For decades, it was the robust, never-seen- before chariot race that lingered long after William Wyler won 11 Oscar trophies for his Ben Hur. It still is the chariot scene that stands out in director Timur Bekmambetov’s reboot of Ben-Hur.
The falling out of brothers or best buddies is the time-tested trope of many a classic. In this edition of Ben-Hur, Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur and Roman Messala Severus are brought up as half-brothers in the same palatial household. Set in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, the first testosterone-driven horse race between the buddies is superbly picturised. It spotlights both their brawny closeness and the sneering undercurrents that flow between Judah’s mother and the Roman boy who believes in a different God. It makes their later enmity that much more potent.
Messala joins the Roman ranks much against his buddy’s advice and rises in Caesar’s force while Judah, content with his comfortable, happy life, remains apolitical even when dissenters around him are crucified. Judah doesn’t indulge the zealots who’ve risen against Caesar but he is unwittingly drawn into it by an injured boy he gave shelter to. And Messala is quick to conclude that Judah is a traitor to the Roman cause.
From the comfort of a nobleman’s mansion, Judah is sentenced for sedition and chained as a galley slave. He fears that his mother and sister have been crucified too. The scenes in the galley of the Roman ship where he and the other prisoners have to row with all their might when they’re attacked by Greeks, are stark and exceptionally shot.
When Judah emerges as the sole survivor of this brutal sea battle, it is God’s will that he lives to take revenge on Messala.
Ilderim, a curiously sketched African played by Morgan Freeman with dreadlocks, is God-sent to aid Judah. The wealthy leader of a desert clan, Ilderim who wagers hefty bets, is won over by Judah’s love for horses. Judah becomes the driver of his chariot in Pontius Pilate’s famous chariot race where he takes on Roman champ Messala. This chariot race is just as sharp, as edgy, as bloody and as mesmerising a watch as Wyler’s 1959 original.
While retaining much of the classic Ben-Hur, there are a few essential changes made like how the divide between Judah and Messala widened to turn into enmity. It’s also more of a biblical epic this time with revenge climaxing in Christian redemption and forgiveness with a bigger role for Jesus Christ and his crucifixion.
If comparisons must be made, then Jack Huston doesn’t fill the screen like Charlton Heston did as Judah.
Also, with visually stunning action choreography seen often in recent films like Gladiator, the question that arises is, was a remake that doesn’t inspire any more awe than the original, really necessary? The answer won’t be welcomed by the producers of the latest Ben-Hur unless the aim was to drive a religious point home once more.
For a spectacular remake that doesn’t go beyond the original, Ben-Hur gets a 3 Star rating.