Ben-Hur movie director: Timur Bekmambetov
Ben-Hur movie cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman
Watching the square-jawed, granite-chiselled resolve of Charlton Heston in a Roman arena, it was easy to forget that before it became about a chariot race, Ben-Hur was a bestseller book that called itself ‘A Tale of the Christ’.
From resolve to arenas and chariots to Christ, things are rarely Heston-simple anymore. Throw in Middle-East, Jerusalem, occupiers and ‘freedom’, and his conservative heart would quail at this sort of political interpretation of the 1880 classic.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince in this new film, and the Roman Messala (Toby Kebbell) his half-brother. Judah is in love with a slave, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), while Messala loves Judah’s sister. Judah’s family may have adopted Messala after he turned up at their door as an orphan, but Judah’s mother doesn’t take kindly to the budding affair between her daughter and Messala. In this version, Messala’s realisation that he would never have the same standing as Judah’s family in Jerusalem leads him to search for a place for himself in the Roman army. The Romans are invading new territories and Messala carves out a place in those battles.
However, rather than just ram the two against each other, as in the 1959 William Wyler-directed version, Bekmambetov tries to establish motives for both Judah and Messala. And it has got nothing to do with a possible sexual attraction between the two, as latter-day interpretations of the 1959 film, fuelled by co-screenwriter Gore Vidal, suggested.
Judah here is a pacifist, who turns a blind eye even to the growing Roman atrocities as long as they don’t touch his family. Messala is ever-conscious of his grandfather’s betrayal of the Roman Empire, and so willing to go the extra length to overlook what he realises is unnecessary violence by Caesar. Judah and Messala only come to war when those two beliefs clash.
Judah gets to lecture on the use of a kid — significant in the Jerusalem context — to wage political violence. Messala talks about how no one can rule a land by being purely an occupier. At another time, a body covered in dust is paraded by people thirsting for blood, in an image resonant of many recent battles, waged not too far away.
Even Jesus (Spanish actor Santoro) pops up here and there, steering the film towards a larger message of mercy and forgiveness.
Yet, it is in its 3D action-filled sequences that the Ben-Hur of Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) really comes alive. Whether it is in the superbly shot ship galleys where Judah is banished to work as a slave, or the chariot race that packs the same sweat, blood and adrenalin of the original.
Still, impressive as these sequences are, they do not carry the punch they once may have done because it is many, many years after 1959, and even several years after 300 and its 3D re-imagination of godly mythologies.
Morgan Freeman, the only well-known actor in the film, plays the role of Ilderim, an Arab sheikh in dreadlocks, who gives Judah a chance for revenge. He has been better, particularly when counselling defeated proteges.
While Bekmambetov couldn’t be faulted for trying to keep a distance from the 1959 version — and who wouldn’t, given its monstrous 11 Oscars — where Ben-Hur ultimately fails is in how far it seeks to travel. Its ending even further dilutes whatever little impact its sympathetic viewing of Biblical characters may have generated, showing it up for half-hearted at best.
And Huston, sincere, earnest, gentle-eyed and long-haired as he is, is a hero of modern sensibilities, who will go into an arena wearing a white shirt and trousers. When you must put a man on a chariot, racing himself to death, to fell the pride of an empire, you may as well do a Heston.