Ben-Hur

I was thinking…

…how commonly the phrase ‘the book was better’ is said by movie-goers. This is because, with very, very few exceptions, the printed story really is superior.

Ben-Hur is most certainly not one of these exceptions.

In fact, it is also rare for a remake to exceed or even match the version or versions that came before it. Off the top of my head, I can think of Ocean’s 11 and Bad News Bears belonging to that very unique fraternity.

Ben-Hur, at best, would be outside that fraternity, watching forlornly through the window as those other movies play drinking games inside.

In short, Trey Parker and Matt Stone should re-work the lines of this great song from Team America to say “Ben-Hur” instead of “Pearl Harbor.”

After wallowing in the mire of dreck churned out by Paul Feig in his completely unnecessary Ghostbusters reboot (read the scathing review here), to endure another attempt to revisit a classic, beloved film within the same summer is as unwelcome and aggravating as a dash of sand in between the lower cheeks.

Circa A.D. 25, Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, grandson of film great John Huston) has been raised alongside his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby KebbellWarcraft: The Beginning). Highly competitive, the two engage in a horse race during which Judah is severely injured. Although Messala saves his life, his affections for Judah’s little sister, Tirzah, are shut down by Judah’s mother, who does not approve of Messala’s pagan Roman background.

After Judah’s recovery, Messala leaves for the Roman campaigns in an effort to re-connect to those pagan Roman roots. Meanwhile, Judah marries his house slave, Esther, and starts living a normal life.

Several years later, Messala returns to Jerusalem as a tribune and is consequently tasked with rooting out the growing zealot movement of militant Jews. While Judah agrees to do what he can, he secretly harbors one of the zealots in his home. That same zealot attacks Pontius Pilate when he arrives in Jerusalem.

Following his mandate, Messala arrests Judah and his household, sentencing his old friend to slave away in the galleys of a Roman warship and sentencing Judah’s family, presumably, to death.

During a battle, Judah’s ship is destroyed and he washes to shore–coincidentally, the shores of his homeland–only to be employed by an African gambler, Ilderim (Morgan FreemanThe Dark Knight trilogy). Ilderim trains Judah how to drive a chariot so he can compete in the circus in Jerusalem, defeat Messala for revenge and win Ilderim a ton of money.

There have been myriad instances where a film is torn apart by critics and fans alike when it is first released only to be reconsidered years later, finally unveiling its hidden graces. I do not foresee that ever being the case with this film.

While the story first written by General Lew Wallace has been adapted nearly a dozen times in its nearly 150 years, the version most beloved and used as the benchmark by which to compare all others is William Wyler’s 1959 film. Winner of 11 Academy Awards and a cultural phenomenon in its day, it still stands as a paragon of the golden age of Hollywood.

That being said, it is difficult, nay impossible, not to compare the 2016 version to it as well. Indeed, a remake, by its very nature, is demanding to be compared to its antecedent. However, even judging the 2016 film as its own entity, it still falls woefully flat; so, I won’t waste much time doing that.

A story meant largely to be about faith, the film is, ironically, not very faithful to the original story. The film’s worst crime of infidelity lies, perhaps, in its minimizing of the Christ figure within it. General Wallace’s book was, after all, entitled “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” In the film, Christ is never–not once–referred to as the Christ or as the Son of God. He is not deified in any way and even the title ‘Christ’ is omitted in the final credits. His actions within the film are sparse and feel tacked on.

Even though Jesus is not the only historical figure portrayed in the film, director Timur Bekmambetov and writers John Ridley and Keith Clarke do an almost deliberate job of ignoring any and all historical records regarding those figures. Pontius Pilate, the Rome-appointed governor of Judea at the time, is shown in the film as a military commander and one more interested in forceful pacification of the region rather than diplomatic rule.

Pilate is also portrayed in one scene as saying Jesus’ teachings stand as a threat to the Roman empire. Again, this flies against not only what Christ actually taught but how Pilate truly felt about him. Do Pilate’s words of, “I find no fault in this man,” sound like he considered Jesus a threat? Do Christ’s words of, “My kingdom is not of this world,” sound familiar?  Or “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”? Crack a friggin’ book, screenwriters! For starters, the book upon which this movie is supposed to be based. Maybe try the Bible, as well. Couldn’t hurt.

This sloppy screenwriting is especially unforgivable as writer John Ridley has an Oscar from his work on the historical drama 12 Years a Slave. It starts to make one wonder just how much of that story he made up just for schnitzzengiggles.

