When I was compiling my post of English-language films that might appeal to a lover of old Hindi cinema, I needed to check something about Ben-Hur (which was on my list) on IMDB—and I discovered something I hadn’t realized. That Ben-Hur was being remade. In fact, it was due for release less than a fortnight after my post.
Now, if that isn’t coincidence, serendipity, fate, call it what you will—I don’t know what is. So I made up my mind: this remake had to be watched, and the original (no, I’m not counting the earlier, silent version of the film, but the record-breaking, many-Oscar winning one, directed by William Wyler). Comparisons, of course, would follow.
I will get on to what I thought of the new Ben-Hur later on in this post, but let’s begin with what the old Ben-Hur film is all about.
Set in Judea during Roman rule, this starts with a few minutes devoted to the Nativity, the birth of Christ. It shifts, years later, to when Jesus is grown up, and is turning out to be less interested in carpentry than in matters of the soul…
We then move on to the central figure of this story, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince and the wealthiest man in Jerusalem. We first see Ben-Hur when he comes to meet the newly-arrived Roman tribune, Messala (Stephen Boyd): Messala and Ben-Hur have been boyhood friends, close enough to have been brothers, and you can see that mutual affection in their reunion. Messala has been gone several years, serving in the Roman army while Judah has been here in Jerusalem, consolidating his position and wealth.
These two markers of these men’s lives come into conflict within the next few minutes. Messala, who is getting ready to welcome the new governor of Judea, asks Judah about the pulse of the city, and Judah is frank in his answer: the Jews hate the Romans, of course they would. Will Judah then, asks Messala, talk to the people, use his influence to convince them to allow the governor’s arrival in Jerusalem to be a peaceful affair? Judah agrees, though it’s obvious that their respective positions—Roman/conqueror and Jew/conquered—have begun to make themselves felt.
This tension is dissipated somewhat the next evening, when Messala comes to Judah’s home to dine with Judah’s sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), who has long been infatuated with Messala (who knows it) and Judah’s mother (Martha Scott). Messala has brought an ornament for Tirzah, and it’s obvious from her pleasure that he is as fascinating to her as ever. His affection for her seems more brotherly than anything.
When Messala and Ben-Hur draw aside to discuss that earlier matter, however, the tension flares up. Judah admits that he has spoken to the more prominent people of the city, and that there will be no trouble when the governor arrives—but, when Messala presses Ben-Hur to give him the names of likely rebels, Judah refuses. He will not betray his people, even for the sake of his friend. Messala is so angry that he leaves without dining with the family.
The next day, Judah receives another visitor: his steward Simonides (Sam Jaffe) arrives from Antioch, bringing with him (as he always does, so Judah remarks) news of an increase in Judah’s wealth. This time, Simonides has brought with him his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), so that she can ask Judah for permission to get married (this is needed because, since Esther is the daughter of Simonides, a slave, she too is Judah’s slave). The man Esther is to marry, though a near-stranger to her, is a free man and will buy her freedom too, Simonides assures Judah.
Judah, however, promises that Esther’s freedom will be his wedding gift to her. Both she and her father are suitably touched…
… and, later that evening, in a chance meeting on the terrace of the house, Judah and Esther end up confessing their love for each other, even if only very obliquely and then in a hurried kiss, before she breaks away from him.
Which is perhaps just as well, because the next day, all hell breaks loose. The new governor of Jerusalem enters town amid a great procession, with Messala riding ahead. Judah and Tirzah go up on the roof of their house to watch.
Tirzah, leaning down to get a better look, does not realize that some of the tiles on the parapet are loose. A couple of tiles go plummeting down, hitting the governor, and before they know it, Romans are thundering into the house.
Judah, his mother and Tirzah are arrested. Even though he tries to escape, all Judah manages is a short, strained conversation with Messala (who coldly refuses to help; Judah, he points out, didn’t help him, when he begged for help). Messala refuses, too, to say where Tirzah and her mother are, but he uses them as a means to push Judah: if Judah tries to escape, or to harm Messala, they will be put to death.
