Revisiting Ben-Hur (1959) in Anticipation of a Remake

Revisiting Ben-Hur (1959) in Anticipation of a Remake April 4, 2015


Of all of the late Roger Ebert’s maxims, none do I subscribe to more more strongly than that you don’t (or shouldn’t) remake good movies, you remake bad (or flawed) movies to make them better.

And while William Wyler’s Ben-Hur may not exactly warrant its status as one of the most decorated Hollywood epics of all time, it is hardly a bad movie. The film garnered eleven Academy Awards, including the third for director William Wyler who had previously been honored for helming Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives.  Three years after starring as Moses in The Ten Commandments, the film’s star, Charlton Heston, also earned a statue—his only acting nomination in a long and illustrious career. Despite mostly confirmed (in, for example, The Celluloid Closet) rumors that Wyler brought in Gore Vidal because he was unhappy with the script, the writing was also nominated for an Oscar.

So what element of the filmcraft is likely to be better when the remake premieres in 2016? You’ve probably seen a Timur Bekmambetov film before, but did anything in Wanted or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter make you think you’d ever be comparing him to William Wyler? Ben-Hur‘s signature piece, the chariot race in which the protagonist defeats his nemesis, Messala, holds up well, even after fifty-years. Part of the reason is the weight that actual human actors have when performing stunts in comparison to figures that interact with or are rendered through CGI. Certainly advances in technology have expanded what an artist could do with such a set piece, but look at 300 or Gladiator or The Avengers, or, yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and do you ever feel the grandeur of the spectacle? The “how did they do that?” awe when Judah flips over the edge of his chariot or Messala is trampled by horses (leading to a false urban legend, according to IMDB, that the actor had been killed in shooting the scene) is impossible to recreate because it’s not a function of the story so much as the filming. The ease with which today’s characters defy the laws of physics and probability in combat make for dizzying spectacle, but only at the cost of reducing the characters within them to avatars in a live-action comic book. In the novel and the 1959 film, the chariot race is a set piece  that is subordinate to a very human story.


Jack Huston played Flavius in a television version of Spartacus and he appeared as Jack Kerouac in the wildly overpraised Kill Your Darlings. He may be best known to American viewers as Richard Harrow, the disfigured soldier turned hit man in the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. Harrow, like Judah, has seen a lot, and the prospect of a silent, moody Judah actually piques some interest after revisiting the Wyler film and being taken aback by Heston’s theatrical gesticulating. Heston is at his best when he is standing regally, not emoting loudly. Scenes where he confronts Messala with a spear or hides behind a rock in anguish as he sees his leprous family tip those already emotionally-charged situations into bathos. A scene in which the Roman Arrius (Jack Hawkins) casually whips Judah to see if he has both life and self-discipline remaining fundamentally alters the scene as written in the novel and in doing so changes both Arrius’s character and Judah’s.

benhur2Even so, Heston’s star persona goes a long way towards making Judah larger than life. Jeff Bridges was able to take over a role from John Wayne in the remake of True Grit, but he already had an established screen persona of his own and was helped by a script that was willing to exaggerate the character, at times for comic emphasis. Part of what makes Heston’s role so iconic is that Ben-Hur is more about plot and setting than character. Judah is a particularly flat character (as many epic heroes are), with generic motivations, such as revenge, that don’t leave much room for differing interpretations. In such roles, actors with established personas often flourish since their associations with other movies get transferred to their characters and provide a kind of gravitas by proxy. Huston, at least judging by Boardwalk Empire, is a fine actor, but does he bring any larger-than-life associations to such an iconic character?

benhur5Which brings us to the script. While Ben-Hur may be one of those rare instances where the movie is an improvement on the pre-existing novel, the Wyler film feels like it struggles to extract a theatrical narrative from its literary source. That struggle is not without reason. Lew Wallace’s novel is a strange bird–a mix of historical speculation and sporadically plotted imagination, written at a time when the American novel had not yet fully eschewed the adventure-romance template in favor of the social realism that would become its calling card in the twentieth century.. The first hundred pages or so is a retelling of the nativity story from the point of view of the three wise men, designed more to show off Wallace’s amateur historian chops than set up the story. (It does also establish Balthasar as a character who can witness to Judah and explain that the Messiah has a spiritual rather than political significance.)

