Film Reviews

BEN-HUR

By • Aug 19th, 2016 •

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Two stunning scenes and two boring actors without charisma. They neutered their characters. Messala ruined the Ben-Hur family simply out of necessity – he was just doing his job.

Remaking, or re-imagining, or whatever, BEN-HUR was put in the hands of a very stylish director, Timur Bekmambetov. He’s the highest-grossing director in his native country of Russia. I’ve followed his early work and consider him bold and talented. Bekmambetov gained Hollywood’s attention with NIGHT WATCH (2004) and its follow-up, DAY WATCH (2006). Lured to Hollywood, Bekmambetov directed ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER and WANTED. He must have gotten along well with WANTED star Morgan Freeman, who has an over-sized part in BEN-HUR as the fancy dressed, magnificently coiffed Ilderim.

The 1959 BEN-HUR directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as Massela, is usually shown during Easter on television. Much of today’s audiences will have only seen the original in their living rooms. So why not re-visit BEN-HUR with the technology that modern filmmakers have?

BEN-HUR’s writers, Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, went back to the source material, Lew Wallace’s bestseller “Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ.”

There is much more Jesus Christ in this version. One of the producers is Mark Burnett and one of the executive producers is Roma Downey, who is the President of Lightworkers Media, the production company responsible for BEN-HUR. Downey and her husband Mark Burnett produced the 10-hour miniseries The Bible for the History Channel. So they had all the sets and costumes already. Why break everything down?

Let’s remake BEN-HUR with an emphasis on forgiveness instead of revenge. It’s a go.

There is none of the homoerotic undertow between Judah and Messala as there was in the 1959 version. This sensational gay subtext was fashioned by writer Gore Vidal, who said he convinced Wyler and Boyd but not Heston. No one dared tell Heston their love for each other was physical.

Vidal’s contribution was to given a definite reason why Messala – who was raised in the princely Ben-Hur family as Judah’s brother – for the extreme hatred he felt for Judah. Vidal gave Messala a two-prong reason. Messala and Judah had a boyhood sexual relationship and then, when Messala returns years later and wants to continue their sexual affair, Judah refuses him. Secondarily, as a disadvantaged Roman orphan kindly raised in a noble Jewish family, Messala still felt ashamed for not having a rightful place in Roman society. Messala destroyed the aristocratic family when he was in a position to do so. Placing Judah as a galley slave was sexual victory. Judah would never forget Messala as the architect of his life.

Bekmambetov excels in two key scenes, the battle on the sea and the chariot race. These are the scenes that are worth the price of a ticket – and, Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus. Why am I the only one who saw Santoro in the fabulous, sexy 2011 movie, HELENO? Why didn’t Santoro play Judah?

The battle scene, from the point of view being from the galley, is exciting. But why, after five years as a galley slave doing such hard physical labor, Judah returns to Rome looking like the same skinny kid from the nice Jewish family? Where was the harden man that survived five years as a slave in a ship’s belly and then survived a shipwreck?

The chariot race was extraordinary and far more gory and violent than I recall from seeing the original on TV.

The strongest criticism of BEN-HUR for me was the casting. I did not care about either one of them. Judah is played by Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell plays Messala. Bekmambetov may not have had a decision in casting. Huston and Kebbell are likable enough but both lack a dynamic presence. Bekmambetov places them very close in their scenes together but they look at each other with cute, adoring eyes. There is no masculine lust for anyone or anything in their performances. They voluntarily neutered their characters.

Huston is weak and has no charisma. All I remember is him bulging his eyes wide open and looking up at Messala. If it’s a facial expression with a wordless meaning, it was lost on me. The ghost of Charlton Heston was not on the set.

Kebbell plays Messala Severus as a jock walking off the Colosseum High School football field. He should have shown some guilt when he sees Judah has returned from the galleys as a rich African’s chariot rider. While he does show a change in his personality as he becomes a war hero and establishes himself in Rome, where was the glee and pleasure in his actually achieving high Roman status? And when it comes to destroying the Ben-Hur family, it is forced upon him. He takes no joy in revenge. So, it was not jealousy or revenge, he was just doing his job.

There was no intimacy between Judah and his patron Ilderim. Morgan Freeman has to stop playing all his parts as God. Where was the passion and idolatry for his prize horses?

Jesus is a main figure but he is shown as a carpenter and not a zealot and miracle worker. I assume just being in BEN-HUR will be enough for the Christian audience. BEN-HUR’s Jesus was more charismatic, more beautiful and far more physical than Judah and Messala.

And that happy ending? How realistic was that? If the theme was “forgiveness” instead of revenge, the filmmakers laid it on a little too thick. They spent an awful lot of money making a Hallmark TV film.

This is not a Bekmambetov film. For Bekmambetov it was a no-lose, well-paying job with a very big budget and plenty of international publicity. No matter what the critics and audiences say, Bekmambetov has shown Hollywood he can handle a huge budget with a large cast. That matters for Hollywood studios. Bekmambetov hasn’t made any enemies yet and he is ensconced in a house once owned by Walt Disney. He’s gone Hollywood and he is not looking back.

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com.

 

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