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A Ben-Hur for our time

Epic story of strife between Jews and Romans comes amid recent religious turmoil
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Jack Huston stars as Judah Ben-Hur in the remake of the 1950s epic Ben-Hur, opening Friday.

Ben-Hur was shooting in the south of Italy last year when disturbing news reached the set: Islamic State had executed Christians on a beach just across the Mediterranean in Libya.

The movie’s principals found the parallels unsettling. As they were making a story about strife between Romans and Jews nearly 2,000 years before, religious-based violence was again sweeping the globe.

“I don’t want to make it seem as if our movie speaks to every conceivable issue,” said Sean Daniel, the producer who helped originate the film, which arrives in theatres Friday from distributor Paramount. “But it was, ‘Holy cow, we’re making this movie about the world in turmoil and several thousand years later it was still happening.’ It was a powerful moment.”

A new Ben-Hur. The very notion seems startling, almost sacrilegious. William Wyler’s 1959 film of the same name, about the Jesus-era relationship between a Jew and a Roman, was famous for its 11 Oscars, its star-making turn from Charlton Heston, its soaring epic-ness and, of course, its climactic chariot race. The work is one of the best known in the film canon, a classic synonymous with Hollywood history.

Yet ready or not, here comes a who’s who of the modern film world to take another stab at it. There’s Daniel (The Mummy), the Kazakh stylist director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), the prestige screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), the faith-minded television producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (The Bible), and even an actor with a Golden Age of Hollywood last name (Jack Huston, grandson of John and great-grandson of Walter).

The group came together to revisit the material, drawing from the same Lewis Wallace post-Civil War bestseller on which Wyler’s work and a 1925 silent film were based — only this time with modern touches.

Like the chariot scene shot mostly in the style of a NASCAR race over six weeks.

Or the themes, transmuted from revenge to feel-good forgiveness. With a more prominent and evangelical-friendly spiritual quotient (in the context of a $130-million summer tentpole).

Oh, and all in 3-D.

Skeptical? Intrigued? Worried? A little of all three?

Its creators were, anyway.

“A lot of [film] people would look at Ben-Hur and say: ‘I’ m not going to touch that,’ ” said Ridley, who came on to work on the screenplay after Keith Clarke’s script landed with Daniel and production company MGM. “But as fantastic as the 1959 film was, there are things you want to excavate more clearly, relationships you want to look at more closely. When I realized that, I went from skepticism and trepidation to ‘There’s a way forward.’”

The new Ben-Hur is susceptible to what you might call the reboot trap. Deviate from an original and people say you messed with the good. Make it too similar and people ask why you bothered in the first place.

A title of this cultural scope poses the same problem, only larger. Filmmakers have to diverge from a classic without disrespecting it, Bekmambetov and his team tried to carve out middle ground. In making their spin on a 20th-century staple, they’ve created a story not as iconic as you remember but not as sacrilegious as you fear.

The costumes are in period but without excessive, as Bekmambetov puts it, “towels hanging off them.” And if the setup of estranged pals building toward a showdown can feel stodgy, the director looks to make it pay off with military scenes modelled after Delta force videos he found on YouTube and a chariot race shot (with no green-screen) using GoPro cameras and other documentary techniques.

As for the plot, the big beats are often the same. During a time of great Empire conflict, the Jewish Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) is betrayed by and sold into slavery because of his childhood confidante, the Roman officer Messala (Toby Kebbell). Judah then sets out to avenge Messala via a deadly race.

But there are strategic changes. The inciting incident that brings Mesala and Judah to loggerheads is handled differently; so too is the pair’s relationship, which here is that of adopted brothers. Distinct is the chariot race itself, a taut 10-minute affair with an oddly Olympic-like feel.

Maybe most significant, Jesus is a far more prominent figure in this film than in the Heston picture. Where he was previously seen in the shadows, inspirational only by proxy, here he makes several key appearances, including in a post-race scene that shades the film’s climax differently.

“Here’s a character we’ve seen so many times,” said Brazilian-born actor Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Jesus and sought out and received the blessing of Pope Francis at the Vatican before tackling the role. “How could we humanize him? How can we bring the figure closer and not a distant, son-of-God teacher? How can we enliven the portrayal with the world we live in?”

Including Jesus also helped turn the story into one of forgiveness. Filmmakers say their reasoning was simple: In 1959, with global religious divisions neither as prominent nor as bloody, revenge could rule the day. In 2016, the world may not need more of that.

“Big Hollywood movies used to finish with revenge. In our movie, that’s the low point of the story. By winning, by killing, you’re losing everything you had,” said Bekmambetov. “And that was the trickiest and most dangerous part of the project: How can we change the Hollywood mood?”

Moviegoers could be understood for feeling a little worn out by filmmaker lines justifying reboot culture. Hollywood explanations for revisiting classics may sound like a reasonable, Shakespeare-is-staged-all-the-time rationale to those uttering them, but they can come off as cynical justifications to those listening.

Perhaps sensing that fatigue, some voices on the film wondered if the movie should be called “Judah and Messala” or another title that quietly suggested Wyler’s Ben-Hur without publicly setting up a comparison to it.

Still, viewing this movie as an 1950s-era rehash might be a bit of an oversimplification. Ben-Hur,  after all, offered a way of seeing history from the present long before Wyler came along: Wallace himself was seeking to find Reconstruction-era harmony by holding up a kind of ancient period-mirror to 1880s America.

The idea of a movie connected to an earlier age of Hollywood could also hold some virtue on its own simply by reminding that a superhero-crazed industry has not forgotten its roots. “There’s something beautiful about the continuity, even by osmosis,” said Huston.

Ridley said that a more contemporary approach to race and representation than the 1959 film — one in which a white Welsh actor like Hugh Griffith didn’t don paint to play an Arab sheik — “was reason right there to come back to it.”

But maybe the most potent argument made on the film’s behalf comes with the idea that a new Ben-Hur is less the product of a 1950s nostalgia-raid than as part of a long and eternal chain.

“The Wyler movie came out in 1959, some 30 years after the silent movie,” Kebbell said. “You can imagine the complaints then. ‘The talkies. All these monologues. It’s ruining the action. Why are you messing with my childhood?’ They messed with someone’s childhood. We’re messing with theirs. And one day, someone will mess with ours.”