© Paramount Pictures Germany GmbH

U.S.A. 2016

Opening 1 Sep 2016

Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov
Writing credits: Lew Wallace, Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley
Principal actors: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer

Lew Wallace, a prominent politician and military personality, wrote Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1880, which became one of the most inspiring Christian novels of all times. Since then there have been five different adaptions of this book. The most outstanding version was the 1959 film directed by William Wyler featuring Charlton Heston, which won 11 Academy Awards. The story portrays the life of Judah Ben Hur, who is wrongfully accused of acts against the Roman Empire by his adopted brother and best friend Messala. He and his family are then forced into slavery and pay a heavy price. He rows away five years of his life on a warship while his sister and mother contract leprosy during their confinement in prison.

It is hard to imagine that the Kazakh-Russian director Timur Bekmambetov could surpass the accomplishments of Wyler, whose film accomplishments include being nominated for 23 Academy Awards, of which he took five awards home. So when Bekmambetov stepped up to the plate, he must have known that he had big shoes to fill. Bekmambetov started with a good decision to change the storyline, and his use of 3-D computer technology gives this modern version a completely different look. The characters are much closer, and the storyline skips around instead of a linear timeline which is in Wyler’s film. He also puts emphasis on action instead of character development. This film doesn’t have the feeling of a great epic made in a grandiose way with a giant budget, which now seems to be a thing of the past.

Will the new generation miss the classical quality of the past or will this new version fill the appetites of the modern day audiences? Looking back at a selection of Wyler’s films, we see a cast of famous actors like Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart. Can these new actors compare with them? The new Ben Hur takes 123 minutes with all its fancy whistles and bells to tell us a complex story, and it feels rushed with information crammed together, such as when Ben Hur’s mother and sister are instantly cured in the falling rain while Jesus slowly dies on the cross, and moments later the African merchant shows up with a bag of gold to set them free. The 1959 version takes it time using 212 minutes in covering this complex storyline, which is needed, and there are scenes in Wyler’s film that are unforgettable.

But check it out for yourself; you decide which chariot race is more memorable or which storyline is more interesting. Either way, one has to give a big hand to Bekmambetov for attempting to take on this colossal project, even if he missed the mark. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)

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