Ben Hur (1959) won a record eleven Academy Awards when released the last year of the decade in the fifties. It was something more than a Biblical epic, hailed as a thinking man’s epic, with a strong screenplay and fine direction from the gifted and respected William Wyler. The film had twice been filmed during the silent era, the best known version in 1925 with ironically Wyler as an assistant director for the massive production.
Based on one of the most popular American novels ever written, Ben Hur – A Tale of the Christ be General Lew Wallace, it is said to be the second most read book of all time behind the Bible.
The Wyler version is a genuine cinematic masterpiece, beautifully told by Wytler with superb performances from Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, Stephen Boyd as his once friend turned enemy Messala, Jack Hawkins as Quintus, and Hugh Griffith as the Shiek who pluts Ben Hur on the path to salvation. Through the film he encounters Jesus Christ twice, once on his way to the galleys, where the mere gaze of Christ causes a Roman soldier to back down from striking him, and again at the end of the film on his way to the hill where he will be crucified. For the kindness he shows to Christ, Judah sees his sister and mother healed of leprosy, and he returns a different man that he was, his rage gone, knowing he has seen the son of God. If there is a flaw in the film it is without question the shots of the ships, so obviously miniatures in a tank, though the interiors of the galleys are fine. It is the single weakness in a massive epic.
Deeply moving, yet also exciting as Judah seeks revenge on the corrupt Messala, the film was a hit with critics, winning the New York Film Critics Award for Best Picture.
One must remember there were no computer generated effects in the film, none. That makes the accomplishment of the extraordinary chariot race all the more astounding, perhaps the greatest action sequence ever filmed.
And now we have a big screen remake.
When I heard they were doing this I was worried that we would have another Exodus (2014), meaning another disgraceful attempt to remake a classic film. But the trailer released today looks okay. Jack Huston, best known as the masked sniper in Boardwalk Empire looks well cast as Ben Hur, bringing the same dignity and straight forward honesty Heston did. Huston suggests a danger Heston lacked, which may allow the actor to go in a different direction with his portrayal. Director Timur Bekmambeton looks to have done a fine job making the film, which opens in August.
Paramount has reminded we critics the film is not a remake, but in the vein of True Grit (2010) an adaptation of the novel.