Why on earth has Ben Hur been re-made?
If we’re talking about completely unnecessary remakes, you could barely get any more unnecessary than trying to remake a movie that is already an absolute classic.
Trying to appeal to a new generation? Why remake the movie? Why not just re-release the original?
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, this is now the fifth film adaptation of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. It follows the 1907 silent movie, the 1925 silent film, the universally loved Academy Award-winning 1959 film (theatrical poster pictured above) and a 2003 animated film.
The trailer looks truly awful; like the worst, most macho and uninspired version of Roman times of the type we’re familiar with from such dross as Spartacus: Blood and Sand or 300 (the latter not Roman per se, but the same greased up, chest-thumping sausage fest). You can almost guarantee a dire, flat movie, with lots of violence, macho posturing and ‘edgy’ profanities, but with none of the charisma or flare of the 1959 William Wyler classic.
While remakes are a lazy, spiritless industry at the best of times, remaking a classic is just stupid (and an extraordinary waste of money). Remaking an old film that maybe wasn’t such an original success story would make more sense; but remaking Ben Hur is like trying to remake Lawrence of Arabia. Utterly pointless.
And part of the problem from the outset is that you can’t make a movie by 2016 sensibilities to match an epic that thrived on 1959 sensibilities.
In 1959, MGM threw everything behind the movie and it was met with tremendous excitement. It was a big deal even before it came out, and a bigger deal afterward. Ben Hur 2106 isn’t. And there’s no way in 2016 they’re going to commit to anything like the 3 hours and 44 minutes the 1959 version took to properly tell the story.
Are they, in 2016, going to find someone to deliver a score to match what Miklós Rózsa did? Of course not. Are they going to be able to match the 1959 level of set and prop design? Are they going to match Elizabeth Haffenden for the 1959 levels of costume design? Can they get anywhere near the 1959 quality of art decoration?
Of course not. Because Ben Hur 2016 is a fart in the night by comparison and will be forgotten within weeks. A 100 million dollar fart, at that.
Moreover, aside from the central Charlton Heston performance, you’re not going to find someone to bring as much quality and charisma to the key role of Messala as Stephen Boyd (pictured below) did in 1959. Not going to happen.
So why try to redo something that has already been immaculately and definitively done?
Why not take the same budget and just make a whole new movie set in the same era? Why not just write an original story? Gladiator (1999) was a huge success, after all. Alright, come to think of it, Gladiator was to some extent a retelling of Anthony Mann’s 1964 movie Fall of the Roman Empire (another great movie, and also starring Stephen Boyd): but it was only partly a retelling of that story and broadly followed a different narrative.
But this new Ben Hur, on the other hand, is essentially looking to tell the same story as the William Wyler classic: only, I guess, ‘updated’ for a ‘new generation’.
Again, what annoys me too is that you could take the same 100 million dollar budget and make a whole new film set in the same time or exploring real historical figures instead. Ideas? Why not make an epic movie about Augustus? Or Cicero? Or explore the story of Marcus Brutus from a new angle. Or stay in Judea and do Pontius Pilate. Or Mary Magdalene. Or Herod. That’s just off the top of my head – there are literally a few dozen possibilities.
So what you’re left with is a futile exercise in corporate cinema in an era of increasingly diminished creativity and ideas.
I absolutely guarantee this movie will suck. If you’re interested in this story, don’t bother going to see this release: just go seek out the 1959 version.
The classic Ben Hur was released about 20 years before I was even born; but I was captivated by it the first time I saw it, aged about fifteen, during a mid-afternoon TV broadcast. The fact that it was an old, aged film depicting a bygone, mythic time may have a lot to do with why Ben Hur is so enchanting in a way that a 2016 remake can’t be.
Watching an aged, vintage film somehow, using quaint, old-style set designs and matte paintings, itself imparts a historic aura to the drama, therefore amplifying the sense that you are watching a story about a long-gone time.
As a kid, I was engrossed by the movie right from the start: with that evocative, magical opening sequence of the classic Nativity scene (note: an aversion to overly religious sequences might make it difficult for you to stomach some of this film), filmed, staged and colored in such a way that it feels like a real life version of a Christmas card. Miklos Rozsa’s epic, choral score for this opening sequence is everything. But really, despite its overtly Gospel undercurrents, Ben Hur isn’t overly evangelical: the Christ story provides a bookend for the beginning and end of the narrative, but is only strategically referenced in most of the movie.
This wasn’t ultimately a story about redemption or love, but a revenge story. The most interesting and enduring thing here was never in a million years the love story between Judah Ben Hur and Esther, but the platonic love story between Ben Hur and Messala: and the story of their broken friendship and subsequent enmity.
I could take or leave one or two of the performances (Haya Harareet’s Esther doesn’t hold up very well at all), but Stephen Boyd’s Messala (based on the known historic figure of Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus) is epic and, in particular, Messala’s deathbed scene is one of my two or three absolute favorite scenes in all cinema (“It goes on, Judah… the race is not over…”).
It also, of course, has the sequence it is most famous for: the epic chariot race – which even now (never mind 1959) stands as one of the great technical feats of cinema. The inspiration for the podrace sequence in The Phantom Menace and numerous other sequences in cinema, it is pretty much impossible (and pointless) for any contemporary production to try to reproduce that sequence or try to recapture the magic.
In short, the 1959 William Wyler version of Ben Hur stands as an unassailable masterwork of cinematic vision and execution.
It is not perfect: and though this film would be on my all-time top ten list, there are enough minor problems I have with it that I wouldn’t be able to put it on a higher pedestal than Lawrence of Arabia (which literally is perfect) as far as the great epics go.
But what is clear is that this 2016 remake has no chance: and is surely a completely pointless, 100 million dollar exercise in futility.
The entire ‘remake it for a new generation’ mentality has always seemed misguided.
Are younger generations or modern cinema-goers regarded as so lacking in taste or attention-span that they’re incapable of enjoying something from the past in its original form? Why not seek to re-market and re-release the old film instead?
Should school kids not read literary classics because they’re so old and quaint? Do Shakespeare or Dickens or Keats need to be ‘updated’ before they can be read? Or Suetonius or Livy, for that matter?
As I type this, I’m actually not sure whether I’m being rhetorical or genuinely asking the question. I do have a friend who does have this problem genuinely – of being unable to stomach or enjoy ‘old things’. I know this because I’ve had this conversation with him when I tried to persuade him to watch the classic BBC series I, Claudius (from the mid 70s; Derek Jacobi pictured as Claudius below). I consider it one of the finest – possibly the finest – television drama series ever made.
I explained this to him; and our mutual love of the more recent HBO/BBC series ROME made it a logical suggestion. He was enthused about it – and when he checked the IMDB rating (which he is far more interested in than I am), he saw that the series had an incredibly high score.
The problem was that he couldn’t get passed even one episode.
It was just too ‘old’ and ‘slow’ for him. I reiterated how good the series is; but he couldn’t do it. He also can’t bring himself to do Yes Minister (the classic 80s British comedy). I find that frustrating. It isn’t an intelligence thing; he is of exceptionally high intelligence – he just, for some reason, can’t stomach old things. He can’t even do the legendary documentary series The World At War for the same reason – and this being despite the fact that he is a World War II documentary enthusiast.
And he is also a ‘film enthusiast’ who has never seen Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia.
I worry about people being more and more inclined to have the same attitude. And maybe that actually validates something like this decision to do a new version of Ben Hur. Maybe someone like my aforementioned friend is more likely to watch the new film than to watch the 1959 version.
I find that sad though.
See the trailer for the new Ben Hur here.
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