Ben-Hur

September 2, 2016

Smaller than Ben-Hur! Hollywood’s most celebrated epic has been trimmed by an hour and forty minutes. Gone are the lengthy Overture and Entr’acte in which Miklos Rozsa’s bombastic music boomed against a detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but the new film also trims episodes deemed essential to the earlier adaptations of the story made in 1925 and 1959.

Having watched all three versions within a 24-hour period I now feel intimately acquainted with the adventures of Judah Ben-Hur, the fictional prince of Judea who is falsely accused by the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem, sent to the galleys, survives and makes his way in the Roman world, finally returning home to seek his revenge. Back in Jerusalem he is a witness to the Crucifixion, and devotes himself to Christ.

That is very roughly the plot of the first two Ben-Hur movies, with the big set pieces being the sea battle between Romans and pirates, and the great chariot race. In the current film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov of Kazakhstan, the set pieces remain but significant parts of the story have been altered. This Judah, played by fresh-faced Jack Huston, doesn’t save the life of Roman consul, Quintus Arrius, and become his adopted son. He doesn’t do lots of things that Ramon Novarro and Charlton Heston did in the same role.

Instead, Bekmambetov and his scriptwriters have expanded the relationship between Judah and Messala (Toby Kebble) the Roman orphan who was like Judah’s brother as a child, but would become his mortal enemy. For the first time we go back to their early years, watching Messala save Judah’s life before departing to seek his destiny in the Roman army. The two previous films, and the novel itself, introduce us to Judah and Messala at the point where the latter returns to Jerusalem as a Roman commander.

The youthful scenes prove to be pointless additions, while removing Judah’s Roman connection only makes him more one-dimensional. Another significant alteration to the way Judah, his mother and sister are arrested and accused of sedition, gives us the impression that our hero is foolish rather than honourable.

Since the chief motivation behind so many Hollywood remakes is to re-do famous scenes with the benefit of CGI it was always predictable that the sea battle and the chariot race would be given the treatment. It was just as predictable that these sequences would be remade in such an exaggerated manner that it would render them ridiculous.

One of the virtues of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur of 1959, was the careful attention to dialogue and detail. Even though the story is larger-than-life the characters act in a way that is psychologically plausible. Messala goes back to check the balcony from which a tile fell on the governor. Quintus Arrius takes a liking to Judah which seems slightly irrational, but today looks a lot like a homosexual crush. Even in the chariot race, when Judah is almost unseated but clambers back on board (in a spectacular example of the stuntman’s art), it’s believable.

In Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur, the action sequences are ludicrous while the script is so plodding that although the movie is 100 minutes shorter than its predecessor it becomes tedious every time there is an exchange of words. This was never the case with Karl Tunberg’s screenplay for the Wyler film, which is filled with moments of wit and profundity. Tunberg’s uncredited collaborators included S.N.Behrman, Gore Vidal and Chrstopher Fry.

The profundity in the new film is supplied by Morgan Freeman in the role of Sheik Ilderim, who drones on and on in the most boring manner. One thinks fondly of Hugh Griffith playing the same role in blackface in the 1959 film, stealing the show with his antics.

The Wyler film is best at developing the romantic subplot between Judah and the slave girl, Esther, but the sexiest version of Ben-Hur is Fred Niblo’s pre-code silent film, which contains glimpses of bare breasts and buttocks. The grandeur of this movie is also breathtaking, having cost US$4 million (that’s US$54 million in today’s currency). The 1959 film had a then-record budget of US$15,175,000 (ie. US$124 million today). The budget for the 2016 version was approximately US$100 million, and the results are humdrum.

Wyler’s Ben-Hur won 11 Academy awards, a record that has since been equalled by Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Don’t expect Bekmembatov’s movie to feature in next year’s ceremonies.

It would be unfair to say that every remake of a famous film is a disaster but this seems to be true of most examples. The new Ben-Hur may be an attempt to cash on the vogue for religious films set by Mel Gibson with his The Passion of the Christ (2004), or it may simply be an example of a director overreaching his abilities. To be credible a remake has find a different path into a familiar story or a different way to imagine a leading character. Bekmembatov obviously understands this need, but all of his changes suggest that with when it comes to re-envisaging the archetypal Hollywood blackbuster it’s a uphill race in a creaky chariot.

Ben-Hur

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Written by Keith Clarke & John Ridley, after the novel by Lew Wallace

Starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbaek, Sofia Black-D’Elia

USA, rated M, 123 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 3 September, 2016.