Musings on the first trailer of the new Ben-Hur (2016)

BenHur2016poster

Most of you who’ve read my blog for a while knows I’m a huge fan of the 1959 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. I’ve listed it as one of the films that have defined me and one of my three favorite Oscar-winning films of all time. That epic masterpiece that won the most awards in its time (11 wins out of 12 noms) was actually a remake of the 1925 silent film. I always think that like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, etc., Ben-Hur is one of those classics that ought not get remade. Alas, nothing is sacred anymore these days so we shouldn’t be surprised that nearly 60 years later, we get yet another cinematic adaptation based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Behold the trailer…

 

BEN-HUR is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army.  Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery.  After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but finds redemption.

Initial impressions

The way the trailer’s cut now didn’t exactly scream epic in terms of compelling narrative and emotional gratification. Given the pedigree of the director, whose Hollywood films so far seem to be more effects-driven than anything else, this trailer certainly showcase that. Yes so at the time, the 1959 Ben-Hur was marketed as an epic that offered a spectacle like no other, and that chariot race scene alone is a reason to see it on the biggest screen possible. Even as I saw it decades later, when special effects had improved significantly, that chariot scene still left me breathless and it remained one of the most incredible scene to pull off even by today’s standard. But yet, the film was far more than just the spectacle and what stays with me more is the story, it’s the protagonist’s journey and transformation (more of that later). I suppose with 3.5 hours running time, the 1959 version could go into more depth with the story and there are richer, more complex narrative that involve more than just Ben-Hur vs Messala.

So far my impression is meh, in fact someone remarked on Twitter that this is ‘Fast and Furious: Jerusalem Drift‘ and I don’t blame them for thinking that. I mean the blaring music is so generic and has no majestic vibe at all, and way too much screaming and laden with banal dialog. But y’know what, instead of just brushing it off, I thought I’d offer some of my thoughts about some of the elements of the movie.

The cast

BenHur_Huston_Freeman

Heston was so 50-years ago, we now have Huston as the new Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur. Ok I have to admit I was inspired by this great opening line from EW.com. Jack Huston sure has quite a Hollywood pedigree – grandson of acclaimed filmmaker John Huston and nephew of Anjelica Huston, but whether or not he could step into Charlton Heston’s shoes, er sandals remains to be seen. Now, though I think Heston was great in the role that won him an Oscar for Best Actor, he’s not exactly the most expressive actor. What Heston did have in abundance is screen presence, and I’m curious to see how Huston fares in that regard in his first leading role in a big-budget film. Huston is not a household name yet but I’ve seen him in three films so far, American Hustle, Night Train to Lisbon, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which showed he’s a pretty versatile actor. He certainly looked more Jewish-looking, for a lack of a better word, with dark hair and dark eyes, than Heston was, though one could argue blond, blue-eyed Jews do exist.

BenHur_Huston_Freeman2

Morgan Freeman is the most recognizable face here as Sheik Ilderim and he naturally adds gravitas to the production. I do have a soft spot for British actor Hugh Griffith in the 1959 version though, as he didn’t take himself so seriously. He’s more of an ally than a mentor too, so it seems they’re more of equal footing in their relationship. Plus Freeman’s dreadlocks is distracting, it’s like something out of Battlefield Earth, did they just have their discarded wig or something?? It’ll be hard not to burst out laughing every time he’s on screen now, come on man, you’re supposed to add dignity not comic relief!

BenHur_TobyKebell

Toby Kebbell seems type cast as a villain now. He’s just played Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Doctor Doom in the um, doomed Fantastic Four movie, and now Messala. Again, I LOVE Stephen Boyd who had a great chemistry with Heston as both friend and foe. I can’t say I’m feelin’ it with these two, but then again they’ve got mundane dialog like ‘Are we having fun now brother?‘ which seems to be inspired by another sword ‘n sandal epic Gladiator‘s famous line ‘Are you not entertained?‘ but folks, it’s all in the delivery and Kebbell ain’t no Russell Crowe. That said, I also think he’s a good actor from some movies I’ve seen him in, most notably Rocknrolla, War Horse and Control.

The director

So I think the cast might turn out to be ok, but what worries me most is the director, Russian filmmaker w/ the unpronounceable name, Timur Bekmambetov. Now, I’ve seen two of his previous movies, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I’ve enjoyed both in varying degrees, but he’s not exactly the name who’d be in my wish list if I were asked who I’d want to direct an epic sword & sandals masterpiece. For one thing, his films seems to be very CGI-laden, and from this trailer it looks pretty effects-heavy. Heh, I was hoping what Jack said at the IGN comic-con interview (promoting PPZ movie) were true, as he said there’ll be more practical effects and he had spent four months ‘doing everything for real’ which sounds really promising.

