Free Press Journal

Ben Hur: A spectacle of the ‘epic’ kind

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Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur and Morgan Freeman plays Ilderim in Ben-Hur from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Film: BEN HUR

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer 

Director: Timur Bekmambetov


I don’t suppose Timur (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) Bekmambetov’s remake of American Civil War General Lew Wallace’s 1880 bestseller “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” will replicate William Wyler’s 1959 smash hit/winner of 11 Oscars. I can only hope it is as successful as the 1925 silent version starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. For, it stands on its own as a rousing sword-and-sandals spectacle.

Helmed from a screenplay co-written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, Ben Hur 2016 tweaks the original narrative to dispense with the bookends of the birth and crucifixion of Christ who is accorded slightly more screen time than the 1959 epic. The new film continues to centre on the principal characters of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) a Jewish blue-blood in 1st century Jerusalem, and his boyhood friend Messala (Toby Kebbell) who rises in the ranks of the Roman legions under Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) and betrays his adoptive family. First, by accusing Ben Hur of harbouring Zealots who lead the armed resistance to Roman rule, then exiling Ben-Hur to shackled servitude on a slave galleon.

Ben-Hur’s suffering parallels that of Jesus Christ who is also falsely accused of sedition and treason. A jaw-dropping battle in the storm-tossed sea results in freedom and sage advice from an African merchant Sheikh (Morgan Freeman) Ilderim who subsequently allows him to tend to his beautiful horses.

Ilderim’s persuasive skills facilitate Ben Hur’s entry as a competitor in a chariot race. “Entertainment instead of bread” forms the core of this canny Roman opiate employed by Pilate and his cohorts during time out from crucifixions and battle strategies that expand the Roman Empire from its Italian heartland to Africa, the Middle East and Britain (with India, the Romans were content to trade).

The iconic chariot race is as nail-bitingly tense and exciting as in Wyler’s epic, but where the film falters is in it feeble reiteration of Wallace’s themes of compassion and forgiveness. True, the character of Jesus is fleshed out in the few scenes where he pronounces his timeless blueprint for life and living. Interestingly, Hollywood’s most favoured scene involving a fallen woman is re-imagined with the stoning of a man: the crowd melts away with Christ’s intervention of “Love thy neighbour. Turn your hearts away from fear and hate…”

Lamentably, the script fails to convey Ben-Hur’s redemption from vengeful hostility to faith-filled forgiveness. In the title role, Jack Huston is more Jewish than the six foot plus blue-eyed blonde Charlton Heston from the 1959 epic; while Toby Kebbell does not look remotely sinister as the antagonist Messala. However, the secondary characters Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), Zealot Dismas (Moises Arias), Ben Hur’s mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia) are more than adequate. Rodrigo Santoro is affectingly beautiful and compelling as Jesus.