This is a film that has already been made three times — in 1907 and 1926, silent spectacles that I have yet to see, and the famous 1959 version that won eleven Academy Awards, and which I feel is a great film — so I saw no reason to make another. But, to be fair, it’s been fifty-seven years since that William Wyler triumph, so perhaps it is time for a new generation to experience this story. But what Wyler took 212 minutes to explore, and Fred Niblo 141 in 1926, is here reduced to a mere 125 minutes by Russian director Timur Bekmambetov.
Bekmambetov’s version is heavy on action and really emphasizes the fraternal relationship between Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman by birth. I felt that this brotherly love-rivalry thing was wildly over-emphasized, especially when things to wrong and Messala feels compelled to send Judah’s sisters and mother to their deaths. The film really needed more time to work out these plot paths and smooth out the dramatic speed bumps.
What does work are the action scenes. The famous sea battle is stylishly claustrophobic, seen completely from below decks as Judah and the other slaves row and try not to die. I was disappointed at the time in that choice, because the 1959 version is much more visually exciting, but the more I think about it, the braver I think the choice to see the battle only from Judah’s perspective really is. And the big chariot race is fantastic. It isn’t quite as good as the 1959 version, but it is outstanding as a movie sequence in its own right.
Of course the story is really how Judah is changed by his encounters with Jesus. The 1959 version spends the time to infuse the story with grace; this version has no such feeling. When the ending suddenly turns happy it seems completely at odds with the cruelty that has gone before. This is like the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story. The leads are appropriately brave and petulant; the story picks up when Morgan Freeman, as an African gambler, joins in and persuades Messala to race his former ally in wooden chariots.
I must admit that the film is more entertaining than I expected it to be. It is visually exciting when it needs to be, and some of its drama is compelling. But if you really want to see this story at its best, watch Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd duke it out in a film that is at least twice as good as this one. ☆ ☆. 22 August 2016.