“Ben-Hur” set the record for 11 Oscars in 1959. “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” caught up but 11 is still the record number. Almost every critic who could write and breathe at the time seemed to line up to shout hosannas at the four hour “Ben-Hur.” The one significant holdout – bless him forever – was Dwight Macdonald who, in one of the greatest movie reviews in the history of the profession, wrote “what no one knows who hasn’t seen it is that it is lousy ... Against (all those) bellows of approval, which might have been emitted by the M-G-M lion himself, I can only pipe that I found ‘Ben-Hur’ bloody in every way – bloody bloody and bloody boring.”
About Charlton Heston’s Oscar-winning performance Macdonald immortally wrote “Misdirected by (William) Wyler, Heston throws all his punches in the first ten minutes (three grimaces and two intonations) so that he has nothing left four hours later when he has to react to the Crucifixion. (He does make it clear, I must admit, he disapproves.)”
That review, for some of us, was a career-maker – the single reason for a teenager to want to get into a profession that actually allowed writers to tell truths against very great odds.
So here is a much shorter and cheaper “Ben-Hur” remake that looks like a basic cable movie that didn’t know its natural place in the world and is shyly put on airs as a major movie. The biggest name associated with it is co-writer John Ridley, the creator and showrunner of the ABC series “American Crime” and Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave.”
We can argue about this until next Thursday but it’s my carefully considered view that the big 1959 “Ben-Hur” is the worst movie ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture. The chariot race in the movie is good and Miklos Rosza’s music was truly great. And almost everything else is close to unendurable and always has been. (A secret, said Macdonald, well-kept by print media of his era.)
This one’s better, believe it or not. The budget chariot race isn’t as grandly exciting as Wyler’s, but it, too, is a gripping piece of filmmaking. Much better this time around is the shipwreck where Ben-Hur, a Judean Prince in Roman disfavor, after many years of being a galley slave, is set adrift to become a kind of overqualified horse whisperer.
To be exact, he was once a Prince of Judea whose adopted brother was Messala Severus, an orphaned Roman whom his father welcomed into his family’s bosom to set an example of peace and harmony for everyone in the environs.
Lots of luck.
The story is about the young manhood of the two men – one who becomes a Roman general and second in command to Pontius Pilate, the other who becomes a galley slave after a Zealot he’d welcomed into his house shot a revolutionary arrow into the neck of a parading Roman big shot. Since the Romans in ancient times were the prevailing Big Shots of the Western World, that little bit of improvised revolution didn’t play at all well. Which left the unwitting host of such shenanigans to try slavery on for size.
It was tough back-aching work being a galley slave, the movie tells us, but when the time comes for Judah Ben-Hur’s escape, he’s in such good shape years later that he can make a swim to where Morgan Freeman (called “The African”) is raising beautiful white horses for the big chariot race in Jeruselam. That, as we all know, is where a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus is attracting a lot of followers for a new way of thinking about politics and the universe.
Marco Beltrami’s music isn’t a patch on Rosza’s. But the best thing it has going for it is that it’s content to be a pseudo-biblical story and not a “Biblical Spectacular,” an oxymoron that became the name for the form in the 1960s when its phony baloney piety and overblown conspicuous consumption was stuff people actually felt privileged to sit through.
Cecil B, DeMille virtually invented the form, but if you look at his “The 10 Commandments” now, it’s stunning to see how chaotic, grungy and desperate all those fleeing Jews were in their last second exodus from Egypt. Those scenes are amazing, full of wildly disorderly life and not movie-making spectacle.
What you get here is a movie where you can always tell who the wealthy family is because they’re the ones whose hair always looks well-shampooed and treated with conditioner.
Jack Huston, grandson of John, plays Judah Ben-Hur and looks like a combination of Rufus Sewell and Stacy Keach. Toby Kebbell plays the Roman general Messala and Judah’s adopted brother. He looks like a weird combo platter of Jason Biggs, Joseph Fiennes and Sasha Baron Cohen – not exactly the optimal ethnic appearance for a Roman bigwig in this tale. I kept expecting people all during the movie to walk up to him and say “that’s funny, you don’t look Roman.”
It’s directed by Timur Bekmambetov who gave us “Wanted” with Angelinia Jolie and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
The executive producers are Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, which means yet another telling of this much-filmed story is coming from one of the same people who, years ago, established Donald Trump as a prime-time TV star in “The Apprentice.”
When Burnett finally meets his maker, he will, no doubt have a lot of explaining to do.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. 124 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images.