Ben-Hur and the Problem with Hollywood Remakes

Ben-Hur-chariot
via Classic Hollywood Central

Remakes and reboots are a tricky business. Sometimes they work wonderfully, as in the case of films like The Mummy or Batman Begins. Other times, they are worse than nails on a chalkboard. Hollywood has been remaking films since the invention of the camera, so while this fickle phenomenon is nothing new, it certainly seems to be taking on a life of its own. There have certainly been fantastic reimagined films, such as the new Star Trek franchise and the female-led Ghostbusters. The last few years have also seen a surge of Disney experiments, such as Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and most recently Pete’s Dragon, that take fan-favorite animated films and turn them into live action movies with more varied backstories and different twists. Most of these have been successful, because they present something new to audiences while maintaining the same zest and feel of the original. They explore new options, but still pay homage to their source material. But despite the success of some remakes, others continue to fall short, leaving Hollywood grasping at straws and audiences wondering how the film got made in the first place. Case in point: the 2016 version of Ben-Hur.

*I should mention that I have not seen this film. I have no plans to see this film, other than renting it from Redbox for a buck so that I can tear it to bits.*

For those unfamiliar with the story of Ben-Hur, here’s a quick history of my favorite epic film. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ began as an 1880 novel by Lew Wallace. It was a very influential book for Christians the world over, and was adapted for film in 1925. The most famous version is the 1959 remake by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. That’s right, the movie that won 11 Oscars and changed the face of modern cinema was a remake. It tells the story of the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and his tumultuous relationship with his childhood friend, the Roman tribune Messala. After a bitter disagreement about the rights of the people of Israel to be free from Roman rule, Messala turns on the man he loves (oh yes, there’s more homoerotic subtext than you can shake a stick at) and condemns him to slavery. Sent to the galleys while his mother and sister rot in a Roman jail, Judah swears to seek vengeance upon Messala. Woven throughout the narrative are key encounters with Jesus Christ, which ultimately turn Judah away from the path of revenge.

Ben-Hur has long been a subject of fascination and controversy. Though very long and sometimes uneven (the film runs 3 hours and 44 minutes), its study of human interaction, desire—for revenge, for freedom, and for love—, and the road to redemption captivated audiences from the beginning. The bewitching possible love story between Judah and Messala has also been long-debated (with some very good proof supplied by writer Gore Vidal—but that’s a post for another day. In the meantime, read up on it here). But perhaps what sets the film even further apart from its fellow epics is not the controversial love story, the brilliant music, the message of forgiveness, or even the fine acting—it is the meticulously directed and perfectly executed chariot race scene.

The famous scene is one of the most interesting in the novel, and putting it on screen has been a challenge for each film that has attempted to capture the intensity, danger, and downright grandeur of a Roman circus race. The 1959 version of the race took ten weeks to shoot and cost $4 million (approximately ¼ of the entire budget). Heston and Boyd drove the chariots themselves, with a few small exceptions (such as the part where Judah flips over the edge of his own chariot—which was an unplanned stunt, and extremely dangerous). Everything you see in that race is real: including shots of Messala’s body being trampled by horses. The scene is a combination of him—well padded and protected—and a dummy. Meanwhile, reviews of the 2016 version have explained that while the new chariot race may appeal to younger fans who are accustomed to long car chases a la Fast and Furious, overall it is choppily executed, relies heavily on CGI, and lacks the bravado and moral implications of the William Wyler version. The entire 1959 race lasted 11 minutes on screen: some possible foreshadowing of the 11 unprecedented Oscars the movie would eventually take home. Will the new film take home any Oscars? I very much doubt it.

This is merely one link in the frail chain that is the attempted reincarnation of Ben-Hur. But in the end, it was the attempt to remake the film while not also adding anything of value that certainly caused its inevitable downfall. Had they hired an entirely Middle Eastern and Roman cast, perhaps things would be different. Had they expanded on the story of human struggle and sacrifice, and highlighted the underlying romantic currents between Judah and Messala, perhaps what I’m writing would be different. Perhaps audiences and critics alike would have enjoyed the film, instead of calling it “a mistake” and “completely unnecessary.” Stephen Holden wrote that “The remake bends over backward to erase any hint of gayness,” while Kenneth Turan called it “dull and lethargic.”

There are simply films that cannot be remade, and the 1959 Ben-Hur is one. It is among the greatest of all time, part of the American psyche and collective history. It is with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Sound of Music, Star Wars, and so many other films that struck chords with audiences, and in their own ways, redefined onscreen storytelling. If directors and screenwriters have nothing of value to add, then it behooves them to stick to original material. If you cannot change them for the better, leave the classics as they are: defining, beloved, and iconic.

Until next time,

The Collected Mutineer

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