“In short, it’s probably the best Ben-Hur remake that could’ve seen the light of day.”

by Steve Pulaski

Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur is the fifth film adaptation of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. There were two silent films, one in 1907 and 1925, the famous William Wyler-directed/Charlton Heston-starring 1959 remake of the silent film that garnered eleven Oscar nominations, the most along with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and a 2003 animated film that was pretty much a heavily truncated remake of the 1959 film. The 1959 epic has become synonymous and the defining work of Ben-Hur‘s colorful legacy as a pop culture staple that many simply refer to it as “the original film,” similar to how the 1983 version of Scarface is commonly viewed as the sole film on the Tony Montana character, completely overlooking the 1932 film.

Remaking Ben-Hur for modern audiences – especially a medium-budget remake by devout Christians Mark Burnett and Roma Downey that is attempting to rebel against Hollywood yet play along with it – is a strange concept all around. Other than being known for its beautiful style, unbelievable length, and wealth of Oscar nominations, the story of Ben-Hur isn’t a story that is known to captivate audiences nor justify such a budget and scale in the modern day. Upon seeing the 1959 version for the first time, I was plentiful in my praise for its scope and visual style, but felt the themes of redemption and courage too slight to sustain such a mammoth-sized runtime (over three-and-a-half hours).

Directed by
Timur Bekmambetov
Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro
Release Date
19 August 2016
Steve’s Grade: C

I’m pleased to report that the remake of Ben-Hur is, at the very least, an intriguing one. It’s directed with a strong sense of cohesion, acted in a way that often overshadows the feel that you’re sitting through an extended pilot of a miniseries (something that couldn’t be said with the other Mark Burnett/Roma Downey-produced project Son of God), and succeeds nicely in captivating audiences without being too long-winded or unrelatable.

In short, it’s probably the best Ben-Hur remake that could’ve seen the light of day.

The principles of the story remain unchanged. Our focus is on Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a Jewish nobleman, who spends much of his early life bonding with his adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Overtime, however, Messala gets the urge to become a persecuting Roman officer, finding and punishing Zealots who aren’t in favor of the absolute Roman rule, whereas Ben-Hur sympathizes with the Zealots. Eventually, Messala’s position in power results in Ben-Hur’s captivity and subsequent enslavement upon his refusal to become an informant for the Romans. Ben-Hur becomes a galley slave for five long, miserable years until his ship is attacked and left in shambles on the waters, where he swims to shore and meets Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). A Nubian with a strict ethical compass until a compromise is reached, Sheik agrees to have Ben-Hur train and prepare his horses for a forthcoming chariot race, which he also plans to have Ben-Hur partake in as part of his emancipation agreement.

The majority of the film is Ben-Hur’s preparation to square off against Messala and numerous others in a sprawling and dizzying chariot race before a packed coliseum. The chariot race in the 1959 Ben-Hur was a more elegantly constructed spectacle, while the chariot race here is a brutal and breakneck realization of such a dangerous event. Bekmambetov’s camerawork allows for us to see multiple different angles of such a clash of sensibilities, and crafts it like a duel between Ben-Hur and Messala, although not ignoring the other participants.

That’s the most engaging moment of the film, whereas the rest of the film is a fairly average rendition of territory the 1959 film charted in greater detail. Having said that, when it comes to a more concise retelling of a classic story, the new Ben-Hur succeeds as functioning as a briefer work of entertainment, with more communicable and discernible elements of spectacle. As an entire film, its roughness is more-or-less summed up by the difficulty to justify its existence, and that’s something that, after being surprised at the film’s level of quality, I’m not even going to bother with.