Remake of ‘Ben-Hur’ Can’t Find Right Tone or Pacing

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Average: 5 (2 votes) Oscarman rating: 1.5/5.0
Rating: 1.5/5.0

CHICAGO – In most cases, remaking a classic film is a fool’s errand that will end in disappointment for everyone involved. The greatest pitfall is the inevitable comparison between the two films. This form of cinematic suicide is becoming more prominent as cash grabs attempt to revive still relevant films. There are few stories that can and should be resurrected, but “Ben-Hur” is not among them.

There is an undeniable sense of scale and grandeur from many of the old Hollywood epics that came out of the 1950’s and 60’s. In the magnificent time before computer-generated graphics and green screens, every set had to be physically created for a film. This gave films a sense of authenticity and depth, even when elements like the casting didn’t. Russian vampire/action film director Timur Bekmambetov (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “Wanted”) failed to capture the Homeric pacing and attention to detail that made the 1959 “Ben-Hur” an unforgettable experience. Bekmambetov’s experience skews more to the action genre side, exchanging singular focus with shaky, fast-paced scenes.

Jack Huston is the Title Character in ‘Ben-Hur’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

This is the first impression the film leaves as it opens with a convulsive horse race is that it has no sense of coherent framing. This recurring theme is easily seen in the rest of the film, but you get a sense for it after seeing all the disjointed close-ups choppily edited together with all other sorts of unflattering, unsteady footage. This lack of coherent framing and pacing takes away any of the film’s graveness and immediacy and just leaves you feeling little if anything. The infamous chariot race, which was the climax of the previous remake, ends up paling in comparison to this version of the film despite all the technological advances made in film since then. You can create a beautiful world, but without a steady hand and a strong vision for guidance, it just comes off as a shell of its former self.

While the 1959 remake remained tasteful, almost even elusive with its depiction of the godhead, this latest “Ben-Hur” remake used heavy-handed scenes to force his inclusion in the film. You are first introduced to Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) as he intersects into a conversation, giving some cryptic, prophetic wisdom while doing some carpentry. You aren’t told his name yet, but the scene basically screams it to the point of having him look directly into the camera and winking. I could hear the person behind me as they were loudly whispering, gasping and saying, “Oh my God! I think that’s Jesus!” Clear evidence that their effect was achieved, but at the cost of adding campiness to an already tone troubled film.

Co-writers Keith R. Clarke (“The Way Back”) and John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) both have experience bringing tales of long, tumultuous journeys to life, but while one emphasizes the physical and emotional toll of the journey, the other stresses the emotional and spiritual aspects. Together, they create a film that neither focuses enough on the personal journey nor goes all the way and emphasizes the religious aspects. The end result is a middling product that is so scattered that it is unable to reach any sort of fulfilling emotional or spiritual climax. Their heavy-handed approach to the story resembles that of a blacksmith hammering everything into place when what the film really needed was a carpenter to skillfully craft a cohesive story.

There are so few improvements from the last remake that I can count them all with two fingers. The first, and most obvious, improvement comes in the elimination of the disgusting brown face performance that won Hugh Griffith an Oscar that year. Instead, we get the talented Morgan Freeman in the role of Ilderim. The cast as a whole is improved with a good number of them actually looking like the ethnicities of the area, or are ethnically ambiguous enough to pass for it.

Rodrigo Santoro is Jesus in ‘Ben-Hur’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

The next and final improvement in “Ben-Hur” comes in the development of the relationship between Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell). Their bond of brotherhood is given some visual background, making it feel more organic and less like a casual afterthought introduced in a short conversation. The pitfall of this change, and the change in Messala’s backstory, is that the unnatural escalation of his betrayal seems much more out of character than it was in the 1959 version.

Despite the catastrophic cinematography and unnecessary changes to the story and storytelling style, the performances were all solid. There was nothing remarkable about any of them, especially when compared to the stellar performances of Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. There was little this remake of Ben-Hur could have done to try and escape the towering shadow of its predecessor, but no one expected it to actually try so little to do so. The best thing about staying in the shadow of a superior film is that it will eventually fade into obscurity.

”Ben-Hur” opened on August 19th at theaters everywhere. Featuring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Pilou Asbaek and Morgan Freeman. Screenplay by Kevin R. Clarke and John Ridley. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Rated “PG-13”

Jon Espino, film and video game critic,

Film & Video Game Critic

© 2016 Jon Espino,

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