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

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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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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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