Judah is, without a trial, hurriedly sent off to Tyre. En route, when the ragged, bloodied and thirsty group of chained men stop at Nazareth, the Roman in charge allows the local villagers to give water to the prisoners only after the Romans and their horses have drunk their fill. And, even then, he orders that nobody give any water to Ben-Hur. Judah, desperate, sinks to the ground, muttering an anguished plea to God. And one man (whose face we never see) comes from the little carpenter’s workshop nearby, raising Judah up and giving him water.
Three years later, we catch up with Judah again. The Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) is travelling in his flagship, and Judah is one of the two hundred galley slaves who labour at the oars of this ship. Arrius, going below decks for an inspection, is struck by Ben-Hur’s unafraid demeanour, so different from the cowering hopelessness of the others. Arrius sits down, and literally puts the rowers through their paces: battle speed, attack speed, ramming speed. By the time he lets them rest, most of the rowers are collapsing—except for Ben-Hur.
Arrius later summons Ben-Hur to his cabin, and asks how he came to be on the galley. After hearing him out (though not, as is apparent to Ben-Hur himself, with any conviction), Arrius makes a proposition. As one of his leisure-time activities in Rome, Arrius is a trader—of gladiators and charioteers. He sees the making of one in Ben-Hur; if Ben-Hur agrees, he can become one of Arrius’s men. Ben-Hur, however, has his mind made up: when and if he gets free, he must return to Jerusalem to find his mother and sister.
Fate, however, has something else lined up. Soon after, the Roman fleet goes into battle, and the rowers are chained to their posts, but at Arrius’s orders, Ben-Hur isn’t chained. During the sea battle that ensues, the ship is sunk; Ben-Hur, after managing to free some of his fellow rowers, goes on deck—just in time to find Arrius going overboard, felled by the enemy. Ben-Hur dives in, rescues the Roman and hauls him up onto some flotsam, and ends up having to keep a depressed Arrius from trying to commit suicide.
When they are finally picked up by a Roman ship, it is to good news: although Arrius’s fleet sank, the enemy was defeated. So this has a been a victory for Arrius. Arrius, in his moment of joy, does not forget Ben-Hur: he hands over the goblet of water, held out for Arrius to drink, to Ben-Hur first.
And it is Ben-Hur who rides in Arrius’s chariot when the Consul arrives in Rome to receive the baton of victory from Caesar. Caesar is curious about this young man; when Arrius reveals who he is, Caesar agrees that it is hardly likely that the same man who saved a Roman Consul should have tried to assassinate the Roman governor of Jerusalem.
Shortly after, the case being presented, the Roman Senate comes to a decision: Ben-Hur is cleared of the charges pressed against him, and is handed over to Arrius as a slave, for Arrius to do as he pleases…
Sometime later, we catch up with Ben-Hur and Arrius at a grand party. Here, in front of all the assembled crowd, Arrius announces that Ben-Hur, who has become his best charioteer, is now also his son. The legalities for the adoption have been completed, so from this day onwards, this young man is heir to all of Arrius’s titles, wealth and property. Ben-Hur, now Quintus Arrius the Younger, is deeply affected and grateful. But, as his adopted father too realizes, Ben-Hur will not rest on his laurels.
Even as the newly-appointed Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) confides in Arrius that he is off to Judea, Ben-Hur too is getting ready to go back. To find his mother and Tirzah, to have his revenge.
Ben-Hur won a record eleven Oscars (not equalled until Titanic in 1997). It is widely regarded as one of the best period films ever made, and no best of sword-and-sandals list is ever likely to not list this one.
(And Ben-Hur being the epic it is, there’s a lot of interesting trivia).
1. Among the actors considered for the lead role were Marlon Brando, Vittorio Gassmann, Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Stewart Granger. Charlton Heston had been considered for the role of Messala.
2. The role of Jesus Christ (whose face is never shown in the film) was played by the singer Claude Heater. Interestingly, the reason for his face not being shown (or his voice heard) lies in a British law which ruled that Jesus’s face and voice could not appear in any film in which Jesus was not the main character.
