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Everyone may remember the chariot race from the classic 1959 adaption, but there is much more to be said about Lew Wallace’s epic tale of the prince of Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, Boardwalk Empire). This story has captured the imaginations of a multitude of filmmakers throughout the decades and is now been placed in the hands of director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer).
This modern adaptation takes some liberties with the original tale, but manages to stay true to the heart of the story of sibling rivalry gone bad with Judah falling victim to false accusations of treason by his adopted brother and Roman officer, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbel). Judah is forced into slavery on a Roman ship for five years and then is jettisoned into an unexpected freedom that eventually brings him in front of his brother and accuser. Through the pain and anguish that has befallen his family Judah is given a unique opportunity to clear his family name.
Lew Wallace’s story may be familiar to some, but is being introuduced to and a new generation through Bekmambetov’s interpretation. It has stood the test of time because of the richness of this visceral journey that is a brilliant mixture of drama, action and the spiritual realm. This updated outing provides this generation this historical tale with a modern look and fresh special effects. Bekmambetov’s version is shorter than the classic 1959 version with Charlton Heston. Some could interpret this as being dishonorable to the classic novel and does diminish some of the richness of the story, but it should be seen as a means of maintaining the attention span of modern audiences.
Huston and Kebbel do an admirable job in delivering the needed sibling rivalry. Morgan Freeman is a strong on screen presence and an effective mentor for Judah, but his primary role seems to be left to delivering monologues for the majority of screen time. Bar one key character, the rest of the cast becomes window dressing for to Huston’s Judah Ben-Hur. The one character that make significant cameo appearances is Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro, 300). He is given lines in this adaptation, which honor the original writings of the Bible, but will be challenged by the resident historians in the audience. Most of his scenes felt a bit tacked on, but do assist in moving the story line along. His inclusion is important for the narrative, but did not have the natural feel that could have complemented the film in the end.
Action aficionados will love the chariot scene, but it is hard to determine if this action sequence adds or distracts from the heart of the story. This opens the key concerns about this Ben-Hur, which will inevitably be unfavorably compared to Gladiator. In the attempt to scale down the film causes timeline jumps make for lapses in believability.
For the fans of the Christian film genre, they will be pleased with the quality of this production and that Jesus does get a mention. For those looking for an action-packed drama, they will enjoy the portions that occur throughout much of the poorly written dramatic scenes. Ben-Hur is an admirable outing for the Jewish prince, but does not measure up to it’s celebrated predecessor.