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Harry attempts to watch the new BEN-HUR with love, at best it tries things.. tries...

So – there were no press screenings of Timur Bekmambetov’s BEN-HUR.  I admit the trailers have looked awful – the casting & the production that I’d seen glimpsed felt cheap and not at all at a prestige level.   At the same time, I was curious to see what Walter Huston’s great grandson was going to do with a role that is completely and for all time owned by Charlton Heston.   And yes, a statement like that is an admittance to an instant bias that I wholeheartedly admit to…  BEN HUR by William Wyler & scored by the sound sorcerer known as Miklos Rozsa – well, it’s easily one of the greatest films of all time.  


In 1959, William Wyler’s BEN-HUR was set into production with a goal of showing audiences why television will never ever touch the majesty of BEN-HUR.  So the studio gave Wyler the enormous sum of $15.9 million dollars to make one of the grandest film productions ever seen.   Now, that might not seem like much, but if you adjust for inflation, that number becomes $131,487,536.09 of our 2016 money, and this new film by Timur is a mere $100million dollar affair.  But numbers don’t really tell the tale.  I mean, adjusted for inflation, the 1959 BEN-HUR grossed more domestically than AVATAR.  


No – a lot more than $31million in budget separates these two movies.   I like Marco Beltrami, he’s done wonderful work, but Miklos Rozsa – that 1959 film, the score makes you feel the majesty & power of the Roman Empire.   It made the power of GOD feel tangible at those moments.   The original 2.76:1 aspect ration made the film seem to stretch forever. 


If you love that version of the film, get ready – you’re getting a very different tale.   Here we actually get to see some of Messala’s adventures fighting with Rome.  He’s Ben-Hur’s adopted brother and one whose Roman relatives had a part in the downfall of Julius Caesar – so he was a black sheep with the Romans, having to do more to prove himself.   In fact, they go out of the way to make Messala not the unbelievable asshole that Stephen Boyd brought to life.  Toby Kebbell paints his Messala less like Grand Moff Tarkin on Coke – and more like a little brother with a lot to prove.  


I know, that’s very different.


I mean, it’s not tiles from a roof that fall, but an actual ZEALOT staying with Judah Ben-Hur shooting with an arrow that triggers the tragedy – and right away, the character of Simonides (played so wonderfully by Sam Jaffe in the original) gets his throat slit instantly.   His daughter Esther gets away, but the Hur fortunes are apparently lost.   I don’t know, they don’t go into it.  


The love between Messala and Tirzah Ben-Hur is slightly more than the crush it was before.   But while I’m citing changes…  We see the face of this Brown-Eyed Jesus & he delivers his Jesus quotes well.   But it feels… ordinary.  I feel nothing other than, OH, I GUESS THAT’S JESUS. 


Now – how about BEN-HUR – how much has his story changed.   Well, he ain’t Charlton Heston.  He’s the Grandson of John Huston and Great Grandson of Walter Huston – and knowing that had me hoping against hope for a miracle here.   A surprise.   This Judah Ben-Hur is more of a genuine man of peace.  He doesn’t believe in causing trouble.  Much like the version we all know – when Messala asks Judah to name names of traitors…  it goes bad.   He still gets water from Jesus, still gets put in the belly of a Roman ship for years at a time – only his number is now 61 instead of 41… obviously, brilliance.  Sigh.  


Yeah, the crash happens, yeah he survives floating atop a crucifix mast setup – and no he doesn’t save Quintus Arrius…  he doesn’t get summoned to his quarters…  there’s no connection, no testing with the whip…  no practice for a battle…   Now the great James Cosmo of BRAVEHEART or Jeor Mormont from GAME OF THRONES…   he’s playing Quintus, though not credited or called Arrius…  but the main point – he has no relationship with Ben-Hur at all.  So… Judah doesn’t go to Rome, doesn’t become Young Arrius, doesn’t charioteer in the grand Circus of Rome, doesn’t become renowned throughout the Ancient World.


Instead, he washes ashore upon a beach, then wakes up in a tent with a sick beautiful Arabian white stallion and 3 healthy ones.  This is the tent of Ilderim, no longer Sheik Ilderim, the character is referred to as African in the film, and is of course played by Morgan Freeman.   I miss the overt Islamic nature of this character.   To me, the idea that a Jewish Prince became a galley slave in the Roman Fleet, became Roman, then by befriending a Shiek ends up facing the root of his hate in the Circus of Jerusalem, he could exact revenge.  That a Jew became Roman, then befriended another faith to continue his story – it was very powerful to my mind – and is still a story that we – all these years later should learn from…


But that’s all cut from the film.   Now, Morgan Freeman’s Ilderim gives  the rookie charioteer Judah Ben-Hur rudimentary sand drawing lessons on how to when the Chariot race.


Oh – and Messala’s chariot.  Ordinary.  Still 4 magnificent Black Steeds…  but them badass spiked wheels…  not here.   Oh – and how this ends…  I’ll let you discover, but it’s way more about forgiveness and reconciliation – which as someone that likes to believe in the best nature of humanity – I found, a fascinating choice.  But ya know…  Watching Judah Ben-Hur and Messala riding happily into the sunset together is a weird fucking choice for the story.


Beltrami’s score is never present throughout the film – preferring to exist dial tone like in the background droning on. 


