Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – join Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed three films out in theaters this weekend – Hell or High Water, War Dogs and a new version of Ben-Hur – using the release of the latter as a springboard for a larger conversation about the history of Hollywood epics. Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!
Ben-Hur (Timur Bekmambetov, 2016)
American Civil War Hero Lewis Wallace – or General Lew Wallace, as he is most often known – published what would become a mega-bestseller, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in 1880. It told the fictional story of a Jewish prince of Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur, in the years of Jesus Christ’s preaching, who is betrayed by a childhood friend, Messala, a Roman who sentences him to certain death. Like the hero of another 19th-century epic – Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo – he escapes after a long imprisonment, later to return and exact his revenge upon his would-be executioner. Such retribution takes the form of a victory in the chariot races of the Roman circus, during which an accident cripples Messala, who dies thereafter. Where does Christ enter into of all this? At repeated intervals of the novel, Judah crosses paths with the rising prophet, until finally his story and that of the messiah’s intersect at the crucifixion of the latter, leading to Judah’s conversion to the nascent new religion. Vengeance is not yours to wreak, sayeth the newly resurrected God. And so Judah rises from the ashes of his former life, reunited with his once-lost family, and embraces a hopeful future.
The first time Wallace’s book was brought to the silver screen was in 1907, and then, as ever, the major set piece was that chariot race. When, in 1925, Louis B. Mayer’s freshly constituted MGM Studios took on a feature-length version, starring Ramon Novarro as the titular prince, it became, with its $4 million budget, the most expensive silent film ever made, up to that point. Why? It costs a lot of money to build that circus! But it paid off, saving the studio’s fortunes, and the brilliantly realized race sequence was justly celebrated for years to come. Then, in 1959, MGM – again in need of a big hit – took on the epic story once more, now with the great William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) at the helm and the ever-solid Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments) in the chariot. This time, the circus sequence, alone, cost $4 million. Still, it was all worth it, as the new film went on to win 11 Academy Awards, a record matched only, as of this writing, by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (when epic films win Best Picture, they tend to clean up, since they also win so many of the technical awards, as well). As with the 1925 silent version, what has never failed to impress viewers – even those, like me, who find much of the other parts extremely dated in their aesthetic – since that time is the magnificence of the sets and the masterful mise-en-scène of the chariot race.
And now here we are, in 2016, with a brand new retelling of the 136-year-old classic. Religiously minded husband-and-wife producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (The Bible mini-series), working with Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), have decided that what the world needs now is another version of Wallace’s story. Why not? So much else gets remade. But as with all storytelling, old, new or an amalgam of both, what counts is the central premise – or raison d’être – behind the endeavor. Is there an idea beyond the mercenary? According to Burnett and Downey, there is: to salve the wounds of our hurting world with the balm of healing. Which is why, in this movie, things don’t turn out quite the way they did in 1959 and 1925 (I’m purposefully ignoring a 2010 mini-series that is not worth mentioning). There’s more forgiveness and more love.
Fair enough. Who can argue with that? Unfortunately, there’s also less talent. Say what you will about Heston (along with William Shatner, my favorite over-actor), but he held your attention with true magnetism. Director Wyler knew a thing or two about camera placement, and though his Oscar-winning film is riddled with excessive sentiment, it feels brisk, even at over 210 minutes, because we are wholly invested in Ben-Hur’s journey. Bekmambetov, who once so wowed me with his early promise in films, made back in Russia, like Night Watch and Day Watch, has since those day become mired in the special-effects wizardry of modern-day Hollywood, hopelessly adrift in creative limbo. Lead actors Jack Huston (Kill Your Darlings), as Ben-Hur, and Toby Kebbell (Warcraft), as Messala, are appealing in a boyish way, but no match for Heston and his co-star Stephen Boyd (Fantastic Voyage). This time, the rivals are brothers, and not just friends, a change which actually renders Messala’s betrayal a hundred times worse, straining the credibility of the final forgiveness scene. The entire affair is narrated by Morgan Freeman (Lucy) – because who doesn’t want to have their film accompanied by his wise, mellifluous voice – who is saddled with so much exposition that we sometimes wonder why we even need the subsequent action. Nevertheless, once the film settles down to its storytelling, there are some sequences that entertain. Of particular note is the scene in the Roman galley, when all hell breaks loose in a naval battle; the chariot race is also fine, though less impressive now in our world of CGI without the sense of it all taking place, for real, in front of the camera. I also enjoyed some of the transitions between scenes, such as when we flash forward 5 years from Ben-Hur’s arrival on the ship through the mere flick of a whip. But overall, this is a movie that genuinely begs the question, why bother?
Perhaps the most egregious fault is the choice to show Jesus – remember that this is “A Tale of the Christ” – in all his ordinary humanity. For the record, I am an atheist, and so do not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God. But if you’re going to make a film about a deity walking the earth, that deity should have star power. In the 1959 film, we never see Jesus except from behind, and when everyone – from Jews to Romans to slaves – react in awe when gazing upon the man, we supply our own vision of what they see. Here, poor Rodrigo Santoro (300: Rise of an Empire) as Jesus, whose face we see from the get-go, is burdened with too great of a task, and comes across as just a struggling soul who wishes the world were better. That would be fine – and it’s how I envision the historical Jesus, anyway – but when everyone reacts to him as if he commands special power, it makes no sense, because he doesn’t. And from the misconception flows all that doesn’t work in the rest of the film. If, in the course of my review, I have failed to mention any of the actresses, it’s because their parts are as underwritten as they were in 1959, which in 2016 feels unforgivable. Save yourself some money and re-watch the 1959 Ben-Hur at home on your beautiful widescreen TV. Hokum and all, it’ll be more fun.