Disappointed with myself for intending to upload a piece on Roy Ward Baker’s splendid prisoner of war film, The One That Got Away, last week and not finishing it in time, I decided my punishment was to be a visit to the cinema in order to catch Timur Bekmambetov’s rebooted Ben-Hur. Thanks to Odeon Limitless, any notion of quality control over what we see these days has more or less vacated the building. Mrs Mike and I can decide the worth of a movie by just seeing it for ourselves and so that’s pretty much what we do. As a consequence we have watched some pleasantly surprising gems – Midnight Special, The Jungle Book – but also the occasional outright stinker, like Sausage Party (awful, thumbs down emoji, etc). We’ve had further opportunities to be dismayed at the Odeon’s general inability/unwillingness/can’t be botheredness to deal with problem patrons, let alone the fact their picture houses are in dire need of some TLC, but that’s another story. The other week, I went by myself to see Morgan. I think there were two other people in the entire theatre, and a malaise hung over the entire experience. The show started late, and when the film eventually arrived I detected a slight flicker on the screen, mostly when the image was supposed to be white. I didn’t even know if it was my tired eyes or a problem with the projector, until the three of us left at the end and were confronted by the manager who confirmed there was indeed an issue with the equipment, they’d been in two minds over whether to screen the film at all, and would we like some free guest passes? As though we had any use for them, being Limitless subscribers, but what the hell, right? Not a bad film, as it happens, like a schlockier take on the storytelling possibilities introduced by last year’s Ex Machina…
So anyway, Ben-Hur, a film I was dying to see because (i) I’m an irredeemable sucker for this stuff (ii) I retain a kernel of faith in the future of epic cinema. In truth, the genre’s been dead for years, hasn’t it? Okay, so Gladiator entered peoples’ hearts and minds, but that film is getting on for twenty years old now and the projects green-lit on the back of its success have barely been worth the trouble. Ridley Scott’s subsequent entries in the ‘epic’ tradition are more miss than hit. I liked the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven, but by then the damage was done. There were some interesting ideas in Exodus: Gods and Kings, yet it remains at best a pale imitation of The Ten Commandments, albeit with some ravishing visuals. As good an actor as Christian Bale is, even having that elusive capacity to command the screen in a way Kingdom’s Orlando Bloom rather fatally did not, he did nothing to supplant Charlton Heston as the definitive Moses. And let’s face it, even revisiting Gladiator is a disappointing experience. Scott’s visual flair, liberal amounts of gore, Russell Crowe’s larger than life presence and the piece’s sheer loudness can’t hide its obvious direction and ham-fisted plotting. I admit upon first watching it that I was dazzled, not to mention delighted by the return of an extinct tradition of film making, but now I don’t think it comes close to the movie – The Fall of the Roman Empire – from which it ripped the broad stokes of its narrative. As for Crowe, I think I now prefer him in the eponymous Noah, which if nothing else embraced its sheer loopiness for a truly unique cinematic experience.
How does the new take on Ben-Hur stack up? William Wyler’s 1959 version was by no means the first attempt to film General Lew Wallace’s allegorical saga, but I think I’m being fair in suggesting it remains a special film. There’s the weight of Oscar glory, the film’s length and scope, its straight-faced lashings of religious storytelling. While not I’d argue a perfect picture, it gives every impression of being the definitive screen adaptation of Wallace’s text and the task of redoing it seems an awesome undertaking. Besides, the world doesn’t appear to have been crying out for this film to be released. The trailers and other promotional material have met with a collective sigh, a sense of ‘really, why would you?’ from viewers who either have fond memories of Wyler’s film, simply couldn’t care less, or regularly bemoan the fact that its special effects would be computer generated and therefore weightless. I’m not going to ramble on about CGI, which I’ve already done exhaustively elsewhere and, in fairness, I thought was used quite well here on the whole. Some of the things that happen to horses in this picture could not have been filmed in the past without ending the lives of the poor beasts in a cruel and unnecessary fashion, so it’s all good with me to know the producers harmed pixels instead.
Ben-Hur 2016 hasn’t done great business and critically it’s taken a mauling, with enough caveats to suggest individual viewers could form differing impressions. For my part, it was pretty much what I was expecting. It’s a little over half the length of the 1959 film, which means some of the earlier work’s statelier elements either fly past or are exhumed entirely, but also the sheer epicry gets dialled down. Judah’s fall from grace, leading to his time served as a galley slave, is one of the story’s more powerful moments. In 1959, this was given the full grand sweep. The privations experienced by Judah and his fellow rowers were conveyed really well, the years he spent there made palpably clear. This is important because Judah emerges from the horrors of slavery a vengeance machine; the depth of his anger fuels the film’s second half and you can see why he feels that way. The new version includes the rowing period, but truncates it. Judah takes to his oar and then we’re told that five years have passed and we can tell because he now has long hair and a funky hipster beard. Admittedly, the sea battle he’s involved in looks pretty cool, something that the 1959 film falls short upon as the camera pans over Wyler’s toy boats, but nowhere do you get to experience Judah’s years of torture on the ship, the will to survive, his festering resentment. It just sort of happens and then the story moves on, a mere notch on the hero’s journey towards his inevitable showdown with Messala.
