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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Why the new Ben-Hur makes one appreciate the old


Gerald Schmitz

I’ll admit coming with already low expectations to this new 3D version of the story based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, a former Union general in the Civil War whose other claim to fame was as the New Mexico governor who signed Billy the Kid’s death warrant. As a kid I’d thrilled to watching the nearly four-hour 1959 classic in Saskatoon’s historic Capitol Theatre, sadly demolished in 1979. I savoured the viewing experience again a few months back thanks to the Turner Classic Movies TV channel. The fastest and highest grossing film of 1959 was directed by German-born immigrant William Wyler who’d been an uncredited assistant director on the original 1925 silent feature. His masterwork merited superlatives. Its 11 Oscar wins has been equalled twice since but never surpassed. It had the biggest budget to that time earning a box office second only to Gone With the Wind. Its extraordinary musical score remains the longest ever. The awesome chariot race sequence is among the most famous in movie history.

So what to make of this new Ben-Hur ( directed by the Russian-Kazakh immigrant to Hollywood Timur Bekmambetov? In the title role of the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur, can Jack Huston (a grandson of the great filmmaker John Huston) match the presence of 1959’s Charlton Heston? The short answers are not much and no.

Bekmambetov makes substantial changes to the narrative and adds inventions, none for the better. Judah grows up with the Roman orphan Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) as an adopted brother instead of childhood friend. They love racing horses against each other. Messala is also sweet on the beautiful sister Naomi. (Controversy followed the 1959 movie with suggestions that Gore Vidal, as one of its multiple scriptwriters, had slyly inserted a homoerotic undercurrent into the bromance, falling out, and vengeful rivalry between Judah and Messala. No chance of that here.)

Carrying a burden of ancestral guilt, Messala leaves to become a Roman centurion fighting alongside Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk, wasted). Returning in AD 28 from the empire’s savage wars, Pilate becomes prefect of Judea with Messala as his garrison commander. Given his ties to the Ben-Hur family, Messala plays the role of relative dove not wanting to antagonize the Jewish population while the hawks want Zealot rebels put down without mercy. But when a hotheaded Zealot named Dismas takes a shot at Pilate from within the Ben-Hur residence, Messala is forced into being the heavy. Judah is sentenced to be a galley slave. Five years later, following a ferocious naval battle that destroys the Roman fleet, he’s the sole survivor.

Washed ashore, Judah is found by Ilderim (Morgan Freeman under a mop of dreadlocks), an African desert sheik of some sort with a splendid foursome of white chariot-racing horses. Freeman also doubles as a voice-of-God narrator bookending the movie’s AD 25-33 span.

When Judah cures an ailing horse and proves he can master the reins, Ilderim takes Judah to Jerusalem in AD 33 where he uses his wealth and wiles to goad Pilate into a race in the new Circus Maximus pitting Judah against Messala, now Caesar’s champion, commanding four black steeds. It’s the ultimate fraternal grudge match for all the marbles. The whites will win of course. Shooting these climactic computer-enhanced scenes (who needs 50,000 extras these days) supposedly took three months. As in 1959, Rome’s famed Cinecittà studios were used. Comparisons end there. Bekmambetov’s chariot race is a wild mash-up, not a highlight reel. As the revenant Judah, Huston, with the long straggly locks of servitude shorn off, looks more fashion model than manly challenger.

Before we get to that, Messala learns the fate of his mother and sister. They weren’t executed as he thought but are locked away as lepers in a cave. Meanwhile Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), the servant he took as a wife, roams freely as a follower of the Nazarene messiah Jesus. The women are mostly ciphers, though. Jesus (Brazilian Rodrigo Santoro) makes several appearances uttering gospel bromides until, in suffering death by crucifixion, he promises paradise to Dismas on the cross. There’s a prior Garden of Gethsemane arrest, but no Pilate or subsequent resurrection, although a miraculous healing rain falls. The 1959 movie is both more restrained in never showing the face of Jesus and biblically more impressive.

Wonders continue as Judah embraces the injured defeated Messala in reconciliation and everyone lives happily ever after as the credits roll to the pop sounds of Andra Day singing “The Only Way Out.” Ugh.

For all its costly digital trickery, Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur is more glorified soap opera than widescreen epic. I couldn’t wait to exit this thoroughly misbegotten and totally unnecessary remake.