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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Aug 22, 2016

Ben Hur Movie Review: Not As Impressive As The Charlton Heston Version That Won So Many Oscar Awards

IF YOU DIDN’T see the Oscar-winning 1959 version of “Ben Hur” directed by William Wyler, you’d probably enjoy the 2016 version directed by Ukrainian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”). For one thing, the first movie run for more than 3 hours. The new one is a more abbreviated version of only 2 hours.

Based on a novel written by Gen. Lew Wallace in 1880, the new movie starts on the climactic chariot race scene with Judah Ben Hur (Jack Huston) facing his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). From there, the past is shown in flashbacks, with Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) as the narrator. Eight years ago, Ben Hur, a Jewish nobleman, and Messala are shown riding horses together when Ben Hur meets an accident and Messala saves him.

Messala is a Roman and opts to leave to serve the Roman empire. He returns years later as a military officer. When a Jewish rebel that Ben Hur helped tried to kill Messala’s prefect, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), Ben Hur, his mom and his sister are all arrested. Ben Hur is made a galley slave rowing warships in the high seas for five years.

He regains his freedom when their ship sinks (in the 1959 film, he saves the life of the Roman commander so he was given his freedom). He is then taken as a ward by Ilderim, the chariot owner who is charmed by his being an effective horse whisperer and helps him, through bribery, to get a spot in the chariot race to fight Messala.

The new “Ben Hur” is produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, noted for Christian based TV shows as “The Bible” and “Son of God”, so it’s not surprising they chose “Ben Hur”, which is subtitled as “A Tale of the Christ”. Jesus Christ was only briefly shown in the 1959 movie, but he plays a bigger part in the remake.

As played by Rodrigo Santoro, he’s first seen as a carpenter who helps defend a man from being stoned to death. He tells Ben Hur: “Love your enemies”. And Ben Hur responds: “Love your enemies? That’s very progressive.” Jesus is later shown being arrested in Gethsemane and being crucified in Golgotha. Just like in the 1959 movie, Jesus heals the mom and sister of Ben Hur who have become lepers, but under different circumstances.

What’s nice is that the characters now speak in a very contemporary tone. The new film makes other changes compared to the first one, but you should bear in mind that this film is intended for viewers of this generation. The action scenes are quite well staged, especially the chariot race and the sea battle where Ben Hur’s boat sinks.

The violence is quite restrained compared to past works of Bekmambetov, which is understandable since this one delivers a more concrete inspirational Christian message and is family friendly. Ben Hur here experiences conversion after Jesus died on the cross and the emphasis here is in forgiveness. But we feel that the movie’s original song that’s played over the closing credits, “The Only Way Out”, is quite awkward.

Jack Huston, a British actor who’s the grandson of Director John Huston, did supporting roles in films like “American Hustle” and “Hail Caesar”. He’s credible in the title role, but he’s no Charlton Heston whose larger than life portrayal of Ben Hur won him an Oscar best actor award. And Toby Kebbell as Messala definitely pales even more in comparison to the charismatic Stephen Boyd. This is actually the third film version of “Ben Hur” as it was first filmed as a silent movie (which we didn’t get to see) and it looks like that the third time is definitely not the charm.