The writing can again be faulted when it comes to, well, the entirety of the script. In the 1950’s, Wyler brought on new writers when he felt the first version of his script held too many western overtones and sounded too modern. Bekmambetov, on the other hand, had no such qualms and it shows. Morgan Freeman, for instance, could have played his role–dialogue and delivery and all–in a film set in 2016 and not sound a stitch out of place. And Messala’s ridiculous, sardonic line of, “Are we having fun now, brother?” during the chariot race sounds as awkward as Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocks look.

Furthermore, Judah, a Jewish prince living in a time when the Mosaic law was literally enforced, violates the third commandment no less than three times, taking the Lord’s name in vain as casually as a stupid American teenager.

I won’t even go into how they decided to end the film. Suffice it to say, if one imagines the worst Hollywood ending possible, the ending of this film is probably worse.

In retrospect, the problem with the conclusion should have been presaged by the film’s opening. We are immediately burdened with a supercilious voice-over exposition from Freeman–whether to make him more of a presence in the movie or to better justify the expense of his casting, it does not matter. Nearly every morsel Morgan spoon feeds us in this version is, in Wyler’s epic, shown us rather than told us. And isn’t that one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking? Show, don’t tell?

But if there’s one thing Bekmambetov clearly loves to do is ignore the basic things that can make a film great.

Oh wait, he also loves being horribly prejudicial. Every single Roman citizen is portrayed as a condescending, power-hungry, barbaric lout. It is like watching a WWII-era film set in Germany but written by angry Jews. Not a single German citizen is ever portrayed as sympathetic, as victimized, as mournful, as fearful or hating of the Nazi regime. Nope. All evil.

There is a possible exception to this blanket labeling in the character of Messala himself. According to how the screenwriters decided to butcher the story, Messala actually has good cause to arrest Judah and his family. Having harbored a criminal who (and here’s another flagrant alteration of the original story) attacks Pilate during his arrival in Jerusalem, Judah actually is guilty of a criminal act. Subsequently, Messala, comes off as a much more sympathetic character than Judah himself. He is caught between worlds–between duty to his country and loyalty to his lying, seditious friend. I found myself thinking, Darn right, you should send Ben-Hur to the galleys!

Casting is another place in which this film falls on its face. Variety film critic, Owen Gleiberman, makes several very astute remarks on this subject and I agree with him (Read his review here). Huston, while a decent actor, carries none of the strength, power, anger or authority to pull off the role of Ben-Hur; and yet, there is something forgiving, peaceful and determined in him that would have made him much more effective in the role of Jesus instead. But that’s Hollywood nepotism for you.

Jesus, on the other hand–played by the almost Antonio Banderas-accented Rodrigo SantoroJane Got a Gun (read the review here)–would have seemed more at home hawking fine malt scotch while sitting in a leather armchair than dispensing and espousing moral principles.

And Morgan Freeman? Well, let’s just say the character of Ilderim is supposed to be an Arab sheik, not an aging Bob Marley groupie.

As for the supporting cast, it looks like most of it had been garnered from a college campus Starbucks.

Then, of course, there is the flagrant use of CGI, especially during the chariot race, the pitifully lackluster musical score and the utterly laughable end credit sequence.

However, there are a few noteworthy aspects of the film. Some of the cinematography, the lighting, the costumes and the…uh…sets? Sure, why not. But it is so very hard to give credit for these trifling qualities when the ledger is so far into the red, red is all one can see when watching the film.

In fact, while watching this Ben-Hur–this two hour pile of Hollywood detritus–it is impossible to shake the feeling its makers, before starting their film, watched the 1959 version, made a list of all the things that made that film great–the casting, the script, the acting, the musical score, the portrayal of Christ–and actively, with malice of forethought, said, “Let’s not do any of that.”

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: If a film was done right the first time, there is no reason to remake it. A remake should only be considered had the last incarnation been so off the mark, so forgettable or so, well, silent (such as the first, official Ben-Hur film in 1925) as to almost require a remake.

To put it another way, if the 2016 Ben-Hur had been the first attempt at adapting the story for the screen, they should start remaking it next week.

Ammo Dump rating: 3 out of 10 chariots

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my radio show every Friday afternoon at 4:10 pm. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @ALphaEXray.

Ben-Hur
Rated PG-13
Run time: 125 minutes (2 hours 5 minutes)

 

 

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