It takes a lot of self confidence to remake the Hollywood epic that won the most Academy Awards in history. But that’s just what we have in Ben Hur, a fairly faithful version of the 1959 classic that starred Charlton Heston.
The films are based on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a novel published in 1880, that quickly surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the best-selling American novel at the time. The book’s author, Lew Wallace, was a Civil War general who had led Union soldiers at the battle of Shiloh.
His inspirational tale of redemption’s timely themes of family, freedom, and patriotism helped unify a country torn asunder by years of war and the Reconstruction. Its compassionate tone particularly appealed to Southerners because of its sympathetic treatment of slave owners that encouraged resolution by reconciliation instead of revenge.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Ben Hur stars Jack Huston as the title character, although he is overshadowed by the film’s narrator, Morgan Freeman, who portrays Ilderiim, a wealthy Nubian sheik.
The story is set in Jerusalem in the time of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). As the the film opens, we find Prince Judah Ben Hur living with his mother (Ayelet Zurer), sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), and adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), an orphan taken in as a child by the family. Judah also has a love interest, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), although her lowly slave status makes their marriage unlikely.
The plot thickens when the fully grown Messala, by then a Roman soldier, unfairly accuses the Ben Hur family of an act of treason that was perpetrated by Gestas (Moises Arias), one of the thieves crucified on Calvary alongside Jesus. As a result, the family is separated and sold into slavery, and Judah ends up in chains, rowing in the galley of a warship.
He eventually gains his freedom, and starts searching for his mother and his sister Esther. Concurrently, he finds religion and is afforded an opportunity to even the score with Massala in a chariot race at the Circus Maximus. Fortunately, Ben Hur has wily Ilderim in his corner, who is the best horse whisperer
In spite of the distracting mob scenes and religious sermonizing, Ben Hur 2016 is nevertheless an entertaining variation on the original that’s well worth seeing.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images. Running time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Paramount Pictures.