Various film versions have been made of Lew Wallace’s novel “Ben Hur”, with the best known being the 1925 silent movie and 1959 one with Charlton Heston in the title role. Apart from clips on television, I have never seen any so them so I come to director Timur Bekmambetov’s film with an open mind.
The story is set in Palestine at the time of Jesus Christ and concerns wealthy young Jew Judah Ben Hur (Huston) and Roman officer Messala (Kebbel). In this version Messala has been adopted intoJudah’s family as a child but the brothers fall apart when Messala asserts his Roman heritage, joins the imperial army and falsely accuses Judah of treason. Judah is forced into slavery in the Roman galleys but after several years he escapes, returns to his homeland and confronts his brother in the climactic chariot race – not really a spoiler that. You must have heard of it.
This latest version of the tale is a good, pacey piece of storytelling. However in its script and direction, despite the technical opportunities provided by CGI and 3D, it is a bit of a “sword and sandals” epic in the now old fashioned style and tradition of “Quo Vadis”, “The Robe” and other films of that era. Like its predecessors, the dialogue is at times a bit on the obvious and clunky side, the relationship betweenJudah and Messala lurches at times towards the sentimental and the scenes with that enigmatic carpenter from Nazareth preaching peace and love also seem to come from a different generation of film making. We also have Morgan Freeman, sporting grey rasta locks on this occasion and doing his wise old advisor number again, this time as the desert tribe leader who sets Judah up with the chariot race.
Despite all the above though, the film is very enjoyable for what it is. Both Huston and Kebbel are fine young actors, who bring credibility to their roles. Huston gives Judah heroic dash as well as angst and suffering while Kebbel shows us Messala’s inner conflict rather than making him a two dimensional villain. The film has a good sense of spectacle and the big set pieces are well handled. The battle at sea, when Judah finally escapes from his years of servitude at the oar, is particularly well staged, while the climactic chariot race itself is brutally gripping – though one really worries more for the horses than the men. They get a particularly tough time. Russian director Bekmambetov also evokes echoes of later totalitarian armies of occupation such as the Soviets or the Nazis in his presentation of the Roman conquerors’ behaviour in Palestine.
It’s all a bit silly at times, distinctly old fashioned but still very entertaining.
Review by Carol Allen