The core theme of the story

Now there’s the treatment of the Christ story, which is pivotal in the book, I mean the tagline IS ‘a tale of the Christ’ after all. Apparently Rodrigo Santoro is playing Jesus Christ here, as there’s a snippet of the crucifixion scene. I read that Jesus is given a bigger character arc this time around, and whilst that is a wonderful thing in my book it also worries me a little. What I love about the William Wyler version is the subtle-yet-powerful depiction of Christ whose face was never shown on film. The impact of his being was conveyed through the characters who encounter him in the film, i.e. the Roman soldier who wanted to reprimand him for giving water to Judah.

BenHur1959_Jesus_RomanSoldier

It’s mysterious and mystical, and the faceless character had such gravitas that it’s unforgettable, especially the moment he gave Ben-Hur water when he’s chained as a slave. That scene is one of my all time favorite cinematic scenes that I could watch over and over. What the 1959 version did beautifully was that it showed how Judah’s and Jesus’ lives intersect, and the parallel of how the two men were charged and punished for a crime they didn’t commit. But in the end it was more of a story of redemption than a tale of vengeance, a theme that perhaps isn’t as cool or even marketable, but for me it leaves a much more lasting impression.

Interestingly, Bekmambetov actually said in an interview (per IMDb trivia) that he thought the 1959 version was more about revenge. Huh? Did he not stay until the end of the film?? Judah’s last line was not at all subtle about his own redemption.

Judah Ben-Hur: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Esther: Even then.

Judah Ben-Hur: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

He went on to say that wanted to focus more on the forgiveness aspect of the story, he said ‘…humanity has to learn how to love and forgive.’ Well, I sure hope what he aspired to do w/ the story will actually transpire in the final film, as I’m not seeing that in this trailer. At the very least I’m hoping that the Jesus’ story be handled respectfully and that the themes of love and compassion in Lew Wallace’s novel isn’t love amidst the CGI-fest spectacle.

One last thing, I find it odd to see Judah falling from his chariot and held on to his horses, how’s he going to get back up to the chariot and win the race?? I guess we’ll find out when the movie is out on August 12, 2016.


Well, that’s my thoughts. Now, what do YOU think about the first Ben-Hur trailer?

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31 thoughts on “Musings on the first trailer of the new Ben-Hur (2016)

  1. My reaction is simply….. meh…. I do like the cast as I enjoyed Jack Huston’s work in Boardwalk Empire but this looks like everything else I’ve seen in recent films. I’m not going to see this. Especially when the 1959 remake had so much to offer in terms of its physicality as some of the chariot races was directed by Sergio Leone (who was a 2nd unit director in that film).

    1. Yeah my reaction isn’t positive either, but I love the story of Ben-Hur and I do like Jack Huston, so I can’t simply brush it off entirely. I didn’t know Sergio Leone was 2nd unit director of Ben-Hur!! Great trivia, thanks for that, the chariot scene will always remain spectacular no matter how advanced SFX has become nowadays.

  2. The original 1959 version should have been re-released!

    This looks what it is – an artificial CGI laden look at ancient Rome with dialogue and performances straight out of a third-rate TV Soap made by idiots! Appalling rubbish!!

    Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as Messala in the 1959 original are unmatchable by what passes as BIG screen actors today! Even at the point of death Boyd’s Messala radiates his hatred for Ben-Hur to his last breath – and we believe it! The actors in this new version sound wet and unbelievable – and even Morgan Freeman is phoning it in!
    Director William Wyler, Heston and Boyd – and Lew Wallace – must be spinning in their graves!! Who could blame them!

    1. Well hello there, thanks for stopping by my blog. I love 007 😀

      Appalling rubbish seems to be the sentiment of most folks, and I share that too, though part of me still holds out hope it won’t actually be as bad as this trailer. I’m kidding myself perhaps, as the more I think about the 1959 version, the more I’m convinced this one wouldn’t ever hold a candle to that film, not even a little bit! I was just telling my husband about that exact scene you spoke of, when Messala laid dying and his body’s completely broken, he said ‘There’s enough of a man still left here for you to hate.’ That whole scene still gives me goosebumps!

    1. Hi Jordan, I think it had been remade once before for a tv series, which I never bothered to see. I suppose it’s only a matter of time given how popular and acclaimed the 1959 version was.

    1. Hi Vinnie, you mean 1959 right? I don’t think we could’ve made Ben-Hur in the 1800s 😉 Yeah it seems unanimous this remake is wholly unnecessary.

        1. I know you did, sorry just messing w/ you my friend. Well if anything, this trailer actually made me want to rewatch that classic again, just in time for Easter!

    1. I actually like Wanted quite a bit and Vampire Hunter was hilarious, but yeah I wish they had a different director for this remake. Or just scrap the project entirely, but as you know that’s never gonna happen as Hollywood will always remake our fave classics.

