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The original Ben-Hur, released in 1959 (itself a remake of a 1925 silent feature), is considered one of the greatest films ever made, cemented in cinema history as a grand historical drama capped by what still remains an astonishing (authentic) chariot race. The book on which all films are based, published in 1880, in now public domain and MGM, who has produced all three, is looking to find box office gold again.
The story is well-known, following the titular character, played by Jack Huston, from a life of leisure and good fortune to the horrors of a Roman Galley, chained to a warship. After a ferocious battle allows him the chance to escape he ends up in the company of Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). The Sheik teaches him the art of chariot racing as it is the best and only way to defeat Ben-Hur’s brother (Toby Kebbell), a high ranking Roman with unparalleled skills in the arena who forced his brother into slavery.
The new special-effects laden film will be very close to the beloved previous film though is relying heavily on CGI in its presentation, a conceit of the modern era, but one that strips much of the authentic feel that made the 1959 movie so impactful. Watching that film especially the finale race, the gripping sense of reality to it is hard to deny while in this trailer, the brief reveal of the famous showdown is clearly computer rendered and cut like a Fast and Furious stunt with chariots (and horses) flipping about in chaos. While action seems to be the carrot on the stick studios try to use to lure viewers into the theater, the real story behind Ben-Hur is the character and his incredible journey, a story that is made memorable by the emotional weight of what Ben-Hur endures and witnesses. We can only hope this new one will give time to the people in the story over too many scenes of battles and excessive fighting.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who is perhaps best known for 2008’s Wanted, action is sure to be the calling card of this movie however as Bekmanbetov has put together a string of fast-paced stunt heavy films, including Night Watch and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Huston, who is the grandson of John Huston, making his first starring film, has been steadily making his presence felt, most recently in Hail, Ceaser!, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and American Hustle and on television’s Boardwalk Empire. He looks to be a good fit for this role and while his face might not be well-known, this could turn things around. Also maybe unfamiliar to most is Kebbell, playing Be-Hur’s adopted brother Messala. Kebbell, who was last seen as Dr. Doom in the failed Fantastic Four reboot, is in the thankless role of being the villain and therefore seems to have little to do than sneer and berate Ben-Hur, and we can only hope there is some light shed on his motivations.
While the first trailer is disappointing, mostly a seizure-inducing mash-up of the film’s larger set-pieces, this is fairly standard practice now, but what really must have MGM concerned, and putting a question mark on this decision from the start, is the recent track record of these period films set in Biblical times, all of which have spectacularly failed. There are hints that what is not seen in this bait trailer is a human story of courage and redemption, hope and survival, less willing to spend most of its running time of action and rightfully putting this classic tale in the hands of the characters.
Ben-Hur opens August 12, 2016
Lew Wallace (based on the novel by), Keith R. Clarke (screenplay)
Jack Huston, Nazanin Boniadi, Haluk Bilginer, Morgan Freeman