Messala is the champion of the so-called Roman “circus,” Judah devotes all of his energy to exact revenge upon his former brother and to finally learn of the horrifying fate of his mother and sister. Yet, throughout every stage of Ben-Hur’s life, his journey continually intersects with another Judean who has raised the ire of the Romans – a man named Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro).
I’ll be the first to tell you that I am guilty of erroneously surmising that the Christian aspects that propagated William Wyler’s epic would be marginalized in this version. Well, that is simply untrue and should come as no surprise when one learns that the executive producers of this adaptation are none other than Hollywood’s own faith-based power couple – Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, coming off of the success of the epic television miniseries “The Bible” and the feature-film that was derived from it, 2014’s “Son of God.” Simply put, there’s actually more screen time devoted to the character of Jesus in this film, as it compares to the 1959 version. Wyler’s film chose to depict Christ by not showing his face, and it came off as a remarkably reverent decision at that time, since the last major onscreen depiction of the Messiah came 32 years earlier in Cecil B. Demille’s “The King of Kings.” MGM would ultimately remake that film just two years after the release of “Ben-Hur,” and like its predecessor featured a full-bodied Jesus. Since every other depiction of Christ onscreen that I can think of also offers a facial rendering of him, it doesn’t bother me that this film gets its money’s worth out of the casting of Rodrigo Santoro (“300,” “Focus”).
Jack Huston does manage to do a fine job in the lead role, and even though this actor isn’t widely-known, he does come from the lineage of Hollywood royalty, being the grandson of one of the all-time great directors – John Huston (“The African Queen,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”), which of course also makes him the nephew of a terrific actress named Angelica Huston. Regardless of the success of this big-screen spectacle, I can only expect that we’ll see a lot more of this talented actor in the years to come. I do believe that having a visionary director such as Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) at the helm was a very good move on the part of the producers. He has proven in his short, yet dynamic resume that he can convey action onscreen unlike any other director. I guess that’s why the most famous scene in this movie (and of course – its predecessor) is the Roman chariot race, and Bekmambetov doesn’t disappoint in the least. It’s fascinating to watch, even if you’ve seen that Oscar-winning battle between Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd a hundred times previously. That, my friends, is the mark of a good filmmaker.
While I expected to hate this movie because of the standard that I have to invariably hold it to, I wound up greatly appreciating the fact that it’s not just another remake, but rather a solid adaptation of a timeless story. With a running time that is slightly more than half of Wyler’s classic, those looking for a fluid representation that contains both an action-packed narrative and/or elements of spiritual redemption shouldn’t be disappointed either way. The undying message of love and forgiveness that is conveyed throughout, and especially at the end of this film manages to make up for any of its own shortcomings. It’s obvious that the next step for me is to actually view the 1925 film so my comparisons of Wallace’s “Tale of the Christ” can come full circle, much like the breathtaking chariot races that I’ve had the pleasure to witness in both the Wyler version and Bekmambetov’s welcome update.
*** (three out of four stars)