by Philip Price
There have been many a film versions of Lew Wallace's classic epic “Ben-Hur,” but of course the most notable is William Wyler's 1959 adaptation starring Charlton Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. It is a behemoth at three and a half hours and a product of a different time in Hollywood's history. A time when the studio system still reigned and historical/biblical epics were as hot as comic book movies are today. It was the success of Cecil B. DeMille's “The Ten Commandments” that also starred Heston that spurred MGM to invest $15 million (the most expensive film ever made at that point in time) in a new version of “Ben-Hur.” So, the question is: why re-make such a larger than life classic? Why even attempt to overcome the aura that surrounds a staple of popular culture as definitive as Wyler's “Ben-Hur”? While I questioned the reasoning for such a re-make it was easier to understand why an updated version of this story was necessary. The 1959 version is very much a product of its time and one that, through rose-tinted glasses, can only be seen as this great epic that nothing and no one can touch or challenge. It has gorgeous practical sets and thousands upon thousands of extras shot on panorama that gives it the impression of being that much larger in its scope. It is also a movie someone of not only my generation, but those likely born in the decade prior to me and certainly those born after me, can't see without the status as one of the biggest, best movies ever made. Heston is this mythical-type figure of the golden age of Hollywood that can never be touched and so to even try and match such larger than life precedents would be an immediate way to automatically disqualify one's self from even being considered a valid piece of filmmaking. Still, with the 1959 version being as intimidating as it is an updated, shorter and more current telling of the story might allow a way for modern audiences to find a way into the older version that they'd heard so much about. From the get-go director Timur Bekmambetov's (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) new version felt like it was going to be little more than a cheap knock-off (despite that $100 million production budget). Fortunately, while this 2016 take on Wallace's story is certainly the cliff notes version when compared to Wyler's it is surprisingly effective in accomplishing what it sets out to do and even has enough gumption to emphasize certain themes and actually develop characters rather than simply summarizing the previous versions with contemporary editing practices.
For those not familiar with the story of Judah Ben-Hur (played here by Jack Huston), he is a Prince of Judea who has a strong relationship with his adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) despite the fact their mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), somewhat resents Messala for spending so much time with her daughter and Judah's sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia). Tired of the resentment and given these events take place during the time of the Roman occupation of Israel which was once Judea, Messala leaves to enlist as a Roman soldier. As he works his way up through the ranks to become second in command only to Pontius Pilot (Pilou Asbæk who looks like a mix between Michael Shannon and Joshua Jackson) the Romans inevitably return to Judea where the reluctant Judah isn't going to be bullied into Messala's wishes of instructing his fellow Jewish people to stand down for the Romans that are coming through and taking over. Harboring a radical Jew in Dismas (Moises Arias) does Judah no favors though as the Romans initial trek through Judea is interrupted by an assassination attempt on Pilot from the rooftops of the house of Ben-Hur. This forces Messala to prove his allegiance and loyalty to the Romans by having to punish those he once called family. As a result, Messala banishes Judah to the bowels of the Roman ships as a galley slave and it is only through fate and good fortune that Judah survives after five years in the galleys and a battle at sea that he narrowly escapes; washing to shore in the aftermath of the battle and completely uncertain of how he might survive. It is here that Judah encounters Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), an elder who makes money off the Romans excessive nature and who will eventually teach Judah to become a champion-caliber chariot racer. It is through the sport of chariot racing that Judah will exact his revenge upon Messala despite the fact his wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), who barely escaped the clutches of the Romans five years earlier, begging him to let this quarrel with Messala go and spend this second chance he has been granted with her rather than in the shackles of hatred. Given the film opens with a glimpse at the moment we're all waiting for -- the chariot race -- we know what Judah will choose.
