MGM has been entirely consistent in plundering its back catalogue for remakes. At least, to the extent that they never at any point suggested quality results were a determining factor. You’d have thought a redo of one of their greatest success stories would have presumed more care and reverence, but Timur Bekmambetov brings the same level of depth and discernment to Ben-Hur he did to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. About the best you can say for it is that’s it’s relatively concise in the telling.
Not that MGM didn’t throw money at the property ($80m of the $100m budget, with marketing on top, the rest coming from Paramount; it made $94m). Unfortunately, their understanding of what makes a good epic was closer to Kingdom of Heaven than Gladiator. Or, if you’re going the full biblical route, nearer Exodus: Of Gods and Kings than The Passion of the Christ (or even Noah, like Exodus made by an atheist).
Indeed, there’s a faint embarrassment about the overly religious content that comes attached to the material, and none of the awe reserved for Jesus present in the previous iterations. We see Jesus’ face this time, in the unfortunate form of Rodrigo Santoro, who comes with an in-built, slightly unscrupulous vibe that doesn’t exactly sell the crucial divine majesty aspect.
The key to attracting the religious viewership, which can mean big bucks, is to make it at least appear that you buy into the nominally espoused values. There’s a pronounced absence of such conviction here. It’s notable that one of the producers stated faith-based movies need to feel like epic summer blockbusters in order to attract young and secular audiences, since that’s exactly what Passion didn’t rely on, and why its success hasn’t been repeated. Target audiences knew Mel bought into the depiction of a welter of suffering.
In attempting to deliver epic texture too, Ben-Hur gets it wrong from inception. You can fault Chuck Heston’s range as an actor, but there’s no doubting he had the presence to stand tall in the genre; he filled the screen. Jack Huston is a decent thesp (he stole Boardwalk Empire whenever he had a scene, and had you willing the makers to cut back to his plotline), but star wattage he lacks. We’ve seen this before, with much lesser actors Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven and Taylor Kitsch in John Carter, where, whatever merits the material nursed, they required underpinning by a performer of sufficient stature.
In fairness, the attempt by Keith Clarke, and John Ridley’s rewrite, to lend the relationship between Huston’s Judah Ben-Hur and Toby Kebell’s Messala greater substance than previously at least half works. Kebell’s a more interesting actor when he’s going unhinged, and Messala’s a little too routine to bring out the best in him, but he succeeds in translating the character’s doubts and crises of conscience, even as there are some odd decisions en route to his change of heart. Such as the ungainly scene in which a centurion explains to Judah that he didn’t carry out orders to kill his sister and daughter and instead locked them away; it stands up to no degree of analysis.
Consequently, he’s a more interesting character than the protagonist, who’s there to give off a pin-up vibe and little else (Huston gets himself a short back and sides in time for the race; this picture, which sees the title character wandering around in a hoody, also continues a trend of anachronistic garb in period pictures that reached its – hopefully – inglorious nadir in last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).
Still, employing versatile actors doesn’t mean they can get away with stinkers of dialogue. A more mannered approach, more closely aligned with the epics of old, would have helped foster a much-needed sense of scale. Instead, we’re left with a decidedly undressed form, one fixated on unlikely comparative views (“and we crushed the freedom of innocent civilisations simply because they were different” notes Messala of his adventuring campaigns as an officer at one point).
Bekmambetov considered the stress on forgiveness rather than revenge marked it out from William Wyler’s film, but I guess he wasn’t paying attention to Wyler’s conclusion regarding the futility of revenge. Or that the forgiveness angle here is played out in risible fashion – not to mention it seems entirely unreliant on Christ’s presence – with Messala losing a leg and Judah announcing “No more killing” as the latter rages and then breaks down. “All I can do is carry you”, Judah tells Messala, and they all head off in frightfully friendly fashion with Morgan Freeman, whose role is marked out solely by the mightily sculpted dreads Hair & Makeup have furnished for him.
Judah’s fall and rise are considerably truncated in this version. There’s a Quintus Arius (James Cosmo), but he dies in the naval battle (on the evidence of the CGI-heavy galley adventures, it’s just as well Bekmambetov’s Moby Dick remake failed to get off the ground). Cue Freeman’s Sheik Ilderim and Judah earning his trust by saving a sick horse.
The subsequent selling-point chariot race – to the extent that it’s teased in the opening shot and throughout as the main event – is a bit of a damp squib, failing to capture the immediacy or visceral quality imbued by Wyler. Bekmambetov succeeds only in breaking the pace by cutting away too much (including inept use of flashbacks) – somehow, we’re expected to believe Judah can hear Ilderim’s advice over the din of the racetrack – and relying on obvious CGI. The latter most egregiously when Judah rolls across the finish line and the remains of his chariot tumble over his head after him. Indeed, the only truly affecting moment in the entire bodge is when Judah realises the horse he brought back from the brink has bought the farm.
With Messala less hissable, that slack is made up by Marcus Decimus (David Walmsley) and Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk). The latter’s role is more prominent but also less interesting than previously; the character is always more intriguing when presented as half reasonable. Judah’s leprous mother and sister are once again healed during a magic rainstorm – but no blood of Christ with it – yet there’s no sense that, unlike wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), he has undergone a conversion.
Indeed, it’s difficult to conclude the picture has any perspective towards belief or politics, rather suiting its artless genesis. At best, one might come away with the vague idea that individual empathy will overcome divisions of race or class; perhaps everyone leaving Jerusalem to its fate suggests a disinterest in resolving conflicts where there’s no will for peaceful resolution by all parties. Or it’s just careless writing.
MGM’s list of remakes and reboots is continuing apace, with the last few months seeing Tomb Raider and Death Wish released to predictably mixed responses and joining the similarly less than rapturous reception of The Magnificent Seven, Poltergeist, Fame and The Pink Panther. Upcoming: a gender-swapped Overboard (which wouldn’t have gone down well in its original form, but reverse the roles and apparently, it’s fair game).
Like the biblical epic generally, it’s unlikely the studio will get wise while there are still success stories out there (even if they’re coming from other studios). In the current cycle, though, about the only approximation of hit criteria for a sword-and-sandals romp is that Russell Crowe has been in about two of them. But then, on a mean average, we won’t be due another big screen Ben-Hur until 2062.