Ben-Hur movie full length review - In this company "not bad" is not good enough
"Never remake a classic" is, or should be, a golden rule for film-makers. Could one imagine a modern day version of, say, "Casablanca", "Citizen Kane" or "On the Waterfront"?
Those who have disregarded the rule, as Gus van Sant did with his take on Hitchcock's "Psycho", have generally been met with much well-deserved criticism.
A partial exception to the rule exists where the original classic was itself based upon a classic of literature or upon real historical events. The iconic status of Olivier's "Henry V", for instance, did not prevent Kenneth Branagh from attempting his own cinematic version of Shakespeare's play, and many critics (myself included) would rate his film at least as highly as Olivier's. Timur Bekmambetov seems to have been trying to take advantage of this exception, seeing his "Ben-Hur" not as a remake of William Wyler's great classic from 1959 but as a new interpretation of Lew Wallace's original novel.
I will not summarise the plot here as it is well-known, but Bekmambetov does make a few changes to the original story, the most important ones relating to the character of Messala. Although Gore Vidal, the scriptwriter of the 1959 version, used to talk (generally when in his cups) of a hidden gay subtext- so well hidden that it escaped the notice of even the film's star, Charlton Heston- to all intents and purposes Messala and Judah Ben-Hur, before their falling-out, are just good friends. Bekmambetov wanted to make them more than that, but did not dare make them lovers. Social attitudes towards homosexuality may have liberalised since 1959, but this liberalisation has proceeded more slowly in the American Bible Belt, an area upon which any epic with a Christian theme will need to rely for many of its profits, than elsewhere in the Western world. Some recent Biblical epics, notably Aronofsky's "Noah" and Ridley Scott's , have been criticised for watering down their religious content, but this "Ben-Hur", in keeping with Wallace's sub-title "A Tale of the Christ", is in some ways more Christian than its predecessor; Jesus, for example, becomes more prominent here than he was in the earlier film.
His solution was to make them adoptive brothers, with Messala an orphan who has been adopted into Ben-Hur's family. (Despite having been brought up as a Jew, he retains his Roman citizenship and his strong sense of Roman identity). In the 1959 film his character deteriorates to the point where he becomes the story's main villain. Here, even when he and Ben-Hur have become alienated from one another, they are not presented not as hero and villain but as two former friends who have quarrelled, who both (with a certain amount of justification) believe themselves to be in the right and who are eventually reconciled. Wallace's story is a good one, strong enough to withstand a bit of tinkering, and the changes introduced for the purposes of this film do not really harm it. Indeed, I think they could potentially have made the story more interesting by turning it into a story of a friendship placed under strain by political and ethnic differences. The black-versus-white morality of Wyler's film is perhaps a bit too schematic.
Like its predecessor, this film features a thrilling chariot race, coming at the same point in the action and occupying around the same length of time. This sequence is certainly well done, although Bekmambetov had the assistance of CGI to help him recreate the more dangerous incidents. (In 1959 everything had to be done for real).
Nevertheless, I would not rate this film as highly as Wyler's, for two reasons. The first is that it is not as well acted. Heston was perhaps the greatest exponent of the epic style of acting during its golden years in the fifties and sixties, appearing in three of what I consider the four greatest epics, "The Ten Commandments", "Ben-Hur" and "El Cid". (The fourth is Kubrick's "Spartacus" with Kirk Douglas). A modern epic needs a hero with Heston's presence and ability to express that sense of grandeur which I referred to earlier. Few modern actors really possess this, although Russell Crowe achieved it in "Gladiator". Jack Huston, despite his illustrious pedigree, is not yet an actor in the Heston mould, and although he tries hard does not make a memorable impression.
Elsewhere in the acting department comparisons are not always so unfavourable to this film. Toby Kebbell, an actor I had not previously come across, acquits himself rather better than Huston and does not necessarily suffer in comparison with Stephen Boyd (who, of course, played Messala in a very different way). The film's one big-name star, Morgan Freeman, who plays the supporting role of Sheikh Ilderim, was a lot better than Hugh Griffith who played the equivalent role in 1959 and who was unaccountably rewarded with a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar.
My second reason has to do with the general look of the film. Its $100 million production budget might sound like a lot of money, but in today's Hollywood it is not as much as it sounds, certainly far less when adjusted for inflation than the $15 million Wyler had at his disposal, and it shows. The film is considerably shorter than the 1959 version and lacks the sense of grandeur that we have come to expect of epic dramas. I make no apologies for comparing this film with the earlier one; those who remake films do so in the full knowledge that such comparisons will be made, and often in the hope that they will benefit financially by attracting to the cinema those familiar with the original. Actually, Bekmambetov's film is not a bad one. But in this company "not bad" is not good enough. 7/10