Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace’s sprawling 8-part novel first published in 1880, is an epic.
Ben-Hur, the spectacular – and notorious – 1925 silent film with a “cast of thousands”, also an epic.
Ben-Hur, William Wyler’s 1959 65mm masterpiece that became Charlton Heston’s signature role, featured an unforgettable score by Miklós Rózsa, weighed in at nearly four hours, and wiped the floor at the Academy Awards? Most definitely an epic.
Ben-Hur, a 2016 remake of the tale directed by Timur Bekmambetov and hitting Blu-ray this week — is not.
And therein lies the key to approaching this latest adaptation of one of the best-selling and most beloved American literary classics. So grand is the achievement of the 1959 film that even now, any attempt to revisit the story is inescapably engulfed in its shadow. On the one hand, I certainly agreed that the film should not be remade. The 1959 version is one of my personal favorites, and any new adaptation would surely fall short. I’m simply not interested, especially under the direction of Timur Bekmambetov, whose films of which I’ve seen are cluttered and incomprehensible (Nochnoi Dodor, Dnevnoi Dozor) or mean-spirited and juvenile (Wanted).
But on the other hand, that’s all a bit cynical and hypocritical, isn’t it? The 1959 film is, after all, itself a remake. And yet, it’s afforded an uncommon level of reverence and scrutiny. Other great literary characters from the same era like Dracula, Frankenstein, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and The Phantom Of The Opera, are endlessly revisited on film both as adaptations and in new contexts (I would also point to Sherlock Holmes, but his episodic adventures unbalance the equation). Because of its stature as a film, Ben-Hur has remained untouched.
But for whatever reason, Biblical films are hot and now it’s okay to revisit Charlton Heston material (see also: Exodus), so here here are.
Does the new version somehow pull off a miracle and eclipse its predecessor?
Ha ha ha, good Lord, no.
But it does perhaps do the next best thing, which is to differentiate itself and attempt to defy such comparisons.
Ben-Hur is, in all its iterations, the tale of a wealthy New Testament-era Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur. He is betrayed by his best friend Messala, who left years ago to serve in the Roman army and returned a cruel and unforgiving man. After a falling out, Messala accuses Judah of treachery against the empire. Swearing his revenge, Judah is imprisoned as a galley slave, and his mother and sister also sentenced to some unknown fate. After impossibly escaping the galleys when his ship is destroyed, he rebuilds his life and plans his revenge, eventually contesting Messala in a grand chariot race at the Circus Maximus. Throughout his life, Judah has several encounters with the incarnate Jesus Christ, each impacting his soul, teaching him compassion, and ultimately affecting his worldview.
Rather than offer up a sprawling, measured epic about a man’s life journey, BH16 (just go with it) does everything it can to alter the tone and narrative while adhering to the core story. Despite clocking it at 2 hours, it’s a pretty action-packed affair that moves at a good clip. Certain aspects of the story, even very important ones, are greatly trimmed or excised altogether. Major characters Quintus Arrius (the Roman officer who adopts Judah) and Balthasar (Judah’s friend and a follower of Christ) are notably missing, some aspects of them rolled into Morgan Freeman’s Sheikh Ilderim where required by the story.
The changes in tone and narrative extend even to the story’s inciting conflict. Rather than the accident of a sun-baked tile falling from the Hur house’s roof and injuring a Roman governor below, this version has an actual assassination attempt perpetrated by an insurgent hiding on the roof. Not only does this seem like a cheap attempt to juice up the film’s action quotient, but it makes the Hurs look more guilty – and thus Messala more justified in his decision to punish them. The insurgent incident rubbed me the wrong way, though in its defense it has a gut-wrenching payoff later that softened my criticism on the matter. The changes to Messala, though, are harder to swallow.
This depiction of Messala is doubtlessly the film’s biggest shake-up. Cast straightforwardly as the villain in pretty much every previous incarnation of the story, he’s much more sympathetic and fleshed out here, betraying the Hur family because of pressure from his Roman peers rather than out of pure spite (or as a spurned lover, as some have read the 1959 film). So radically altered is this version of the character, that the film actually takes his story arc in a very different direction than we’ve seen previously – the result of which is sure to be the film’s most polarizing aspect.
More thoughts on Messala – MAJOR SPOILERS WITHIN
Interestingly, this film takes one of the biggest criticisms of the story and attacks it head on. Ben-Hur has always expressed a certain cognitive dissonance in being an unapologetically Christian story, yet also espousing personal vengeance as its protagonist’s motivating force. Of course, Judah chooses to follow Christ after taking his revenge, but that’s kind of a cop-out, isn’t it? “Vengeance is mine; I will repay”, saith the Lord.
The film actually ends with the unthinkable conclusion of the Hur family and Messala burying the hatchet and essentially going back to the way things were before. I didn’t outright hate this change, but I do resent it. I’m all for forgiveness but I think it takes most of the bite out of the story. In the 1959 take, Messala shows the opposite path: whereas Judah eventually chooses to give up bitterness and resentment and embrace love, Messala is doomed by his hatred and misery.
I’ve heard defenders of the film try to justify it as “not a remake” and “a new adaptation” of the novel, and that’s really cute. There’s no question that BH16 veers the narrative further from the novel, rather than closer to it. But there’s one aspect, at least, in which I think the novel was a source of inspiration, and that’s its handling of Jesus Christ. In both the 1925 and 1959 films, Christ’s appearances were reverent and godlike, visually assuming a holy aura and never showing His face. BH16 shows Christ in his humanity, played with beautiful humility and purity by Rodrigo Santoro (in the absolute furthest possible god-man performance from 300’s Xerxes).
BH16 is by no means a better film, but it is a more accessible one. I have problems with its narrative but enjoyed it overall, which is really a lot more than I ever expected to be able to say for it. Were the specter of the 1959 version not a factor, it would probably have been better embraced and appreciated on the strength of its merit. Jack Huston is likeable in the lead role, which is of course of utmost importance. Not surprisingly, the film’s chaotic action sequences are a highlight, which makes sense since that’s Bekmambetov’s forte. On that note, this is almost certainly the most mature and engaging thing that the director has ever done. I’m not a fan of his work, but he did step up and put his best foot forward for this one.
Ben-Hur raced onto Blu-ray this week from Paramount and MGM. It’s a fairly standard but attractive package. The combo pack also includes a DVD as well as both UV and iTunes digital copies. My copy included a slipcover and a $10 Movie Card voucher.
— CultOfBluRayAddicts (@COBRAcollector) December 9, 2016
Special Features and Extras
The Legacy (10:37)
It’s clear that the producers and filmmakers are aware of the shadow the 1959 film and approaching their take with that in mind. I especially liked the inclusion of Carol Wallace, a descendant of Lew Wallace who discusses her forebear’s life and work.
The Epic Cast (12:10)
Highlighting the primary cast, both in terms of the characters and actors.
A Tale For Our Times (15:25)
On creating a fresh new take on the story with modern sensibilities under the direction of Timur Bekmambetov.
The Chariot Race (10:37)
On approaching and creating the film’s biggest setpiece.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (10:23)
The usual smattering, though there are a couple of great things here that I’m shocked were ultimately left out.
Three music videos which mix in footage from the movie; continuing the groan-inducing tradition of including CCM pop videos or soundtracks with any ostensibly Christian movie. The Mary Mary one is admittedly kinda catchy, though.
“Back To You” by Mary Mary (3:38)
“Ceasefire” by King And Country (4:14), plus Behind The Scenes (1:00)
“The Only Way Out” by Andra Day (3:40), plus Behind The Scenes (:50)