Film reviews by Jason Day of all four big screen versions of Ben-Hur, 1907-2016.
Director: Timur Bekmambetov.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Prince of Judea. Messala (Toby Kebbell) is his adoptive brother and they are the best of friends. But Messala is Roman and he yearns for glory in his homeland to distinguish himself. He leaves and returns years later, hoping Judah will work with him to quell uprisings in Judea. When Judah refuses, Messala vindictively has him consigned to the galleys as a slave and imprisons his family. Judah must summon every ounce of strength to survive and prevail.
Review, by Jason Day
The production team behind this latest dusting off of Lew Wallace’s mighty 1880 bestseller at least deserve kudos for having the balls to take on William Wyler’s epochal, box-office smashing, 11 Oscar-winning, mammoth-in-all-departments adaptation.
Quite why they decided to do it is another matter; one has to hope given how this is currently limping along at cinemas that deliberate career suicide wasn’t one of them.
There are elements to be admired here, the galley sequences, the heaving hustle and bustle of ancient Judea and a trimmed down story (two hour duration compared to 3 hours and 42 minutes) but in the scramble to make a ‘new’ version of the old story, a certain amount of confusion and lack of focus has crept in.
The all-defining chariot race sequence is where such films redeem themselves, but what we have here is nothing short of a dull afternoon at the dog-tracks.
It’s interesting to note that, with all the technical wizardry at a filmmaker’s fingers, the sequence has less impact than the 1925 silent version.
Director: William Wyler.
It was always going to be difficult to out-epic the most famous version of Ben-Hur, but it’s not just the scale of this film that impresses the most.
This is a film to listen to as it is blessed with the most poetic of dialogue. Considering the script was cobbled together from the efforts of several writers, its clear and beautiful cohesiveness is to be even more admired.
Wyler had the funds to make a splendid film and from the lush, Imperial score all the way down to the smallest of props, this has the ring of perfection chiming through every frame.
Yes, it’s a long film and it has been said by other critics that it lasts almost as long as the Roman Empire, but it’s a rewarding journey none the less on many levels.
Director: Fred Niblo.
MGM’s first stab at making Ben-Hur almost bankrupted the newly-fledged company, but they managed to off-set many potential losses and showed their mettle as a serious studio that could handle a film of any size.
It’s about as big a film as you can get and you can tick off all of the key elements to make a Ben-Hur and a few more.
This film was made before the days of national cinema censorship so it’s the raciest Ben-Hur with male nudity, bare-breasted female extras and star Ramon Novarro’s lovely toned legs in micro-skirts so short you can almost see his little tribune.
The exciting chariot race still stands up to scrutiny today in a film that, despite its melodrama is still thunderously good.
Director: Sidney Olcott et al.
I wanted to include the ‘little great-grandaddy’ of Ben-Hurs as much for continuity and also consistency – why shouldn’t a film made before most of the techniques now used in cinema were developed?
Well, in a sense perhaps I should have left it out as it isn’t a film in the usual sense of the word, but more a filmed version of a stage play.
But within its creaky, theatrical set-up there is a cute, almost naive value to it. I’ve given this the same star rating as the 2016 version as both films in their own way help to pass the time. This one, at 15 minutes, does it rather more swiftly.
Cast & credits (2016 only)
Producers: Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin.
Writers: Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley.
Camera: Oliver Wood.
Music: Marco Beltrami.
Sets: Naomi Shohan.
Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Marwan Kenzari, Moises Arias, James Cosmo.