Thursday 15 September 2016

Film: 'Ben-Hur'

Being aware of this being a box-office flop in America (and very likely to be emulated as such here - I was in an audience of about ten), as well as the majority of reviews being negative or lukewarm at best, I didn't really want to bother with seeing this, but did go assuring myself that I could always leave at the self-decreed two-thirds point which would qualify as my having 'seen' the film. Against these considerable odds it was surprising and pleasing to find that not only did I sit it out but thought that it was not at all bad - or, better expressed, it was not all bad by any means.

I've not seen the Charlton Heston version (itself a re-make) since its original release in 1959 when I was 12 or 13 - and all I remember of that was the chariot race, though that particular memory has been polished up by having seen clips of the race section several times on TV over the years. This new film, even at over two hours long, is still more than ninety minutes shorter than that William Wyler directed version, in which I hardly had a clue as to what was going on.
Which brings me to what I regard as a strength of the new version - its admirable clarity of motivations of the characters. I wasn't lost for one moment - and not only that, I was interested enough to want to follow it.

Jack Huston (nephew of Anjelica and Danny) and Toby Kebbell play Prince Judah Ben-Hur and his step-brother Marcellus respectively, bosom friends who become deadly enemies after the now Roman commander Marcellus' request to B-H to keep a rein on Jewish discontent against Roman rule, culminating in a guard of ginger-bearded Governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Ansbaek) being killed by an arrow shot from B-H's home during Pilate's procession through Jerusalem. B-H, his mother and his sister are arrested, separated, and the hostility between B-H and his former close buddy is complete when B-H, despite his wealthy former princely status, is consigned to being a scum-of-the-earth galley slave. (These scenes at sea are quite remarkable - violently harrowing but also exciting). 
When B-H miraculously survives this ordeal he is taken in, still as a slave, by a powerful African potentate, in the frame of Morgan Freeman (yes, playing a mortal! - and the only well-known member of the cast). B-H's way with horses endears him to his new owner who suggests he enters an upcoming major chariot race to compete with Marcellus, and thereby securing his freedom as well as winning a bet for the African. (No prizes for guessing who crosses the finishing line first).
The race itself, with half-a-dozen four-horse charioteers competing simultaneously, is extremely well shot, and almost nail-biting, even though one knows the outcome.
Oh, and I ought to mention that there are a few scenes featuring Jesus Christ himself (Rodrigo Santoro, in a speaking role), first seen lovingly doing a bit of carpentry work while voicing a few succinct bon-mots - and last seen being crucified in a scene to which Christian fundies could not make any objection at all, so uncontroversial it is, sticking rigidly to the conventionally accepted and blessingly approved version (unless, of course, one considers the entire event as 'controversial').
Btw: Why do we still have to have 'celestial choirs' singing their "Aaaaah aaaaaahs" on the soundtrack to evoke religious mood and reverential solemnity? I would have hoped that this notion would have been vanquished to the films of yesteryear.

Much has been made of the anachronisms in this film and they really are glaring ones.  The first I picked up on was seeing the young men wearing breeches (this is, of course, supposed to be early in the first century C.E.). Other reviewers have said they are wearing what are definitely jeans. Whatever it is, the men would also have looked out of place, though maybe not quite as gratingly, if the actors had been part of Robin Hood's gang of merrie men. 
There are other dubious features I could mention but I don't want to further spoil the fun of anyone who wants to see this.

It reads like I'm fairly down on this film but it's not really the case. It was far better than I expected and I really did feel for the characters. It's also been said that the cast acted as though they couldn't care much about the situations they were portraying. I didn't find that. I thought they all managed to put in a good effort with a somewhat creaky and hackneyed, frequently sanctimonious storyline. I could easily have done with considerably less 'treacle' in the closing minutes, though.

Director is Russian/Kazakh, Timur Bekmambetov, whose best known directed film up to now has been 'Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Slayer', not seen by me.

