Tacky and Heartless, 'Ben Hur' Remake Shows Classics Should Be Left Untouched

The direction is uninspired, the script lacks a subtext, the two lead actors are appallingly anemic, and even the vaunted chariot race disappoints.

Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur in 'Ben-Hur' from Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.
Philippe Antonello / Paramount Pictures and MGM

The entertainment industry media is busy trying to figure out what caused the colossal flop of the remake of “Ben-Hur.” (The production budget was about $100 million, not including PR and marketing, but the movie pulled in only a little more than $11 million in its first and critical week of widespread release – meaning that it will disappear from the big screen very fast.) Was it the reviews, which ranged from passable to abominable, that kept people away in droves? Or was it perhaps because the ubiquitous Morgan Freeman, his head adorned with gray dreadlocks, who has a supporting role, is the only well-known name among the movie’s stars? Maybe it’s that historical epics with a religious thrust aren’t in fashion these days, in contrast to the 1950s (even if a similar epic, Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” won the Oscar in 2000)?

Possibly the reason is that the previous film adaptation of Gen. Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel – William Wyler’s 1959 version, starring Charlton Heston, which garnered 11 Oscars – is so deeply engraved in the public consciousness as the ultimate high-quality biblical screen saga, that the very attempt to remake it deterred older moviegoers (statistics show that the younger crowd, which turns a movie into a hit, has no interest in the new “Ben-Hur”). The Hollywood Reporter aptly summed up its negative review with the question: “What were they thinking?”

Wyler’s was not the first or only screen adaptation of Wallace’s book. A 1907 film reduced the plot to 15 minutes, but in 1925, Fred Niblo, a highly successful Hollywood director of the silent-movie era, made a 143-minute version starring Ramon Novarro, one of the biggest stars of the time. The production was plagued with problems and the budget was one of the highest ever until then, but the picture was a huge hit, no less than Wyler’s film 34 years later. In addition, a video-only animated version was released in 2003, with Charlton Heston voicing the Ben-Hur role, and in 2010 a miniseries based on the book was broadcast.

But it’s Wyler’s film that provides the point of reference for the new version, directed by Kazakhstan-born Timur Bekmambetov, whose failed films to date would seem to place him at the opposite pole from the status enjoyed by Wyler.

The latter brought to “Ben-Hur” the prestige he had gleaned as one of the most esteemed directors in the history of Hollywood classic cinema. Among his films are a large number of acclaimed works, often praised for their seriousness.

Excess of gravitas

I was never an avowed fan of Wyler’s “Ben-Hur.” Since first seeing it I’ve tried to watch it again but have rarely been able to get all the way to the end. Of the biblical screen epicsmade in the 1950s, I prefer Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” because of its unvarnished kitschy character. Wyler’s film suffered from an excess of gravitas. It didn’t really take off, I felt, though there is no doubt that it was a work of classic skill, and it had a certain grandeur. And if overall the three-and-a-half-hour film (the new version, to its credit, is an hour and a half shorter) overall was ponderous and even wearisome in many ways, that was atoned for with the chariot race between Ben-Hur and his rival Messala. The climax of the picture, that 10-minute-long scene laid the foundations for contemporary action cinema. Indeed, it felt unprecedented for its time and was genuinely thrilling.

But the chariot race of similar length that also concludes Bekmambetov’s remake left me indifferent. It tries to emulate Wyler’s version (naturally using digital effects, in contrast to the original), but the result is mechanical and sputtering. There are so many reasons for the apathy aroused by the dramatic climax of the story in the new movie – in contrast to the Wyler and Niblo versions – that it’s hard to list them all. But the main reason is the failure of what is meant to give the story its heart: the portrayal of the relations between the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and his adoptive Roman brother Messala (in Wyler’s film they were only childhood friends).

According to a well-known anecdote, the writer, playwright and screenwriter Gore Vidal, who worked (uncredited) on the script of the Wyler film, suggested to the director that the motivation for Messala to become Ben-Hur’s bitter rival should be his unrequited love for the Jewish prince. Wyler and Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, accepted the idea and also agreed not to make the motivation known to Charlton Heston. The result underscored the depth of the emotional abyss that develops between Ben-Hur and Messala. There is no such homoerotic subtext in the new version, though that would not matter if the relationship between the two protagonists was marked by any sort of heft that could extricate it from the meager schematic dichotomy of good guy (Ben-Hur) vs. bad guy (Messala).

Part of the problem lies in the casting of the lead actors. Heston and Boyd projected power that lent the characters they portrayed a mythic dimension. Bekmambetov chose two almost completely unknown British actors, and it shows. Jack Huston, a grandson of the director John Huston, lacks sufficient personality and presence to shape the heroic aspect of Ben-Hur, and Toby Kebbell plays Messala as a stock villain.

The fact that the story of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala fails to generate an emotional charge affects every aspect of the picture, compounded by the totally uninspired direction, which sometimes even verges on the tacky. Did the world need another screen version of “Ben-Hur”? Definitely not. Did the world need a version of this kind? Even more definitely not. Still, some Christian believers might be happy to know that, in contrast to the earlier screen adaptations of the book (whose subtitle is “A Tale of the Christ”), in which Jesus’ face is not seen, in the new version Jesus is present, and even has a fairly major role, in the person of the Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro (though the crucifixion scene is directed with the same absence of stylistic momentum as the rest of the film and leaves no impression). And fans of the presence of Israeli actors in non-Israeli movies, especially those of action and spectacle, will be delighted to know that, if Wyler cast Haya Harareet as Esther, with whom Ben-Hur falls in love, Israel is also represented in Bekmambetov’s adaptation: Ayelet Zurer plays Naomi, Ben-Hur’s mother (three years after playing Superman’s mother in “Man of Steel”).

There are films whose integrity derives from the actors who infused the protagonists with their definitive identity. If there is anything we can learn from the new version of “Ben-Hur,” it’s that those movies should be left untouched. And if that lesson is learned, the making, and the failure, of Bekmambetov’s film will not have been in vain.