Ben-Hur review: It's not a 'remake'

You may be asking yourself, “Why would anyone want to take on the task of remaking one of the greatest films of all time?”

You may be asking yourself, “Why would anyone want to take on the task of remaking one of the greatest films of all time?” I would have to stop you right there because this 2016 version of “Ben-Hur” is not a remake. It’s actually the fifth adaptation of “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which was written in 1880.

The first two films from that book were silent films made in 1907 and 1925. Charlton Heston’s 1959 classic is actually the third adaptation which was followed by a 2003 animated film featuring Heston’s voice. It is interesting to note that the 1959 film won 11 Academy Awards and is tied with “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” with the most Oscar wins in one ceremony.

Therefore, remake is really the wrong word. “Re-imagining” better explains what the 2016 “Ben-Hur” is. Now, partly back to your question as to why someone would want to re-imagine that 1959 classic. That’s where it gets interesting. The chariot race in the 1959 version is one of the most incredible scenes to ever grace the cinema screen. Filmed with gorgeous Ultra Panavision 70 with 65mm film, you were fully immersed in that race. The practical aspect of shooting that race did come at a cost as many horses died during that 1959 production. 

So how do you recreate the sequence with the same realism and use today’s technology to keep the animals/actors safe? Today, filmmakers rely so heavily on computer-generated images to create their action that it completely removes the old school immersion you would feel in fully-practical action scenes. What makes a great director today is how willing they are to try things practically and only use CGI when you need to fill in the gaps. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight, “Inception”) utilize practical and CGI very well. 

That was the task that “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov set out to do. Bekmambetov is a fantastic filmmaker and always knows how to direction action well. According to Jack Huston in my interview, “There weren’t any green or blue screens. That’s us going around, 32 horses at a time.”

That quote specifically refers to the chariot race only. If you watch the interview above, you will see some of the most insane GO-PRO footage on how they filmed that sequence. There are some incredible shots in the B-Roll footage showing Jack Huston’s character being dragged by the chariot. In the 1959 version, it was Messala (Stephen Boyd, now played by Toby Kebbell in 2016) who falls off the chariot and is dragged along the track. In the 2016 version, Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) takes on that task.

Bekmambetov did an incredible job with the recreation of the chariot race. It is extremely immersive and very intense. That scene alone is worth the entire price of admission. Some of the more intense scenes in the film are the moments we are with Ben-Hur over the five years while he is a slave. Those sequences really speak to Huston’s physical and emotional transformation throughout production. When we first meet Judah Ben-Hur (Huston), he is a prince in Jerusalem who’s best friend is his adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell). As the story goes on, Kebbell’s character rises to power and accuses Judah Ben-Hur and his family of treason. Messala sentences Judah’s family to death while sending Judah to work on a slave ship, where Huston said the life expectancy was around three to six months. Huston’s character survives five years before escaping and returning to Jerusalem to seek revenge.

That’s where the physical and emotional transformation comes in to play for Huston. His body changes a lot throughout the film. Generally speaking, actors don’t get to film their movies in linear order; meaning that they don’t get to film the movie in the order of the storyline. Because of production schedules and actors’ schedules, they have to jump around the timeline of the story. Famously, Eddie Redmayne had to do this for his Oscar-winning performance in "The Theory of Everything." Redmayne would jump in and out of Stephen Hawking's life all throughout the day. You often hear of actors shooting the last scene of a movie on the first day. Though, Huston said it was important for him to film the slave sequences last because he had to change his body so much to get those scenes to look realistic. You can just tell that Huston took this role very seriously.

The film is filled with solid performances including Huston, Kebbell and the incredible Morgan Freeman. Freeman plays a Nubian sheik who helps to train Judah Ben-Hur for the chariot race. When the 1959 film was released, Morgan Freeman was only 22-years old. I spoke to him about where he was at that time in his life and if he remembered seeing the 1959 film in theatres. Watch his answer:

How is the film overall? I loved the intensity, action and performances. The film has a lot going for it. The chariot race sequence is incredible and will definitely take your breath away. On the negative side, I felt the film’s pacing was completely off. There were times where the film felt MUCH longer than the actual running time. The ending, which is beautiful, is completely rushed and has no time to breath. To make the film better, I feel that the beginning or middle could use a 15-20 minute cut and then give the ending act a little more room to breath so that the resolution isn’t as rushed.

I rate the film with a 3.5/5. The film is being released in 3D but I didn’t feel the 3D depth added anything to the story or action. Save yourself three bucks and see the 2D version.

The film is produced by Mark Burnett (“Survivor” and “The Voice”) and Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel) and is rated PG-13.

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