Film review: Ben-Hur

David Gritten / 06 September 2016

Was it a good idea to re-make the Hollywood epic Ben-Hur? Saga film critic David Gritten has his doubts.

It’s a matter of record that when the first version of Ben-Hur, with its famed chariot race sequence, was being shot in Hollywood in 1925, dozens of movie stars came to sit in the arena as unpaid extras, just to watch the race being staged.

When Ben-Hur was spectacularly re-made in 1959, it won 11 Oscars, and its astonishing version of the chariot race (directed separately by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt) was hailed as one of the greatest action sequences in film history.

It’s fair to say the new Ben-Hur, released in 3-D in Britain this week, will never be the object of such fervent admiration. A dismaying aspect of the new film – one that seems inevitable in the current era of movie-making – is its dependence on digital effects. With the earlier films, you knew you were watching real people urging real horses headlong round an arena, being cheered on by a real audience. Nothing in the new version carries those assurances. Much of what you see has clearly been created on a screen – even the lumps of dirt and rock that fly up from the horses’ hooves and seem to cannon towards you in your cinema seat.

Making a third Ben-Hur epic always seemed a shaky idea, and so it has proved: this new film, with a $100 million budget, has recouped only a quarter of that sum in its first three weeks of release in America. That’s a terrible result.

Unhappily, the problems with this new Ben-Hur don’t end with computer-generated imagery. The script is hackneyed and predictable; actors’ accents are inconsistent; the expression ‘OK’ – probably not in common usage in 22 AD - is heard at least twice.

The story, broadly, remains the same, based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. Its main character Judah Ben-Hur is a Jewish prince from Jerusalem who is enslaved by the Romans. Messala, his adoptive brother in this version, becomes an officer in the Roman army, returns from battle and condemns Ben-Hur to slavery; winning the chariot race becomes the key to his freedom, and his experiences lead him to convert to Christianity.

While that’s a rock-solid narrative, the casting is lightweight across the board. Jack Huston is a competent actor, yet too bland a presence to convince as Ben-Hur; that comparisons between him and Charlton Heston’s magnificent Oscar-winning portrayal in 1959 are unavoidable. As Messala, British actor Toby Kebbell is given precious little to do. Pilou Asbaek (a star of the great Scandi political TV drama Borgen) feels plain wrong as Pontius Pilate. And while the charismatic Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro is fine as the bloodied, persecuted Jesus Christ, the thought occurred that he would have made a better Ben-Hur.

Director Timur Bebmambetov makes a good fist of a long sequence showing Ben-Hur’s gruelling stint as a galley slave, but elsewhere too many key dramatic moments fall flat. 

Sadly, this feels like a diminished version of Ben-Hur, and it’s a hard film to recommend. If it’s any consolation, DVDs of both the 1925 and the 1959 films are available online (the latter in a three-disc format). The widescreen experience will always be the best, but even watching Ben-Hur at home would give a good idea of this terrific story’s sheer cinematic power.

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