Friends, Romans, Countrypersons: Let us agree there is nothing inherently sacrilegious about embarking upon a fourth feature-film version of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
Let us even honor the courage of filmmakers intrepid enough to try to outpace the long shadow of the third big-screen iteration, the Charlton Heston-starring one directed by William Wyler and released in 1959. A 3 1/2-hour epic, it promised to put the grandeur and (G-rated) decadence of the Roman Empire on-screen, and it delivered. At the box office, it handily outgrossed no-slouch competitors like North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot and Rio Bravo. On Oscar night it swept the major categories, winning 11 statues — a haul unmatched for 38 years until another uncommonly long and historically pricey movie, James Cameron's Titanic, came along.
The first screen Ben-Hur, from 1907, was a 15-minute short that cut straight to the chariot race. Ben-Hur '59 withholds the race until 2 1/2 hours in, but then serves up one of the most celebrated sequences in all of cinema. It's a stirring, emotionally resonant picture by any measure. And yet its girth and piety make it an easy target, as the Coen Brothers' little-seen comedy Hail, Caesar! showed us last winter.
Here's something that gets at how globalization has changed showbiz: The 1959 Ben-Hur's staggering-for-its-era production budget of $15 million works out to only $124 million in 2016 money — less than half the price of Captain America: Civil War, marketing not included.
Spectacle was very much the product. Wyler made his epic in an era when movies were staring down a perceived existential threat from television. TV sets were grayscale and tiny; Hollywood doubled down on color and ultrawide-screen formats (and even 3-D) to compete.
The 57-year-old silver-fox Ben-Hur still has a scope and occasion that few 21st century blockbusters can touch. Simply knowing MGM really built that 2,000-feet-long, 650-feet-wide replica of the Roman Circus in Cinecittà, and filled its bleachers with thousands of costumed extras, gives the result a sense of human undertaking that the most photorealistic computer imagery cannot produce, though it surely boasts a more reasonable carbon footpr- -
EDITOR: Hey, Chris? I'm, uh — I'm gonna jump in here. You've established your O.G. Ben-Hur bona fides. For seven grafs. We get it. So let's focus up: HOW IS THE NEW ONE?
CHRIS KLIMEK: It's shorter.
EDITOR: ... That's it?
KLIMEK: I mean, if you lopped the 6 1/2-minute overture off the top of the '59 version — which you'd be crazy to do, because Miklós Rózsa's score is one for the ages —
KLIMEK: — it would still outweigh Ben-Hur '16 by 80 minutes. Come on, this is the Jews and the Messiah vs. the Roman Empire, not Batman V Superman. Let's keep things moving.
EDITOR: Uh-huh. Does it differ in any other substantial way?
KLIMEK: It's less reverent, although still respectful. Wyler chose never to let the audience see Christ's face or hear his voice. Director Timur Bekmambetov casts Brazilian star Rodrigo Santoro as the carpenter, and lets him speak, and generally treats his divine presence in a more grounded way, which I appreciated.
EDITOR: Any other narrative upgrades?
KLIMEK: A few! The incident that lands our hero, Judah Ben-Hur, and his family in chains this time is an actual assassination attempt, not some dumb business about a loose roof tile falling on a horse. The tile thing is straight out of Wallace's novel, but it still seems silly to base a monumental epic that unfolds over more than a decade on a problem Tim Allen could've fixed in 10 minutes.
EDITOR: What else?
KLIMEK: The Jewish "zealots" are aggrieved in this one because their Roman conquerors are stealing their ancestors' marble headstones as material to build their Circus.
EDITOR: That is certainly a legit grievance. What else?
KLIMEK: Sheik Ilderim, the Arab gambler who stakes Judah in the famous chariot race, is not played by a Welshman in blackface this time. [The Welshman, Hugh Griffith, won best supporting actor.] That has to count as an improvement.
EDITOR: Agreed. So they got an actor of Middle Eastern descent?
KLIMEK: They got a guy from Memphis named Morgan Freeman.
EDITOR: Ah. Heard of him.