One of the more interesting aspects of this update for me was how they would treat its Christian overtones; after all Ben-Hur is a story of the Christ, and Jesus looms large over it. I didn’t expect to see anything like the 1959 film’s Nativity scene, which is in truth a few minutes of utter beauty, told entirely without words, the pictures and Miklos Rozsa’s score doing all the work because it’s one of the western world’s best known stories and doesn’t need to be narrated, indeed as I remember Jesus goes on to feature prominently without a single line of dialogue escaping his lips. Famously, Wyler opted never to show Christ’s face; we see him from behind and it’s left to the reactions of other characters to him to make it clear who he is. Inspired direction really, transforming Jesus into an otherworldly and very special character who it appears the film never feels worthy in showing fully. No such luck here. Jesus, played by Rodrigo Santoro (who I last recall seeing in Zack Snyder’s insane 300 as an enemy king with almost spider-like elongated arms and legs), is just another dude living and working in Jerusalem, spouting what would become Christian wisdom to anyone who cares to hear him but not especially noteworthy. I could go with that, actually; if Bekmambetov wished to cast Jesus as a commoner whose views long outlived him, then there’s some logic in that. Only the film wants to have its cake and eat it, as shown in the scene where Judah’s on his journey to the galley and collapses, Jesus defying the guards to give him water and the Romans unable to do a thing to stop him. So what is he then – preacher with a revolutionary message of universal love, or indefinably more than that? It’s confusing, and it makes the film’s climactic moment – when Judah has his moment of epiphany at the foot of the cross – so much less meaningful. The ‘moment’ happens, but we’re supposed to accept the crucifixion’s impact on Ben-Hur because of it being a major world event that we all know about, not as a consequence of great build-up and storytelling. The film’s lack of internal logic is a real issue.
Finally, the element I was really looking forward to, which was the clash between Judah and Messala. In my most recent viewing of the 1959 film, which I wrote about on these pages here, the personalities of the two main characters, one Jewish and the other Roman, became its decisive point. It was helped by the performances – Heston we all know about, but Stephen Boyd’s Messala was an outright revelation. Both seemed capable of calling on depths of bile that gave their mutual enmity such heft and lent enormous gravitas to their personal battle in the chariot arena. With all that emotional weight, the already spectacularly mounted race became one of the screen’s most exhilarating spectacles. How could the modern retelling stack up? The film opens with the prelude to the race, before tracking back to show how these two ‘brothers’ became enemies in the first place. Messala is played by Toby Kebell, best known for motion capture performances for films like Warcraft and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Far removed from Boyd’s pent up rage, Kebell’s acting makes him look in permanent pain, with none of the ‘be on top at all costs’ motivation that made Boyd’s Messala such a menacing figure. Jack Huston, an actor I haven’t seen in many things, or at least not enough to sit up and take notice, makes for a low key Judah, which is the worst thing he can be. The 1959 film was carried on Heston’s broiling sense of resentment, his anger at the world washing off the screen in great waves, but you get none of that from Huston, who seems an all-round nicer guy but whose cause it’s almost impossible to get behind. That leads to the movie’s biggest misunderstanding, that having action and carnage during the chariot race is all well and good, quite impressively filmed and trying to add fresh elements to a simple retelling of what came beforehand, but that’s all it ever is. I didn’t really care who won. Rather, I was more impressed with the video (linked below) that let me faff around on the chariot as it hurtles around the track. Very pretty and a bit of fun, yet there’s no weight, no emotion invested, as though the film can get by on visual splendours alone. It can’t.
In all, the 2016 retelling makes me think kindlier of the Wyler film, to appreciate it all the more, which I don’t suppose was ever the intention. Perhaps it’s the case that these kinds of movies have simply had their day and should be left back in the past, dusted off for Bank Holiday TV screenings and, if you’re lucky, the occasional big screen exhibition. I don’t agree with that personally. Good stories are good stories, so why not keep telling them? And some of the best ones come out of antiquity, whether they’re fictional ones like Ben-Hur that run alongside real-life events or the account of Cleopatra, the Empire defining tale that was most recently brought to life on HBO’s typically expensive series, Rome. But it isn’t here, and it’s nothing to do with CGI but instead the reliance on spectacle over old-fashioned elements like character and plot development. In the film’s notes, much is made of the race being shot using clever camera work, stuntmen (and animals) and practical effects over the whole thing being computerised. Fine, the sequence is very nicely done, a good showpiece. A shame they didn’t dedicate the same amount of time and effort on all the other things.