I approached watching the film as though I’d never seen the story told before.  So as I watched it, I was past the automatic hate that felt impossible to disengage – and I credit that to the innocence of my nephew, who begins his Junior year on Monday.   When I asked him if he wanted to see BEN-HUR, he asked…  that’s the chariot movie right?  Well for 10 minutes (I didn’t tell him that, though I’d heard that), but when he said that, I asked… “Have you seen the one with Charlton Heston, the guy from the old PLANET OF THE APES movie?”   He looked at me blankly.   And I thought about showing him the original first – last night, but decided – I won’t pre-color him.   He should have an opportunity to discover this BEN-HUR like many of his generation will.   With no context.


So – what’d he think?  He really liked it – he asked me…  “Uncle Harry, what makes the old one so much better for you?”


That’s a loaded question, I mean… How to briefly describe everything I feel about the original BEN-HUR in a manner a kid who just thought this sometimes amazing looking modern film was cool. 


“Well, I don’t want to get into spoilers with you, but if you’d seen the original first, the impression I come away with is this.   This film feels like a tale told by boys, that I’ve seen be told by men.  This film is missing a key act for Ben-Hur, which is so cool!  And mainly, Miklos Rozsa’s score.   The Heston film is better before any live-action even happens.”


He asked, “How?”


I said, “I’m giving you the super box set I have to take home.   Just watch it if you really want the answer to that.   Give me a call afterwards.   I’m very curious to see what you think.”


But what I love is that he’s gung ho for seeing the 1959 version.   This new film did that for him.   Kinda like when I saw David Lynch’s DUNE and it led me to the novel.   This BEN-HUR will capture the innocent minds that have yet to discover the majesty of BEN-HUR.


I’d love to see the 1925 silent with a live orchestra playing a reorchestrated version of Miklos Rozsa’s 1959 BEN-HUR score…  but that’s because it is what I’d like to see. 


I feel this film was damaged by making a film that had no intention or restoring grandeur at the theater.  This is a long story, cutting it down does not serve the story.  Paramount and the producers had a chance to attempt to make a grander film than the two major previous attempts.   By making it more iconic, more mythic than it was before.  Instead, they decided the real story was Ben-Hur and Messala – and damn everything else.   It’s interesting, but it isn’t catching audiences.


The matinee I bought tickets for today had 7 people in the theater, counting FatherGeek, KublaKhan & myself.   Sitting next to me was a silver haired war vet with one leg.  After the film, I asked what he thought.  He said he liked it, but loves the Heston version.


That’s probably something the open minded will say.  Timur has moments in this film where you think… Maybe he’s gonna go huge with this, but it keeps dialing back, like it didn’t want to even tackle the Heston tale.   Stuff like changing Hur’s galley number – it’s underlying that this isn’t that story, but theirs…  and I respect their right to tell their story, but at least shoot for the fucking moon man.  


As a fan of BEN-HUR my whole life – the sacrilegious conversations I’ve had with fellow film lovers over the year – when we get on a kick of MOVIES THAT SHOULD NEVER BE REMADE, BUT IF WE HAD TO, THIS IS WHAT WE’D DO…   With BEN-HUR – I’ve always wanted a whole film all about BEN-HUR after he saved Quintus Arrius – and his time in Rome at the great Circus.   I mean, in watching Wyler’s… that magnificent Chariot Coliseum – that was the flea speck fucking Jerusalem Circus…  not the majesty of ROME.  


Those Charioteers – out in a territory that no Roman wanted to be stuck in… they’re likely the worst charioteers and the most ordinary race he ran, other than the personal emotion and desire for revenge he had.   But that’s the untold story of Hur I want to see.   Not the one we’ve seen twice before.


This tale has different motivations – and they’re interesting to think about and very easy to dismiss as horseshit – but in the end…


I come away realizing just how fucking amazing William Wyler’s remake was.  Boyd & Heston…   How powerful the presence of Christ and his casual miracles were.


Since I was a boy, I watched that film and when Christ gave Heston water…   he filled his soul… you can see it in everything Heston does after.   And if Jesus could bring back the dead, cure leprosy, make water turn to wine…   then what blessed power did he give Ben-Hur…  he blessed him with the ability to do and accomplish the impossible.  Survive the Roman Galley, become a citizen of Rome, return to Jerusalem, find his mother and sister and cure their leprosy.   JESUS ROCKS in the 1959 film.  Here, Jesus tells Ben-Hur, “You would do the same,” and I admit for a half second  I got goosebumps…  but that was me over thinking the moment.   It just doesn’t feel like a blessed life, it feels like a convenient tale.  Not an epic one.


If you love the story of BEN-HUR, absolutely see it, if only to just marvel at everything Hollywood has lost, the swagger of the epic, the majesty of scores, the true iconography of real movie stars and the capacity to make us BELIEVE.  This movie doesn’t make me think how small TV is, it made me think how much bigger any given episode of GAME OF THRONES is.


The Chariot Race in 3D is pretty nifty, but for all the death to digital horses and stuntmen they do…  They do nothing to establish the wow of the ancient era.   Instead of the majestic parade of the charioteers, where they salute the audience as they keep their teams in perfect unison making a complete round of the track…  they burst out the gates and it’s all on.


That’s… kinda what’s wrong with this whole film.  A lack of presentation.  If they don’t treat the material with the awe and wonder that past filmmakers gave us, how do they hope to earn our respect.   Perhaps they’ll learn the right lessons from this film’s imminent box office disaster.   If you’ve made a BEN-HUR film you don’t show Critics everywhere instantly, you’ve probably fucked it up – and they kinda did.





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