New ‘Ben-Hur’ Nowhere Near As Good As Old


The new version of Ben-Hur is a disaster. When I first heard there might be a remake of the classic, my first reaction was, “Why?” The 1959 version won 11 Academy Awards and is ranked among the best films ever.

The original was made for a bit over $15 million, and it seems every penny’s worth is shown on screen. The famous chariot race is classic. I assumed that since a lot more money was spent on the new version, it would be spectacular. Unfortunately, it was not.

The story, based on a novel written after the Civil War by Union Gen. Lew Wallace, is focused strongly on a group of people living near Jerusalem during the time of Christ. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish nobleman, grows up with adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Messala takes off to join the Roman army because of family issues and later accuses Judah of treason because Judah’s family will not allow him to marry into it.

In the book, and in previous versions, a broken roof tile falls and scares the Roman governor’s horse, which brings Judah up on charges. In this film, a Hebrew rebel fires an arrow at the man and Judah, who had preached nonviolence, accepts blame. He winds up condemned to be a galley slave pretty much until death.

Unlike in previous versions, he escapes because of a shipwreck (no fancy battle scenes) and winds up in North Africa, where Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) admires his ability with horses. That leads up to the chariot races.

Small changes in the plot do make a difference. In earlier versions, chance (or fate) plays a major role in determining Ben-Hur’s life. Here he chooses to accept the punishment, making the movie far more political. Since he had also preached nonviolence, why accept blame? And even more to the point, why hate Messala so much?

Keep in mind that the full title of the book was Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) does appear in this movie, but seemingly more as an afterthought. There is a rushed crucifixion scene and a handful of other ones where he makes an appearance but barely ever touches on the main story.

In the 1959 version, every time Charlton Heston, who won an Oscar for his Ben-Hur portrayal, spoke, you almost felt biblical authority behind it (perhaps because he had recently finished playing Moses in The Ten Commandments). Here, Huston seems much diminished. There is just about no charisma.

In the old movie, there was a homoerotic underpinning (Messala seemingly had his eyes on Judah), which helped explain some of the emotional heat. Here, as noted above, Judah chose to accept his punishment although Messala did lie about him. All of this created a rather muddled plot.

Director Timur Bekmambetov made choices that were different from the original. One worked well; during the galley scenes we only saw things through the very small oar holes used by the slaves. This limited our view just as it was limited for Ben-Hur. On the other hand, the chariot race seemed to be shot with a hand-held camera in tight shots. There were none of the dramatic wide screen shots that were a brilliant highlight of the previous movie. Another weakness: The religious scenes, which admittedly were overly portentous in the 1959 version, were almost perfunctory here. The director and writers seemed inclined to make this more of a political movie.

The cast was not really up to playing the major roles. Huston, grandson of actor-director John Huston, did not have the charisma, drive or acting skills needed for this complex role. Kebbell suffered from the poor writing. He seemed mainly concerned with his own feelings of rejection. Of course, Freeman was excellent; he was the one person who brought dignity and power to his role. Unfortunately, it was not necessarily one that required it.

Santoro as Jesus was not as strong as the performer in the older movie, who was actually not a performer at all. William Wyler, director of the classic, showed people reacting to Jesus rather than Jesus himself. And it was far more powerful than what we see in this one.

So, skip it. Even worse, every time the no-talent hacks of Hollywood do their remakes (and none of them comes even close to being as good as the originals) we never get to see the originals again. Television turns away from the old versions to show the inferior new ones. In the future, we’ll have to settle for this version, and that is why I disapprove of the people behind it.