Though I haven't seen “The Young Messiah” or “God's Not Dead 2” I'd wager a bet “Ben-Hur” is the best faith-based film of the year so far as it opts not to shove its beliefs down your throat, but rather allow the beliefs of the characters to relay a thoughtfulness and credibility to a certain system of beliefs. It is in these characters that the strongest aspect of the film is revealed in the performances. Despite the fact it will forever exist in the shadow of Heston's portrayal, Huston genuinely delivers a great performance as Ben-Hur. This is especially evident in the ship sequence as not only does Huston have to embody a man who has been relentlessly beaten down for five years straight, but must also inhabit the mindset of this character that enjoyed 20 years of privilege prior. On the boat, as a slave, we are given much of his thought process and current mentality solely through looks and body language. We can see the cogs moving, suggesting what Judah's next move might be and it's telling in a way that were he simply yelling sporadically would not be as effective or insightful. Transitioning through this time jump Huston's Judah becomes a more cynical presence than he once was. Vowing to deny Esther's wishes to stay away from Messala by not letting him go unpunished for what he's done to them shows a vindictive personality that contradicts the teachings we've come to know in the Bible. This is, of course, meant to be something of an anti-parallel to the story of Jesus as both experience these spiritual journeys after being betrayed by men they thought of as friends. Speaking of Jesus, Rodrigo Santoro's portrayal of the Messiah brings an integrity and credibility to his few scenes that could just have easily gone the opposite direction. Per usual, Kebbell has been enlisted to play the villain of the piece, but fortunately for the typecast actor he has been given one of the more complex characters in the screenplay. In the beginning, Kebbell gives Messala layers of mystery. It's clear there is a deep love and bond between he and Judah, but given the circumstances of what comes to be we wonder whether or not Messala will remain conflicted or if he will simply become the full on antagonist. I hoped as the movie unfolded that Kebbell, being the talented performer he is, would continue to draw on this identity crisis of sorts that would add more weight to the climactic showdown between he and Judah and to some degree he does despite much of his character development was cut in favor of a brisker pace. A scene where Esther confronts Messala though, and begs for him to call off the race suggests he has completely turned whereas the choice to add a shot off him looking up from his food as Esther is escorted away suggests something deeper. It is this combination of strong performances and directorial subtlety that ultimately overcomes the inevitable comparisons and elevates this more streamlined version of the original text.
This brings us to the biggest fear I had walking into this latest telling of “Ben-Hur” in that I expected Bekmambetov to more or less go through the motions and deliver a generic, modern-action-movie take on the material. In the opening scene of his film though, Bekmambetov delivers a terribly violent sequence in which Judah and Messala are racing each other on horseback before Judah's horse trips and stumbles to the ground. Not only does this provide a bit of obvious foreshadowing in more ways than one, but it also allows the director to deliver a glimpse at the brutality-level the film will entail. This was again reassuring as I was skeptical that the violence and action set pieces of the film would largely be generated through special effects rather than practical stunts and would end up feeling more along the lines of amateurs re-creating the classic moments from the Heston version. More times than not though, Bekmambetov pulls the action off convincingly and ruthlessly. This is especially true in the aforementioned sea battle sequence where the director is forced to balance a mix of digital effects and practical sets and does so in a fashion that creates an authentically thrilling and emotionally anxious experience through the eyes of our main protagonist. Though the director favors his handheld camera technique, even when capturing intimate conversations and the shaky cam can get a little exhausting, there still seems to be a method to this choice. Specifically, Bekmambetov seems intent on keeping things kinetic; capturing the story in a very modern style so that it bears little resemblance to Wyler's film. Adding to this are actual nuances in directorial choices. Bekmambetov doesn't simply cover the necessary bases, but rather he has specificity to his shot choices and compositions that are integral to relaying certain emotional beats of the story or indicating specific actions or items that will come into play later. In short, it's not only a competently made film, but a thoughtful one as well. It has the necessary scope when it finally does reach the moment we've all been waiting for and Bekmambetov does well in re-creating one of the most iconic action spectacles ever put to film by demonstrating his own flairs as an action director that help to make the final act of the film as harrowing and exhilarating as possible. Sure, 2016's “Ben-Hur” won't recapture the Oscar glory of Wyler's Best Picture winner, but it contains fine performances and real substance which is more than I can say I expected from what looked like little more than another “Gladiator”/”300”-style knockoff.