KLIMEK: He has been in some other movies.
EDITOR: So how is Mr. Freeman, the picture's most recognizable star?
KLIMEK: Honestly, all of the most unintentionally risible line readings ("Good move, Judah!") — and the equally funny, totally extraneous voice-over narration ("They were as devoted to one another as they were competitive") — are his. I can tell you he is every bit as present and committed as he was in London Has Fallen and Now You See Me 2.
EDITOR: There's no need to be nasty.
KLIMEK: Also, screenwriters John Ridley (12 Years a Slave, American Crime) and Keith Clark (The Way Back) have consolidated elements of another character from the novel and Wyler film, Quintus Arrius, into Ilderim. This gives us more Freeman but also makes his character's motivation seem to turn on a dime. We know Ilderim likes to gamble, but I didn't buy that a savvy survivor like him would risk all his wealth and status just to help Judah get revenge.
EDITOR: Are there other actors in the movie?
KLIMEK: In the title role, we have Jack Huston, a fourth-generation showbiz kid. Oscar-winning actor Walter Huston was his great-grandfather. Oscar-winning director John Huston was his grandpa. Oscar-winning actor Anjelica Huston is his aunt. He was a regular on Boardwalk Empire.
EDITOR: What about his adopted brother, Messala, who grows up to become a pitiless Roman officer who condemns his own family?
KLIMEK: Toby Kebbell plays that part.
EDITOR: ... I'm not familiar.
KLIMEK: His most recent high-profile roles were in Fantastic 4 and Warcraft.
EDITOR: Oh, God.
KLIMEK: Those were not his fault. He was very good in his Black Mirror episode, "The Entire History of You." He gives a perfectly serviceable performance.
EDITOR: Is there a palpable homoerotic tension between Messala and Judah, like in the '59 version?
KLIMEK: Charlton Heston vigorously denied that.
EDITOR: And screenwriter Gore Vidal insisted he wrote their falling-out scene with a gay subtext, and that Wyler approved it, but cautioned him, "Don't tell Chuck, he'll fall apart."
KLIMEK: (Sigh) No, the new Ben-Hur is one of the least homoerotic swords-and-sandals films ever. There's isn't even much shirtlessness. And when Huston is shirtless, during his five-year term as a galley slave — that is, a rower on a Roman warship — he has a totally plausible-looking body for an underfed guy who performs intense aerobic exercise all day: wiry, not beefed-up like a superhero.
EDITOR: I guess the last thing I have to ask you is about the famous set pieces from the '59 version. There's the chariot race, obviously, but also a big naval battle.
KLIMEK: Right, and this new version elides an entire long section that follows the battle, where Judah saves the life of naval commander Quintus Arrius and becomes his personal slave, then is adopted as Arrius' son, and then trains as a wrestler for five years. Even the '59 version figured the wrestling would be a little much and cut it, but kept in the whole thing about Judah rising in society again after being stripped of his wealth and rank some years earlier. Those grand reversals of fortune made the movie feel more, well, biblical.
Anyway, these set pieces are where Bekmambetov excels. The naval battle is seen almost entirely from inside the galley in which Judah and his fellow slaves are trapped, and it's appropriately terrifying. And the chariot race is the most pleasant surprise in the movie. It won't erase anyone's memory of one of the famous sequences in all of cinema, but it isn't beholden to the classic version, either. It's visceral, it's clear, the CGI isn't obvious. And there's some business that Wyler didn't have, like when a horse gets loose in the bleachers, wreaking havoc. Of course it doesn't feel as dangerous as Wyler's 100 percent practical version, but it's good.
EDITOR: So you're saying —
KLIMEK: Ben-Hur '16 is historically, epically, spectacularly ... mediocre. Not essential. Not an improvement. But not an embarrassment.
EDITOR: Is it in 3-D?
KLIMEK: It is. But the 1959 one had the fourth dimension on its side: time. The story really does have more resonance when it's allowed to breathe.
EDITOR: What do you mean by that, exactly?
KLIMEK: (Sigh.) This one is shorter.