This past week has been a double dose of ‘reimagined’ classic films, specifically, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Ben-Hur.' In my recent review of the western, I had to admit that there was a valid reason for revisiting the themes and sufficient amount of entertainment value to stand on its own. Unfortunately, the epic tale of ancient Rome did not survive the process intact. One of the few valid reasons for remaking such an iconic movie is that it contains such universal themes as to reveal a fundamental truth of the human condition. Movies such as this deserve to be remade every generation or so, filtered through their experiences and values. While such themes are present in ‘Ben-Hur,' this incarnation of the story was unable to do them justice properly. The filmmaker, Timur Bekmambetov, has only been active as a director’s 2000. Among his most notable movies today include the exceptionally bizarre ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,' the physics pending action movie, ‘Wanted’ and arguably his best films, ‘Day Watch/ Night Watch.' The failure of this film to succeed should not fully reflect on the talents of this man. Few filmmakers can even approach the mastery of the 1959 iconic movie of the same name, William Wyler. Also, the cast of that film included an all-star cast including such legendary performers as Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. Finally, such an epic story required almost 4 hours to relate to the audience. This recent movie reduces the time by nearly half of the running late just over two hours. Much has to be sacrificed while cutting a film by the running the length of an entire movie. Sacrifice for expediency was character development in the pool estimation of the main themes. The source material adapted from Lew Wallace's 1880 novel ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’is intact with a few notable exclusions.Although Jesus Christ is featured in the appropriate moments, the impact was made so inconsequential allowing it to be removed completely for distribution in several countries.
The opening of the movie bypasses any attempt at character introduction or setting up the story. That goes directly into the most famous scene of the 1959 movie, the chariot race at the Circus Maximus. True, is only a brief glimpse were shattering the upcoming 10-minute segment of the story, but it did come across as a contrivance whose only purpose to tease the audience and hopefully take their mind off the aspects lacking in the movie. The scene segues from Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) in an intense horse race with his adopted Roman brother, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). Judah is drawn from his horse and severely injured, but Messala carries his injured friend back home. There he can be nursed back to health by his mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and his younger sister Tirzah (Ayelet Zurer). There is a budding romance between Messala and Tirzah by the union between a Roman citizen, and a Jew was tightly regulated. Despite being created as part of the family, Messala Pierce disconnected from his Roman heritage. To establish his growth and reputation, he joins the Roman legion currently fighting a campaign in Germany.
Three years go by, and Messala has become a highly respected officer in the Roman army. During that time Judah has become drawn to the young Jewish woman Esther (Nazanin Boniadi). Since Judah is a prince among his people and Esther comes from a much lower status relationship is not possible. The situations are preventing happiness for both Judah and Messala demonstrating in microcosm the bitter hatred between Romans and Jews, helping establish how dangerous it was that Judah provided shelter and medical care to a young Zealot youth named Dismas (Moisés Arias). The dire circumstances of exacerbated Esther’s father, Simonides (Haluk Bilginer), arrange for a Roman marriage officer with political influence.
The pivotal dramatic moment occurs when new Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) enters Jerusalem to take up residence. During his procession into the city, people take to the streets and rooftops to watch. Judah and his family are watching from the roof as Dismas attempts to assassinate the governor with the bow and arrow. Differing significantly from how this moment was played out in 1959. Then it was an accident with Judy’s mother, and sister is launching a piece of masonry that crashed into the ground barely missing the government. Here it is a deliberate act of sedition through the highlighting the rebellious attitude developing among the Jewish population. Centurions are dispatched to break into the home in search of a would-be assassin. To protect his family and rather than betraying a fellow Jew, Judah confesses to the crime. He is immediately arrested and taken away sentenced to prolonged suffering and certain death as a slave on a Roman galley. As he is bound and taken away, he stumbles and exhausted request a drink of water. The soldier forbids it but a carpenter, Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro). The soldier tries to prevent it as a single serene glance from Jesus he backs down.
Judah is placed under the command of Quintus Arius (James Cosmo) and a Roman galley. For five years his life consists of being chained to a bench pulling an oar to the time of a beating drum. The relationship between Judah and the officer is completely omitted to remove the portion of the story that has an adopted and brought back to Rome. Instead, it a naval battle to destroy the ship but in this telling, only Judah manages to survive. He washes up on shore and found by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). The Sheik is about to turn him into the Romans to retain his status, and property Judah notices that one of his prize white stallions is sick. He tells his new that he knows how to treat the horse and strikes a bargain or his freedom. The horses cured, and eventually Judah becomes part of the Sheik’s company. The base Sheik earned a lucrative living by betting on chariot races entering his team. When the regular driver is injured in Judah demonstrates great ability as a driver Ilderim allows him to drive for him. They are about to return to Rome to enter an international race at the Circus Maximus. Judah discovers that Messala was going to race on behalf of the Romans he has a chance for revenge. His former adoptive brother had an opportunity to help after the assassination attempt but did nothing. As a result, the new Governor orders the arrest of Judah’s mother and sister but due to their social status avoided an immediate death sentence commuted to banishment to a leper colony. Judah plans the kill Messala and receives the wise counsel of the Sheik and how to do it during the race since there is no law applicable in the Circus. The actual racing sequence is admittedly exciting although forgoing the blades on the bureaus of a rival chariot. The main difference in this interpretation is that the Sheik is moving around the track shouting helpful instructions to Judah. There is another scene with Jesus that mirrors his interaction with Judah. As Jesus was being led off to his death, he stumbles, and Judah steps forward to give him water. As he dies the skies darkened as a turd of rain falls on the land. It immediately cures everyone in the leper colony including Judah’s mother and sister.
This film follows on the heels of another biblical epic, ‘Noah.' Because of the religious controversy surrounding this movie and its interpretation of the Scriptures the producers of this movie were exceptionally cautious and held the religious scenes were presented. As noted they were also quick to entirely remove them in markets where Judeo-Christian scenes might be construed as offensive. Considering the subtitle of the novel was ‘A Tale of the Christ,' it is disconcerting that all references to Jesus will reduce to a nearly inconsequential thread in the story. The entire story lacks the depth of character development and gravitas suitable for an epic. It comes across as an awkwardly paste action movie punctuated by the scenes of the naval battle in the chariot race. I doubt that any cinephile will discuss this film 2075, the 59 years that the previous version has endured thus far.