It takes a lot of chutzpah 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 starring Charlton Heston.
The films are based on “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” a novel published in 1880 which quickly surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the best-selling American novel to date. 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 success was credited to the fact that its timely themes of family, freedom and patriotism helped unify a citizenry torn asunder by years of war and then Reconstruction. Its compassionate tone particularly appealed to Southerners, because of its sympathetic treatment of slave owners, encouraging resolution via reconciliation rather than revenge.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), this incarnation of “Ben-Hur” stars Jack Huston as the title character, although the supposed star is easily overshadowed by the film’s narrator, Morgan Freeman, who enjoys a very expanded role as Ilderiim, a wealthy Nubian sheik.
The story is set in Jerusalem in the time of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). As the the film unfolds, we find Prince Judah Ben-Hur living in the lap of luxury 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 altruistic noble clan. Judah also has a love interest, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), though her lowly slave status makes their marriage unlikely.
The plot thickens when the fully-grown Messala, by then a Roman soldier, unfairly fingers the Ben-Hur family for an act of treason perpetrated by Gestas (Moises Arias), one of the thieves crucified on Calvary alongside Jesus. Next thing you know, the family is separated and sold into slavery, and Judah ends up in chains, rowing in the galley of a warship.
Eventually, he gains his freedom, and starts searching for Esther, his sister and mother. Along the way, he finds religion and is afforded an opportunity to even the score with Massala in a chariot race at the Circus Maximus. In this regard, he’s lucky to have wily old Ilderim in his corner, the best darn horse whisperer / charioteer trainer this side of the Tiber.
Distracting CGI mob scenes and heavy-handed sermonizing aside, “Ben-Hur 2016” is nevertheless a very entertaining variation on the original that’s well-worth the investment.