Former American Civil War Union Army General Lew Wallace wrote his classic bestseller “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” in 1880 while he presided over the New Mexico Territory as Governor during the notorious days of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War. Eventually, Wallace’s novel surpassed sales of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s slavery saga “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which had been published in 1852, and held the record for over 30 years. “Ben-Hur” remained atop the bestseller’s list until Margaret Mitchell’s Confederate romance “Gone with the Wind” topped it in 1936. Written during the Gilded Age, Wallace’s ambitious novel about ancient Rome, Jesus, and chariot racing may challenge contemporary readers. Wallace wrote with what might be described as an idiosyncratic style. The cluttered prose is often a chore to peruse, and the author pauses during action to occasionally address the reader. Most of today’s authors don’t resort to such stylistic contrivances. Comparably, it is like the difference between the way people acted in silent movies with exaggerated gestures as opposed to the restrained performances in modern films. Most people know about the novel “Ben-Hur” because the 1959 cinematic adaptation garnered eleven Oscars including Best Picture. Initially, in 1907, filmmakers produced an unauthorized version of “Ben-Hur” without acquiring the literary rights. The producers jam-packed Wallace’s masterpiece into thirteen inadequate minutes. Later, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced the 1925 version that remains one of the costliest silent films. Budgeted at almost $5 million, the 1925 adaptation boasted a demolition derby chariot race, too. Although it lacks the polish of MGM’s 1959 version that ran 212 minutes, the silent version contains early examples of Technicolor sequences and clocked in at 143 minutes. Inevitably, the 1959 version is remembered best, while the 1925 is nonetheless memorable in its own right. Unfortunately, the fourth cinematic adaptation of “Ben-Hur” (** OUT OF ****) is neither as profitable nor as enthralling as its predecessors.
In spite of that, “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov and his scenarists–“The Way Back” writer Keith R. Clarke and “12 Years A Slave” scribe John Ridley–have retained the quintessential scenes in Wallace’s text, namely the assassination attempt, the sea battle against the pirates, the Jesus episodes, and the careening chariot race. Nevertheless, Bekmambetov and company have altered so many details that the story loses its ingenuity. While some changes must have seemed logical, the filmmakers shouldn’t have tampered with such a timeless sure-fire story. The adage—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—summarizes this senseless re-imagination of “Ben-Hur.” Bekmambetov and company have changed the incident that prompted the arrest of our protagonist, affluent Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur, and devastated both his life and his family. In the novel, the assassination attempt occurred when Ben-Hur accidentally dislodged a roof tile and it struck a high-ranking Roman official as he was riding through Jerusalem past the palatial Hur residence. In the 2016 version, Ben-Hur has provided sanctuary for a fanatical Jewish zealot, Gesas (Moisés Arias), who abhors Roman oppression, and Gesas wields a bow and arrow and tries to skewer the unsuspecting Roman. Ben-Hur harbors the zealot and accepts blame for the incident. After his arrest, our hero is condemned to certain death as an oarsman aboard a Roman galley plying the Mediterranean Sea. In the two previous movies, our hero survived a pirate attack on his galley and at the same time rescued the Roman admiral of the fleet. The noble Roman leader Arrius freed Ben-Hur from bondage and then adopted him as his son. Bekmambetov has deleted the benevolent Roman admiral and shifted the emphasis to the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman of “Unforgiven”), who replaces Arrius as Ben-Hur’s benefactor. Now, Ben-Hur doesn’t rescue Arrius, but the Sheik rescues our hero after he finds him adrift on a fragment of the galley sail. Moreover, Bekmambetov has changed the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. In the two earlier films, Messala and Ben-Hur came from different families, and they had been friends in their youth. They grow distant after Messala returned from Rome and treats the Jewish prince with racist contempt. Later, after he has failed to convert Ben-Hur as an informant against his people, Messala treats him as a sworn enemy. In the 2016 version, Messala is Ben-Hur’s adopted brother! The role of Christ qualifies as the most radical transformation in “Ben-Hur.” In the 1925 version, either a celestial light bathed Jesus or his disciples artfully obscured him. In the 1959 Charlton Heston classic, when we see Jesus, the Son of God isn’t depicted in full figure. We only see his hand when he quenches Ben-Hur’s thirst, and he carries the cross in such a way as to conceal his face. In a sense, Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) becomes more of a historical figure in Bekmambetov’s version than the spiritual personage in the earlier films.
Bekmambetov has cast two largely unknown actors as his leads. Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell respectively portray Judah Ben-Hur and Messala. You might think that two Hollywood studios—Paramount Pictures & MGM–making a tent-pole blockbuster, allegedly exceeding $100-million, would have played it safe with prominent stars, like Mark Walhberg, Ben Affleck, Gerard Butler, Henry Cavill, or Matthew McConaughey. Presumably, Bekmambetov must have sought to offset some of the enormous cost with anonymous actors like Huston and Kebbell. Although he has been acting since 2004, Jack Huston has neither a name nor a reputation for himself. Sadly, Huston generates little charisma as Ben-Hur and lacks the statue to project his valor. Toby Kebbell isn’t as terribly miscast as Huston. Ironically, Messala emerges far more sympathetic than Ben-Hur. The animosity smoldering between these two guys seems incredibly anemic. Ultimately, not even the rip-snorting chariot race can redeem “Ben-Hur” for all the liberties taken by Bekmambetov and company to differentiate it from either the 1925 version or the celebrated 1959 magnum opus. Despite its impressive sets, authentic-looking locations, and spectacular chariot race, “Ben-Hur” qualifies as more of a ‘been there, seen that’ than a sterling adaptation.