Wyler’s film introduces the characters of Simonides and Esther much earlier than does Wallace’s novel, although it largely jettisons a subplot involving he and Judah financing an armed rebellion against Rome. The fact that they are slaves of the house of Hur is mentioned once but glossed over. In fact, Judah grants Esther her freedom early in the film. The alliance between Ilderim and Judah is also stripped of its political overtones, with Judah becoming more of a free agent jockey than a co-conspirator fomenting rebellion. The chariot race gets pushed a little later in the film, the revelation of Tirzah’s and Miriam’s impisonment pushed a little earlier. In one small but significant change the identify of the person who dislodges a tile that accidentally kills a Roman is altered: in the novel it is Judah himself, but in the film it is Tirzah.

benhurjesusThese changes appear to be about heightening a love story that Wallace’s novel presents indifferently and trying, vainly, to unify an episodic, disjointed plot. It is here, then, that forthcoming film has at least piqued my curiosity. Co-screenwriter John Ridley won an Academy Award of his own for 12 Years a Slave. (Though alleged conflicts with director Steve McQueen have exacerbated questions about whether the author or the auteur was more responsible for the film’s final draft.) Ben-Hur is framed at the beginning and end by the gospel story, but Judah’s story is as much a reflection on slavery in various forms as it is a spiritual bildungsroman. Wallace was a general, and some interpereters of the novel even read Judah’s imprisonment as thinly veiled autobiography since its author was, he maintained, wrongly accused of disobeying orders at the Battle of Shiloh. Although Wallace was not imprisoned, he was relieved of command after the battle and spent much of his subsequent life trying to clear his name. (This is one reason why having Tirzah be responsible for dislodging the tile seems like an odd change. There is a difference between being wrongly blamed and being wrongly accused, between taking the fall for another’s accidental actions and not being able to explain one’s own.) The Wyler film steers well clear of Judah’s political machinations and military attempts to pave the way for the Messiah by overthrowing the Roman government. In one of the novel’s greatest ironies, Judah and Simonides are made responsible for the assignment of Pilate as the prefect of Judaea, since they use the consider influence of their wealth–including astronomical winnings from bets on the chariot race–to lobby and bribe for a prefect they think will be better for their cause. In other words, Judah’s politics, while arguably well-intentioned, play a small but pivotal role in the passion of the Christ.

benhu1Wallace’s military background perhaps made him more interested in the political setting of the story; it unquestionably informed Judah’s characterization. Ultimately the integration of Judah’s story and the gospel narrative is undercut somewhat in Wyler’s film by making Judah’s obsession with vengeance almost exclusively personal and almost exclusively aimed at Messala. Hints of the revolutionary rhetoric work their way into Wyler’s film, particularly early when Messala mentions Judaea will not be easy to govern and Judah alienates him by saying he will not help him govern it. In the novel, the childhood friendship (and no, there is no hint of the homosexual tie that Vidal and Stephen Boyd imputed) is presented as something which softens the inevitable prejudices of the colonizer. Miriam even tells Judah that Messala might even had become a proselyte if he had been allowed to remain among the Jews rather than moving away to an environment where his prejudice was allowed to flourish.

The end of the novel, I would argue, is a bit more emphatic about contrasting the healing power of Jesus and his message with the futility of Judah’s quest to establish a kingdom of God’s chosen people through political or military ends. Judah is a Jew, but remember, he is a Jew written about by a Christian. While Wallace sees his theistic devotion as greater than the Romans’ paganism–one Roman in Wyler’s film openly admits that the gods to whom he prays are fiction–there is still a need to have Judah’s embrace of Jesus entail an admission of the insufficiency of his Jewish identify. In the novel this means that even though Judah is right about the identity of the Messiah, he must come to realize he is wrong about the Messiah’s purpose in coming and the nature of his kingdom.

America in 2015 is a very different animal than America in 1880 or even 1959. Among the most obvious differences, it’s hard to escape that we are the Rome of the current moment in history. If not in our secularism, certainly in our confidence in military power as the ultimate resolution of all conflicts and in the supremacy of our global influence. In such a landscape will the novel’s awkward confrontation between cultural. revolutionary zeal and personal spiritual largesse still resonate? Will Judah be presented as the proud warrior who must confront the incompatibility between the hatred in his heart and the love in the cup and cross bearer’s eyes, or will he be be just another iteration of the epic hero in sheep’s clothing?

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