I should not be surprised at how opposed am I to the opinions of the pundits. But once again, my polar reaction to the majority is about the new movie, The World of Ben-Hur.
Remember Charlton Heston in the 1959 movie Ben Hur? The chariot race, the remarkable epic of a story? A remake cannot possibly come close to the original, right? And twenty-first-century directors, writers and actors simply cannot get even close to that Academy Award winning block-buster of close to sixty years ago. At least these are the loudly published judgments of Variety and the LA Times, and a number of others, those who ‘know.’ I smile as I write that statement: ‘those who know’ because the business of being a critic in these days where disapproval seems to reign is as competitive as is my business of writing. So many voices begging to be heard among the clamor, the temptation to shout irresistible. Therefore, we see comments like “Jack Huston is no Charlton Heston’ ‘Soap Box Derby’ , ’12 reasons why it flopped’ or ‘Ben Hur debacle’ in attempts to get the attention of readers. I agree with one critic but not in the way he intended the critical comparison; Huston is indeed no Heston: his portrayal of Judah Ben Hur is far better than was Heston’s in just about every way.
Within the first few minutes of this watching this new film, we hear that voice, iconic, instantly recognizable. Morgan Freeman. We sit up a little straighter and think, ‘maybe this will be more than another flick.’ Don’t get me wrong, I love movies of all kinds and hardly consider myself a critic, for I am easily entertained by anything that gets me out of my head. However, this summer’s views of Stars Wars and Independence Day: Resurgence were disappointing, more than a little understatement here. They seemed more like video games than movies. So when my husband John suggested a movie this past Friday, I was happy to enjoy the air conditioning in the theater during these very hot August days. My expectations of Ben Hur , however, were low, very low. Not because of the reviews, I had not read them, did not even know the movie had been released.
Some background may be useful. The original book, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ was written in 1880 by Civil War General Lew Wallace and was considered to be the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century. Perhaps, like me, you read it but quite a while ago. And maybe your memory of the Heston film was like mine in that Heston’s overacting so dominated the story line that it was difficult to remember the actual sequence of events.
The tale is universally human: insecurity, jealousy, rivalry, revenge, forgiveness and finally redemption. But the redemption comes at an agonizing cost. Arguably based on Wallace’s extensive and controversial battle experiences in the Civil War, antagonist Messala was adopted by Judah’s family and decides he must prove himself in the age old way of man, combat, by joining and rapidly rising in the Roman army. Judah Ben Hur is a wealthy Jew, a leader in the community of Judea. Upon the return of Messala now commander of the Roman garrison and a Tribune, to the home of his adopted family, national loyalty and faith collide. Inevitably, the brothers end up on opposite sides of the unbearable tensions in Roman occupied Jerusalem during the time of Christ’s public ministry. Misunderstandings and panic result in Ben Hur’s conviction of sedition and sentencing to years as a galley slave.
Huston’s portrayal of Judah is a portrait of splendid acting, as is Morgan Freeman’s performance as the Arab who rescues Judah and convinces him to compete against Messala in the circus. An unpopular change in the original screenplay by Gore Vidal extensively broadens the role of Sheik Ilderim, where Ilderim becomes both mentor and financial backer of Judah in the beloved circus where the citizens of Rome are entertained by men fighting to their death in the chariot races.
This ageless story is an epic and worthily told in the remake. This is a really great story, well-written, acted and with cinematography which leaves us breathless. Best of all, we are left with an indelible image of supernatural love in the face of actor Rodrigo Santoro, the man who plays Jesus.