As an extreme fan of the classic 1959 version of the newly released Ben-Hur movie, I reluctantly give a thumbs up to the modern version of the film.
I’ve seen the ‘real’ Ben-Hur at least 50 times on TV, VHS and DvD. But, folks, while Ben-Hur 2016 directed by Timur Bekmambetov from a script by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, is not the four hour epic that has been on a cinematic pedestal for nearly six decades, it is an enjoyable two-hour long updated movie that is worth seeing.
I will not reveal the plot line of the new Ben-Hur because I don’t want this article to be a spoiler. For the classic Ben-Hur purists out there, I don’t want to get your blood pressure up. Take a deep breath – the ending has been significantly changed (and I can live with that).
Also, the modern script writers downplay the religious angle from the original story. Actually, the sub-title of General Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur book from 1880 is ‘A tale of the Christ.’ But, this new version doesn’t seriously follow that plot parallel between the life of Christ and Judah Ben-Hur except at two cup-of-water giving moments.
No offence to the Good Lord, but this modern Ben-Hur plot still resonates in spite of the omission.
Slaves of cinematic tradition will squirm a bit when viewing this shortened take on the classic version. But, there is no doubt that the chariot race scene that was the most memorable part of the 1959 Ben-Hur movie takes all honours in this version too.
It is stunning. I screamed, repeatedly jumped in my chair, hid my eyes three times and generally embarrassed my daughter and niece who were in the theatre with me. What a rush!
While I like this new US$100 million version, I remain in love with the older Ben-Hur movie that stars Charlton Heston in the title role and Stephen Boyd as the ambitious and venomous Messala in that vital role.
Judah Ben-Hur is now played by Jack Huston (of the famous Huston family in Hollywood) and his onetime ‘frenemy’ Messala is played by Toby Kebbell and these two movie lightweights do a good job in their roles.
Frankly, I’ve never heard of either of these lead stars and found it quite surprising that a movie of this magnitude was populated by actors with no ‘screen name’ draw, except Morgan Freeman playing Bedouin Sheik Ilderim (who owns the most beautiful white horses I have ever seen.)
Freeman’s well-played character sports imposing grey/silver shoulder length dread locks and various Arab sheik-like costumes reminiscent of his role in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when he played a Moor. Personally, I thought the grey dreads looked ok, but my daughter and niece laughed when they first saw him.
Throughout the movie there was niggling evidence that this pleasantly truncated flick did not pay too much attention to the details of movie-making.
The director obviously attempted to make certain that the characters from an AD 33 setting were realistically dirty, dusty, unkempt, mostly unwashed much of the time. And yet, whomever was responsible for this ‘realistic look’ messed up and put Ben-Hur’s wife Esther in pants on two occasions (neither men nor women wore pants in AD 33) and she had perfectly coiffed eyebrows and wore lovely earth tone lipstick at the most dusty/dirty of times.
At one point in the movie, Ben-Hur cut his own long locks and beard off using dull sheep sheers and yet came out with a ‘do’ worthy of any red carpet event.
As a Ben-Hur purist, I did not like the lack of continuity that happened at several points in the film. For example, in the circus before the start of the chariot race, the erstwhile master of ceremonies for the event announced the list of chariot riders and shouted out “so-and-so from ETHIOPIA.” Nope. In AD 33 that would have been Nubia, Kush, or Kandake. Someone did not fact-check the script.
I won’t even talk about the metal stirrups on the horses of the young Judah and Messala as they race in the opening scenes. Steel stirrups on horse saddles weren’t invented until the 6th or 7th century AD.
Another “oops” moment involved a gladius (the roman sword) in its scabbard that was gifted by Messala to Judah earlier in the movie. The sword was subsequently sent back to Messala later as a calling card from Judah.
Now, where in the heck did Judah Ben-Hur, the ex-galley slave who had NOTHING to his name when he was shipwrecked half naked on the shore, all of the sudden, ‘find’ that exact sword and its scabbard? Nope. That one doesn’t work either.
During the chariot race, Ben-Hur falls off his carriage and is dragged around the sand and gravel covered hippodrome. How someone of human flesh is dragged behind a team of four fast moving horses for a kilometer comes up without having his skin stripped completely off him, is a mystery to me.
And yet, in spite of these humorous glitches, the movie worked.
This newest Ben-Hur uses modern CGI and other high tech features to create spell-binding visuals.
If you haven’t yet seen Charlton Heston playing Ben-Hur, do it before you see the new version, then you can compare the two for yourself. You will enjoy both.