3. The spectacular chariot race took five weeks to film. A special onsite infirmary was set up to handle injuries, but this was fortunately mostly only used for sunburns and minor scrapes. Stephen Boyd, incidentally, was one who suffered a bit during the filming: the reins of the chariots caused severe blisters on his hands, and the brown contact lenses he had to wear caused so much irritation that his scenes had to be spaced out to allow him time to rest his eyes in between.
4. Ben-Hur is one of only four MGM films in which the MGM lion does not roar at the beginning.
What I liked about this film:
The story, which is a fine mix of a lot of interesting elements and emotions. Since I am a history buff, the very fact that it Ben-Hur is set in one of the most happening parts of the world in the first forty years of the first millennium CE is enough to make it of interest to me; on top of that, there’s the age-old theme of a wronged man coming back from the dead to have his revenge. There’s romance, pathos, adventure, bromance, and faith thrown in. A heady brew, and mixed well. Stirring.
The spectacle, especially that magnificent chariot race, which is even more awe-inspiring when you realize that this was done in the days well before CGI. (Incidentally, that sequence is so memorable that my mother, when I phoned to tell her I’d gone to see the new Ben-Hur, asked, “Did they have the chariot race? How was it? Was it as good as the original?”)
What I didn’t like:
The length. True, it covers a lot of ground, and a lot of themes and plot elements, but still. Clocking in at just under three and a half hours, Ben-Hur is long (it even has an intermission, like a Hindi film). Some of it, I think, could have been reduced: the length of time allocated to the chariot race, for instance. Or the time in the galley, or just some of those long and pregnant pauses that stretch out a trifle too long.
Ben-Hur was based on a novel of the same name, written by a Civil War general, Lew Wallace. The 1959 adaptation is a fairly good adaptation of the book (the one major element it leaves out, and which—I think—doesn’t too much for the book in any case, is a fleeting attraction between Ben-Hur and the beautiful daughter of the Arab sheikh who becomes his backer in the latter half of the story). Another important divergence from the book is in the way Messala’s eventual fate is described: the film takes a very different route from the book.
And how does the 2016 version of Ben-Hur, starring Jack Huston as Ben-Hur and Toby Kebbell as Messala, compare?
None too well. Huston is (in my opinion) far better-looking than Charlton Heston, but Heston is the better actor and gets better scenes, better lines. And the chariot race, digitally enhanced and very real, is excellent.
But the rest is an obviously rushed, often blink-and-you-miss-it retelling of the Ben-Hur story. For example, Esther and Ben-Hur are already deeply in love when the story begins, and get married even before the mishap occurs that splits the family apart. Also, instead of Ben-Hur rescuing a Roman Consul and ending up as his adopted son, the entire Quintus Arrius angle is junked, leaving a Ben-Hur who has survived the sinking of the galley to wash up on a store where he’s rescued by an African trader in horses…
What this does is, of course, reduce time spent on character development; it also makes the film a little less convincing. A Ben-Hur who is now a Roman citizen (and no less than the son of the Consul himself) has clout in Jerusalem; clout enough to have Romans heed him, fear him enough to go searching in a long-forgotten prison cell because of him. A Ben-Hur who has crept back into Jerusalem to race horses in the circus? He isn’t merely powerless, he is probably (I am not familiar with ancient Roman law) still a fugitive. But the film seems to forget about that.
Basically, I got the distinct impression that the 2016 Ben-Hur is geared to appeal to a 21st century audience with a short attention span and a love for action movies. True, as some people point out, the end of the film is more indicative of the message of forgiveness that marks Christ’s teachings as well as Lew Wallace’s novel: here, instead of the Messala who dies in the 1959 version, is a Messala who (though one of his legs has been amputated below the knee) is otherwise alive and well, and so reconciled to the family of Hur that he is obviously on his way to even marrying Tirzah.
Sadly, the road to that forgiveness is so hurried, that the end reconciliation, so very joyous and all-forgiving, looks horribly unconvincing.
If you don’t have the time (or the inclination) to read the book, and cannot spare three and a half hours to watch the 1959 film, you may perhaps watch the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur. I could not find any other reason to really recommend this film.