Two brothers are pitted against one another as Rome rules with an iron fist
As the summer draws to a close, so too do the big blockbusters of the season and it only seems right to finish with an epic - oh and it’s another remake as well.Released in all its Super Panavision 70mm glory back in 1959 (there was also an earlier 1929 silent adaptation) and directed by William Wyler, Ben-Hur was a big screen adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel of the same title. Starring Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur was the most expensive film ever made at the time, taking many years to prepare and over a year to shoot on location in Italy. With huge sets built and thousands of extras hired, it wasn’t exactly done half heartedly and when it was released it won a record 11 Academy Awards. So what could a remake offer that the original film didn't in its three and a half hour running time?Beginning with the start of a scene from the ending it swiftly cuts back to 8 years earlier where we see a young Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell) racing each other on horseback. The two young men are adoptive brothers belonging to rich Jewish royalty in Judea and have a bond that is only broken when Messala returns from battle within the Roman army having risen up within the ranks. Determined to prove his worth and his loyalty to Rome and it’s emperor, Messala is forced to cut all ties with the Ben-Hur family and what follows is a story of revenge and forgiveness.
The story as a whole is almost identical to the 1959 film apart from cutting out a few bits here and there to get the running time down to just over two hours. And if you have seen the original you will definitely notice this reduction and attempt to skim over some parts rather quickly. This doesn’t really affect the flow of the film too much, except for the ending where it does feel somewhat slap dash in places. As for the music at the end, well, for me it was completely out of place and ruined any sense of grandeur that the film had managed to muster up.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov with a screenplay written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, the film goes down a different path. Whereas the Wyler version had Judah almost consumed by the need for revenge the Bekmambetov version felt much softer and a lot more forgiving in tone and plot. The religious element to the film was a lot stronger and far more obvious which I felt was a shame as it was done quite well and subtly previously. Bekmambetov was quite heavy handed with the wisdom inspired by Jesus, played by Rodrigo Santoro, which got to the point of being preachy and very much in your face especially combined with the scenes set during battle in the Ionian Sea. The 1959 film relied on acting ability and great set pieces but the 2016 film felt as though it fell back on CGI and very average acting which ultimately gave it more of a clunky end result. The chariot race for example, which is tense and action packed in Wyler’s film, just doesn’t come any where near. It’s just another example of ‘let’s throw loads of CGI at it and see what happens’ type of sequence; it just didn’t have that real, grittiness to it.
It’s not bigger and it most certainly is not better
Playing Judah is Huston with a husky voice and no where near the amount of personality or charm as Heston - but those are big boots to fill I suppose. However he does physically seem to fit the role a bit better than Heston, based on looks alone and does offer the character a certain softer quality. Kebbell on the other hand isn’t that bad as Messala brining to the role a bit more gruffness and similarly to Huston an emotional quality that wasn’t fully present with Stephen Boyd’s Messala. Unfortunately the level of bromance between Judah and Messala that was so evident previously wasn’t nearly touched upon enough leaving a strange sort of emptiness between the two - but there is one redeeming scene that almost of makes up for it. Morgan Freeman plays Ilderim an african fellow who enjoys gambling on the odd chariot race and takes Judah under his wing, so to speak. Freeman as you would expect is good in the role, donning dreadlocks with that soothing, familiar voice.
That old saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ comes to mind and aside from possibly attempting to try and reach out to younger audiences I can’t really come up with any reason why this classic film was remade. It doesn’t have any of the charisma or even half the opulence of the 1959 version. It’s not terrible, but it definitely isn't amazing.
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