There is an enduring draw to the story of Ben Hur: Chariot races in the time of Christ with Romans ruling everywhere, what’s not to love? The 1925 version, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” was Francis X. Bushman at his best. With Fred Niblo directing (and several others not receiving credit), they came up with a sweeping epic that had great cinematography and a story that held close to the 1880’s novel, all while giving something few people had seen before: An epic.
Hollywood does epics well. Even after decades of competition, it’s a place that can still churn out films with sweeping vistas and impassioned battles between the desperate good and the bloated bad. Odds are always long. Bushman nailed it almost a century ago. William Wyler followed up in 1959 with something that was arguably better. Eleven Academy Awards better. His version of “Ben Hur” was in color, had sound, and offered up audiences nearly four hours of gorgeous film worth watching if only for the scenery. In the theaters now is the latest of many adaptations. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the man who brought you “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
It’s almost unfair to compare the latest version with the previous classics that preceded it, but the newest interpretation is shockingly adequate. “Ben-Hur” is thin on story and fat with CGI. Morgan Freeman is great as always – seriously, that guy has amazed me since I was a kid and saw him on “The Electric Company.”
Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother. He returns years later to his homeland seeking revenge after years at sea but finds redemption instead. Previously, Huston played Jack Kerouac in “Kill Your Darlings” and looked lost on screen. He’s much better here, but still barely passable. One thing stuck out like a sore thumb for me: As an observant Jew, Ben-hur would never exclaim “My God!” Members of the Jewish faith refrained from using the Lord’s name completely, especially in vain. Probably nitpicking on my part, but it did pull me out of the scene and aware of the fact that I was watching a movie. Epics are supposed to help you escape, not review decades of Catholic School teachings. Rodrigo Santoro plays Jesus with enough detached piety to make the actual Messiah wince.
The thing that left me the most wanting was the cinematography. Robert Surtees gave the 1959 version a sense of sweeping grandeur. The backgrounds and angles were all so well thought out it seemed like every grain of sand from the Holy Land to Rome was in focus and awesome. The 1925 version had a team of five photographers working with limited technology to make something visually interesting, inviting and foreboding at the same time. The latest version seems to have been conceived on a computer screen. This is not to say CGI can’t be used to delightful results, just not here. Even the actual exterior shots seem dull. Maybe giving Bekmambetov such a sweeping film to direct was too much? Leaving the theater left me feeling disappointed in a film I wanted to enjoy. I’m practically the built-in audience. Judging by the look of those around me, I was not the only one.