Ben-Hur: What You Need To Know
2016 saw a host of classic movies getting the remake or reboot treatment, with new incarnations of films from Ghostbusters to The Magnificent Seven arriving on cinema screens throughout the course of the year, but arguably the most ambitious of all of these was Timur Bekmambetov's reimagining of Ben-Hur, which made its big-screen debut last summer.
You have hand it to Bekmambetov; attempting to recreate a story like Ben-Hur is a ballsy move and was always going to be a daunting task, not least because of the legacy of William Wyler's 1959 film of the same name starring Charlton Heston. The film's record of 11 Academy Awards stood completely unchallenged for almost four decades before James Cameron's Titanic finally equalled its Oscar tally in 1997, and even though Peter Jackson repeated that feat in 2003 with the third instalment of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's a record that remains unsurpassed to this day. No pressure, then...
But let's just clear something up here: as the filmmakers are at pains to point out, the 2016 incarnation of Ben-Hur is not a remake of Wyler's film, rather a reinterpretation based on the same source material, namely the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. In fact, Wyler's film wasn't even the first time the story had been adapted for the screen, but it is Wylar's film that remains the benchmark and anyone taking on the role of Judah Ben-Hur has some pretty big sandals to fill.
So how does Bekmambetov's film stack up against the earlier versions? Ben-Hur arrives in stores on Monday (January 16th) in the meantime here's everything you need to know...
Who's in it?
Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston takes on the titular role of Judah Ben-Hur, with his adopted brother and soon-to-be chariot-racing nemesis Messala Severus played by Warcraft's Toby Kebbell. Morgan Freeman takes on the role of Sheikh Ilderim, with Westworld's Rodrigo Santoro taking on the role of none other than Jesus Christ himself. Elsewhere there are also appearances for Borgen's Pilou Asbæk in the role of Pontius Pilate and Homeland's Nazanin Boniadi, who appears as Judah Ben-Hur's slave-turned-love interest Esther.
What's the plot?
The story is set largely in Jerusalem and centres around the relationship between Judah Ben-Hur, a young man from a wealthy Jewish family, and his adoptive brother Messala, an orphan of Roman descent who is taken in by Judah's parents. Despite their hospitality, Messala feels alienated by his adoptive family and eventually enlists in the Roman army, being sent to fight in the Roman Empire's wars is Germany.
Three years later, Messala returns to Jerusalem as a decorated soldier, by which time the city is in the midst of a Jewish uprising against the Roman Empire's tyrannical rule, led by the Zealots. Messala returns to the Ben-Hur family home for a reunion dinner, where he advises Judah and his family of the impending arrival of Pontius Pilate. On becoming aware that Judah is sheltering a young Zealot by the name of Dismas (played by The Middle's Moises Arias), Messala attempts to convince Judah to become an informant for the Empire.
When Pilate makes his arrival, Dismas tries unsuccessfully to kill him by firing an arrow from the balcony of Ben-Hur's house. In a confrontation between the two brothers, Judah refuses to turn Dismas in, taking the blame for the assassination attempt himself. He is subsequently arrested by Roman troops and sentenced to five years of slavery aboard a galley.
The galley is involved in a collision at sea, allowing Judah to escape by clinging to a broken mast when the ship sinks. He is washed up and discovered by Sheikh Ilderim, who recognises Judah as a slave and offers him a shot at redemption by training him as a chariot racer. By offering a wager to Pilate, Ilderim is able to engineer a race that will pit Judah against his brother Messala, by now a champion chariot racer himself. But it’s a lethal sport and only one of the brothers is likely to emerge with his life.
Does it deliver?
Visually speaking, Bekmambetov’s reinterpretation is an impressive one thanks to some stunning camera work from Bourne trilogy cinematographer Oliver Wood, particularly in the film’s climactic race scene. Morgan Freeman aside, you can’t help but feel that such an epic story would have benefitted from some more heavyweight acting talent, but one thing that does make Bekmambetov’s film much closer to the original story is that here the focus is on redemption and forgiveness between the two brothers, rather than revenge and retribution. Not everyone will favour this over Wylar’s 1959 film, but it does have its moments.