Why remake “Ben Hur” (1959), the epic sword-and-sandals adventure that set an Oscar record, sweeping 11 out of the 12 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler) and Best Actor (Charlton Heston)? This new version, produced by Mark Burnett (TV’s “Survivor,” “The Voice”) and Roma Downey (TV’s “Touched By an Angel”), the husband-and-wife team behind the 10-hour TV miniseries “The Bible,” returns Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ” to its devoutly religious roots. Read on…
Set in Jerusalem, it’s the story of two brothers: a wealthy Jewish nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur (John Huston), and his adoptive Roman sibling, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). When ambitious Messala betrays their family, Judah vows revenge and, through his encounters with Jesus of Nazareth (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro), witnessing the Crucifixion, learns compassion and forgiveness.
Working from a script by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley, Russian-Kazajh director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) achieves period authenticity, depicting communal life and the graphic brutality of Judah’s five years as a galley slave, battling Greeks on the Ionian Sea.
Then there’s a jarring tonality shift toward frenetic NASCAR/Formula One-like racing action when Judah learns how to become a charioteer from Nubian Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who reminds him, “The first to finish is the last to die.”
Of course, the centerpiece is the exciting Circus Maximus chariot race. While real Andalusian and Hungarian horses were used in the thunderous close-ups, computer-generated doubles did the dangerous stunts. About 400 extras served as spectators, increased to over 100,000 with special effects. It’s just a shame that British actor Jack Huston (grandson of director John Huston) is far too bland.
FYI: The book was first turned into a Broadway spectacular with a treadmill-enabled chariot race using real horses. Then there were two silent films before the 1959 movie that was more secular than religious.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ben Hur” is an inspirational 6, aimed directly at a Christian faith-based audience.