Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took on a remake of one of the most decorated films of all time this summer, braving the task of a revamp of the 1959 classic “Ben-Hur.”
Set during the first decades of the Common Era, the story follows the struggle between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston of “Boardwalk Empire” fame), a wealthy Jewish prince, and his adoptive brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell, known for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Prince of Persia”), his former-best-friend-turned-enemy and Roman army officer. Morgan Freeman also appears as a secondary character in the film in the role of Sheikh Ilderim, Judah’s mentor for chariot racing. Even though his presence in the film wasn’t totally necessary, I, like many others, still enjoy a dose of Mr. Freeman in my films from time to time.
Though the remake didn’t quite stand up to the epic-status of the original, which tied for a record 11 Academy Awards with Titanic and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, it did its part of breathing fresh air into the story, based on the 1880s novel by Lew Wallace. The first step of this revamp was a new take on the script, making minor detail changes to give the feel of a different tale. The producers also utilized the advent of modern technology and CGI to bring viewers into Roman occupied Jerusalem. I found such visual changes to be one of the factors that made this new take so compelling, pulling viewers into dusty and bustling streets of a place they’ve only read about.
The remake relies on shorter scenes with fewer plot developments, running just 124 minutes, compared to the nearly four hour-long original. It’s available in 2D and a 3D version, which helps to further envelop watchers into a world nearly 2000 years in the past.
Despite the changes, most critics have argued that the film fell drastically short of its predecessor, citing the new Judah is not compelling compared to Charlton Heston’s representation of the character. They argue Huston brings softness to a character that is meant to be strong and forceful, but I found this hint of gentle-tendencies makes his love for his family and wife seem more genuine.
The plot unfolds when Judah is accused of attempting to kill Pontius Pilate, a Roman ruler, and is torn away from his family, who are presumed dead. He is forced to work as a galley slave on a ship for five years where he endures sporadic whippings.
As the years pass, Judah’s once charming and cheerish demeanor is traded for one of anger and sadness as he vows revenge for his lost family and life, seeking vengeance from his adoptive brother Messala, who showed no mercy to Judah or his family during the false allegation of treason.
Though he plays only a minor role, Jesus also has a few cameos, offering bits of wisdom to the people of Jerusalem, including Judah, and making another appearance for the Crucifixion. Though also not totally necessary, the inclusion of the son of God ties the religious aspects of the film with the historical pieces of the story, bringing scenes of the Bible to life.
The film is speckled with the same intensity that actually mired the era, with blood splashing into the water when a prisoner chained to the helm of a ship collides with another or when a Roman soldier’s head is bashed against the wall during the chariot race scene.
At times, such brutality, and the realization that it really happened, is a little too much to stomach. That fact earned the film its PG-13 rating with the violence and “disturbing images” alone.
The producers kept the violence from overtaking the story line though. The chariot race scene is every bit as enthralling as the original, but the CGI effects in the remake allow for a more life-like display of the games. Horses grouped in fours haul the racers around a track as thousands of onlookers cheer.
Clouds of dust on the track and obstacles from other drivers keep the chariot racers from running a clean race; symphonic music builds the suspense of the climactic scene between the main characters.
Some knowledge of the Bible, or at least watching the film with someone who does, adds an extra layer to the movie, as viewers are able to link characters in the film with their roles in the Bible. But even with my limited knowledge on the subject, I was able to follow the intense tale and remain entertained.
So, even without interest or understanding of religion, the historic intricacies and sensation of desperation will keep you watching too, sometimes in awe, that such a society existed on our planet not so long ago.