  3. It really isn’t a film that needs to be remade. Why don’t they remake the crap movies. And i complete agree with your opinion on Jesus being in it. I think this new version might completely miss the tone of it all.

    1. Ahah, very true, why don’t they remake crap movies and improve on them?? Hmmm, I should make a list of what movies I think SHOULD be remade.

      I think giving Christ a bigger role is just iffy. What the 1959 did was brilliant because it was still more about Ben-Hur’s story, and the parallel w/ Jesus’ life made his journey richer.

  4. Yeah, it seems much more 300 than Gladiator, which probably isn’t a good thing; it kind of has “flop” written all over it, unfortunately. I hope it’s a hit, though, just for the sake of Jack Huston because that dude is awesome in everything.

    1. Ahah, more ‘300’ than ‘Gladiator’ is right. As decent as ‘300’ was, over the years it’s just so hammy. I’m glad you like Jack Huston, I think that’s the only reason I still have a glimmer of hope this film would be watchable, at the very least.

    1. Hey Cindy! I don’t think anybody would be rushing to see this. I don’t think any classic film is safe in Hollywood though, I shudder to think what else they’ll remake/reboot next.

  5. A big yawn. First of all for this sort of epic you need a MOVIE STAR to carry the audience through the long haul. I not a big fan of either Heston nor the ’59 version but as you said he had presence, actually he might have been the most uniquely qualified performer for this genre that Hollywood ever had-a bit stiff with an air of self confidence/importance who pulled the camera’s eye to him whenever he was in a scene.

    Then there’s the video game look, one thing I did love about the ’59 film was the feeling that it truly DID have a cast of thousands which infuses a picture with a particular energy that all the computer generated tricks in the world can not replicate. The chariot race has remained so compelling because it retains a sense of danger that Heston and Boyd were imperiled during it. The feeling I got from the clips of Huston was that he was being pulled by some guys in front of a green screen. So what?

    Nothing’s for sure but I think it’ll tank. It certainly smells like cheese.

    1. Hello Joel, sorry for the tardy reply. Yeah I think ‘meh’ is the unanimous response to this. It’s true I think Jack Huston isn’t quite a movie star yet, though I think he’s a good actor. I’m not a fan of Heston’s acting generally either but you can’t deny his presence on screen, the man is nothing if not charismatic. But the supporting cast are excellent as well that fill even the tertiary characters like Julius Caesar was excellent.

      Ahah, the video game look seems to have plagued many blockbusters, But it’s especially grating in something like a sword ‘n sandals epic, and one where the predecessor is a masterpiece in technicality. I’m still astonished how they have assembled thousands of extras back then, my goodness the logistics must’ve been a nightmare. But like you said, it showed!

  6. I’m less than thrilled. The trailer makes the story look like a CG action-fest with little of the drama of the epic tale is known for. Having re-watched the ’59 film yet again on TCM yesterday, with its old-time effects, that glorious chariot race that required not a hint of digital, and biblical drama it’s set against, I think this remake will likely see a similar fate as ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ was to ‘The Ten Commandments’. But, that’s just me. 😉

    1. Hi Michael, sorry I missed your comment here. Oh you just rewatched the ’59 version? Man I was hoping to do so over Easter but didn’t get around to it. The chariot scene is indeed glorious isn’t it? It’s one of those scenes that can never be topped, no amount of CGI can replace hard-earned practical effects where the actors actually do the physical work. I like Jack Huston but this seems ill-advised all around.

  7. I watched the original chariot race with the great Charlton Heston and the impressive Stephen Boyd. Reading all of the unbelievable work, sweat and preparation that went into this towering epic and the chariot race as Mr.Heston writes in his autobiography In The Arena is truly mind boggling! Charlton Heston was already a major star and icon of the big screen when he was cast in the leading role by multiple Oscar winning director William Wyler. The music score by the great Miklos Rosa and the opening music to credits is so powerful and astounding. After re watching the 1959 chariot race and the rowing of the valley slaves scenes again then watching the new Ben Hur trailer I can say we are in for nothing more than the new Ben Hur RE-FAKE!!!

    1. Hi Rybarra, welcome to FC! Boy you made me want to read ‘In The Arena’ that must’ve been interesting to read all the tidbits about Ben-Hur! I LOVE Miklos Rosa’s score and it just fits the tone and look of the film so perfectly. The chariot race and the Jesus’ story were beautifully-handled by Wyler, I doubt this version could even hold a candle to the 1959 just on those two factors alone.

      1. Hi Ruth! Thanks for the reply. I agree. Reading Mr.Hestons fabulous and fascinating stories of what it took to make Ben Hur (he trained every day on the chariot for 6 months) gives us incredible insight of the stagerring amount of work and dedication by the actors, directors and everyone else including the tens of thousands of extras to make this landmark epic! I met Mr.Heston at Book Soup in Hollywood and he signed my copy of his autobiography!

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