′Ben Hur′ is back with a new message | Film | DW | 10.08.2016
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Film

'Ben Hur' is back with a new message

Featuring chariot races in 3-D, the "Ben Hur" classic is making a comeback, but changing its tune. While the 1960 film was a major hit, the new one is opting for a low-key release.

In 1960, the William Wyler's film "Ben Hur" won 11 Oscars, setting a record that it still holds. It took years for two other films to win just as many Oscars - "Titanic" in 1998 and "Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King" in 2004.

It's doubtful, however, that the new film adaptation of "Ben Hur," set in the era of Jesus Christ, will be able to keep up with the success of its predecessor when the Academy Awards are handed out in February.

Cautious rollout of 'Ben Hur' in Europe

"Ben Hur? May God help you all," US film expert Jeff Bock jeered even before the new film has hit theaters.

Scene from Ben Hur, 2016, Copyright: Universal Pictures

Jack Huston (Judah Ben Hur) and his mentor Ilderim (Morgan Freeman)

In addition to critics' doubts, Paramount's marketing strategy also seems a bit unusual. The first opens in the Czech Republic and Slovakia on August 11, continuing on to Canada and the Philippines on August 12 and a host of other countries throughout August and September.

The $90-million production won't open in the US until August 19, and "Ben Hur" fans in Germany will have to wait until September 1.

What's missing altogether is a glamorous world premiere event in Los Angeles or London, which is common practice among other expected blockbusters. It almost seems as if Paramount is already convinced the film won't be a hit.

No big stars in the main roles

Kazakh-born Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, who's made a name for himself in Hollywood as a fantasy and action specialist, directed the new version of "Ben Hur."

The role of the Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur, famously played by Charlton Heston back in 1959, is now filled by British actor Jack Huston. And Ben Hur's opponent Messala Severus, the Roman proconsul of Jerusalem, is played by Toby Kebbell. The absence of big names is conspicuous.

Scene from the 1925 film Ben Hur, Copyright: Imago/United Archives

Even the 1925 Ben Hur production included impressive chariot scenes

The tradition of filming the Ben Hur story dates back over a century. Following the first film adaptation in 1907, a silent film version directed by Fred Niblo in 1925 was a huge success. It was followed 34 years later by William Wyler's Oscar-winning version.

In 2003, the story was adapted into an animated cartoon, and a television series followed six years ago. Now, yet another attempt has been made to attract young viewers.

A message of reconciliation instead of revenge

"Our 'Ben Hur' should not be seen as a remake of Wyler's film, but as a new film adaptation of the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace," explained producer Sean Daniel, "Co-screenwriter John Ridley has focused on family relations and the power of faith and, in particularly, reconciliation. The original, on the other hand, focused on revenge."

In 1959, Hollywood veteran William Wyler concentrated on the ongoing animosity between the former friends Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala Severus (Stephen Boyd).

Ben Hur, who had been a well respected nobleman in Jerusalem, is betrayed and despised by Roman proconsul Messala, who subsequently enslaves him. Miraculously, Ben Hur survives torture and exploitation, and later takes revenge. In the film's legendary chariot race scene, he manages to beat his tormentor.

Charlton Heston in the 1959 Ben Hur film, Copyright: Imago/AD

Charlton Heston starred in the 1959 version

Biblical themes

Both Fred Niblo's silent film and Wyler's historical epic embellished the plot with scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. Ben Hur encounters Jesus on several occasions, and then witnesses his crucifixion. Whereas the 1959 film was about revenge, the new adaptation focuses on compassion.

Some of the first trailers online show that director Timur Bekmambetov - just like Wyler - is offering bombastic visual effects. Wyler spent two years filming his version of the film, and production went on for years after that.

For Wyler's massive project, as many as 50,000 extras and more than 350 speakers were involved in production in the Cinecittà-Studios close to Rome, where the chariot race scenes were shot in part.

Return to an epic

MGM Studios invested more than $16 million in the production. The 1950s were the golden era of historical epics and, with "Ben Hur," Wyler managed to produce one of the last commercially successful works of that genre.

Haya Harareet and Charlton Heston in the 1959 Ben Hur film, Copyright: Imago/ZUMA Press

Haya Harareet co-starred with Charlton Heston in 1959

The film world would change dramatically over the next six decades, with digital effects largely replacing hordes of extras. The latest two-hour adaptation of "Ben Hur," also shot mainly in Italy, only required 2,000 extras.

With the new version of "Ben Hur," the Cinecittà studios are trying to repeat earlier successes, though its $90-million budget seems modest when today's blockbusters regularly cost upwards of $200 million.

It remains to be seen whether young audiences, which often prefer super hero films and science fiction, will identify with the adventures of Judah Ben Hur, who lived 2,000 years ago.

But even if audiences don't storm the movie theaters, the new "Ben Hur" has definitely triumphed at least in one way: The spectacular, bloody chariot races can be experienced in 3-D.

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