A Great Made-for-TV Movie

Knowing Hollywood's obsession with remakes I was not surprised to find out that "Ben Hur" was being remade. Although, I had secretly hoped that this particular film would escape the remake frenzy and remain on its exalted and forever memorialized shelf. Wrong! 

For those of you who have not seen either version. "Ben Hur" is the story based on Lee Wallace's 1880 best-selling novel about a wealthy Jewish prince living in about 30 AD Jerusalem with his family. Judah's life is a blessed one, until, unforeseen tragedy strikes when he is falsely accused of a crime, and ripped away from his family. What follows is his story of hardship and torment during those years.

I confess, the Charlton Heston 1959 version has been on my list of top 5 best movies EVER for as long as I can remember. I've seen it more times that I should even admit, I have the collector's edition, and I've also read the book by Lew Wallace.  It was a film of epic proportions and up until "Titanic"  it was the most academy awarded film of all time with 11 wins, (including Best Actor for Heston, and Best Picture 1959).

The problem with remakes is - it will inevitably be compared with the original. And, for a film as iconic as "Ben Hur" that was doubly so. This version stars Brits Jack Houston (Judah Ben Hur), Toby Kebbell (Messala), the incredible Morgan Freeman (Ilderim) and up-and-coming Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi as Esther. It was directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted). 

First off - it was a valiant effort. That's as good as I can say. I tried very hard, (really), to like it, but my attempts were hopeless because the 1959 version quite simply left this one in the dust on every level. I also wanted to like it because I enjoyed what executive producers Burnett and Downey did with the 2014 successful  "Son of God." However, the entire film came off as a made-for-television movie rather than a big screen epic.

I know that the Ben Hur tale is an in-depth, broadly spun and heartbreaking telling of its hero's crucible. Hur's personal integrity cost him and his family dearly, and he suffers deeply for it, and is forever altered by the hell unleashed upon his family's lives. But, the fullness of his journey is only lightly expressed in this version, and there is no true sense of the profoundness of his suffering and personal torment. The story-line was thin, the script even thinner, and the characters, sadly one-dimensional. Even the considerable talents of Mr. Freeman could not resurrect this film from "B' level mediocrity. It was evident that the director tried hard, but after all, he had a tough act to follow

However, my best guess would be that the producers wanted to introduce a new generation to this venerated classic story. I get that motive. But the ultimate finished product and its lackluster box office take eliminated any hope of widespread big screen exposure. Unfortunately, it is likely to be consigned to the bottom of some forgotten film pile to be annually replayed on inspirational cable networks. Like the hugely successful History Channel's "Bible" series, I think this reboot would have played out differently with a niche audience of ready-made fans on the small screen with a far better reception.

If you liked the movie, I highly recommend you see the 1959 version. If you didn't like it, then I beg you to see it in the version that gave it the justice it deserved in 3 1/2 hours of cinematic splendor. 

Having said that, I will soon be writing about another remake, "The Magnificent Seven," (because I am a glutton for punishment). It stars the luminous Denzel Washington - but then, hope springs eternal.


Popular Posts