I'd suggest that if you're in any way interested in seeing this, do give it a go and I think you may well find your hopes and expectations being met - or even exceeded - as mine were....................6.


  1. This one doesn't ping anything for me, so I may wait for it to come to cable and then, maybe, watch it.
    But I love that you have a "two-thirds point" in your film-going! I need to try that.

    1. I opted for that particular minimum presence point during my first big year for cinema-going, Bob, and then starting to maintain a 'register' of all the films I have seen, only counting those seen at a cinema. That was 1966. If I'd been starting now I'd make it that I had to see at least 90% of a film to count it. But it's really extremely rare when I leave any film before the final credits start anyway - maybe one a year, or two at most.

      Fair enough on waiting until 'Ben-Hur' comes to TV, though as always is the case, you'll then have the experience of spectacle much diluted - and there is a lot of spectacle. But I can fully understand the subject matter not grabbing one.

  2. I really appreciated this review because I had absolutely no idea that this film existed. I certainly haven't seen any advertisements for it here in the U.S.
    I'd like to see it - mainly out of curiosity (despite the blue jeans and heavenly choirs)

    I was never particularly enthusiastic about the 1959 version of Ben-Hur.
    My favorite version remains the 1925 film with Ramon Novarro.

    1. I'm surprised you haven't been subjected to widespread commercial pushing of this film, Jon. I would have expected saturation coverage. If this has been the case nationwide it makes me wonder if they were hoping for the loss that the production now seems destined to make. Or maybe they'd already given up on it and decided to cut and run.
      I wouldn't warn anyone off from taking the time and paying to see it. There's more than enough in it to justify the effort.

      I suppose I ought to watch the 1959 version again but I'm not enthusiastic about doing so - mainly because of Mr Heston's presence, a late actor who nowadays in his many film appearances carries much baggage with him which I don't care to be reminded about.
      Btw: I did once see him live on the London stage - late 70s, I think - in Robert Bolt's 'A Man for All Seasons', playing Thomas More, of course. I didn't think the production all that good. Paul Scofield in the role on screen was better, as was the film as a whole.

      Never seen the '25 film though suppose I should. I didn't know, or had forgotten, that it featured Mr Navarro, a man who met a grisly end, I believe. (Gulp!)

    2. I agree with you about Heston and his "baggage", but it's interesting that you saw him perform on stage.

      Ramon Novarro was murdered by two street hustlers (brothers) on Halloween night, 1968. I saw the house where he was murdered and it's supposed to be haunted.

      The best version of the 1925 Ben-Hur is the newly restored one with a music score by Carl Davis.
      It is available on YouTube - that is, IF they didn't remove it for copyright violations...

    3. Jon, I've just checked on YouTube and the 1925 version is indeed there. I must say the opening minutes of Carl Davis' music sound most impressive and the film is longer than this latest one. I'll check it out later. Thanks.

  3. Ray, I knew this film had bad reviews but I planned on seeing it anyway and out for sure I will see it when it comes out on DVD. I don't know why but I always like these biblical epicd no matter how hackneyed. Your review just confirm that this is another film to be added to my Netflix queue. Thanks for the review.

    1. Since I ditched my 'faith', Ron, I do find these quasi Biblical tales harder to take than when I was in awe of the story they related. It sounds like you don't have as much of a problem with that as I do, though I do try and give them an impartial view. It worked on this one and I dare say you may well like it even more than I did. But as you're favourably disposed to the genre in the first place, this is one you ought to view.

  4. I you I drop by regularly, hoping you will write about a movie I have seen or hope to see, which is, alas, rare as I so seldom go to the cinema. I was half-fancying going to see Ben Hur (to compare it to the original) but the bad reviews told me not to waste my money.

    1. That was what I was inclined to do too i.e. give it a miss, but it worked out well. It would be interesting to compare this with the original, though I'm not sure whether you mean the 1920s original or the 1959 re-make. Whichever it is I think a lot of the reviews are unfair in condemning it so uttery - though others are not.