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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) vs. Ben-Hur (1959) vs. Ben-Hur (2016)

¿Quien es mas macho?

Heston all the way.

Posted: Jan. 6, 2018 12:46 PM
Updated: Jan. 6, 2018 12:46 PM

I once referred to the first Japanese and the two American Godzilla movies as a turd sandwich because “Gojira” (1954) and “Godzilla” (2014) are both really good while the inexplicably Matthew Broderick-led “Godzilla” (1998) in the middle is remarkably sucky. Well, this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown takes on the opposite cinematic combination of three films where the middle one is one of the greatest movies ever made and the bookends are close to unwatchable. It’s “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” (1925) vs. “Ben-Hur” (1959) vs. “Ben-Hur” (2016) in a demonstration that the people who think the 1950s were the height of American civilization might not be entirely wrong.

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Based on a novel by General Lew Wallace, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” weaves together the story of Jesus from birth to crucifixion with the epic adventure of a young Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) who goes from riches to rags to riches to salvation. When his childhood friend Messala (Francis X. Bushman) is named the new Roman tribune of Jerusalem, Judah is at first overjoyed. But when Messala asks him to inform on his fellow Jews who are unhappy with Roman rule, Judah refuses. After an accident makes it appear that someone in Judah’s home attacked the Roman governor, Messala uses the excuse to send Judah to the galleys as a slave who will row a Roman warship until he dies and to throw Judah’s mother and sister (Claire McDowell and Kathleen Key) into prison.

After his ship sinks in a battle with pirates, Judah saves the life of a Roman commander (Arrius) and becomes his adopted son. He returns to Jerusalem and hooks up with an Arab sheik named Ilderim (Mitchell Lewis), whose magnificent horses he rides against Messala in a fantastic race that leaves Messala broken in body and broke in his bank account. Judah also discovers his mother and sister are alive but infected with leprosy, an ancient disease that kinds of turns you into a living zombie that doesn’t want to eat human flesh.

At critical points throughout the story, Judah comes into contact with Jesus…well, he comes into contact with Jesus’ hand because this film presents the Savior like he was Cousin It from The Adams Family. Anyway, one of Jesus’ last miracles is to cure Judah’s mother and sister and his sacrifice allows Judah to see that Jesus was not meant to be a king on Earth, so Judah disbands the legions he had organized to enforce His reign.

I don’t want to be too hard on “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” because it was a resounding commercial and critical success in its day, but there’s no getting around the fact that day is generations in the past. This movie was made before penicillin was discovered or bubble gum was invented. In 1925, there was no such thing as beer in a can or stereo records and notebooks with spiral bindings were still considered an amazing new advancement. In other words, it was so long ago that it practically counts as a different world. While some of the acting and most of the basic storytelling still works, this nearly 2 and ½ hour silent motion picture is simply too visually and stylistically dated to meet the expectations of modern viewers.

There’s no shame in that. It happens to almost all popular entertainment and even a lot of high art. When it the last time anyone sold out a Broadway theater performing something written by Sophocles or Euripides? But while there remains plenty of historical value to “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” it no longer makes the grade as a motion picture you watch for pleasure.

The remake in 1959? Well, there may come a day when human society has grown or changed so much that “Ben-Hur” (1959) no longer speaks to the hearts and minds of viewers but that day has not yet arrived almost 70 years later. This sprawling, 3 hour and 44 minute saga could have been subtitled “Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” because it tells virtually the same story but expands virtually every part of it in a manner where the longer version is actually better. Charlton Heston as Judah is everything you want a movie star to be. Stephen Boyd as Messala is one of the greatest villains in Hollywood history, one whose evil is only magnified by the elements of his character we can recognize in ourselves. This version of the chariot race remains one of the best and most exciting action scenes ever put up on the big screen.

But there are some fascinating differences between the two films. The 1925 original casts the Romans as deeply anti-Semitic, looking upon the Jews as if they were trash or vermin. That attitude is entirely gone from the 1959 remake and when the comparison is made that one Roman is worth six Jews, it is purely an expression of arrogance and not bigotry. The remake also embraces a much more nuanced understanding of the Roman Empire. In the original, the Romans are the embodiment of evil in the world. “Ben-Hur” (1959), however, presents the idea that Rome encompasses great power and even great potential for goodness as well and great error and fault. Evil in the film is to be found in the human heart and not the halls of government. What make Messala a bad guy is not that he serves Rome but that he is enslaved by his pride and materialistic ambition. It’s also interesting from a feminist perspective how Judah’s great love Esther (May McAvoy in the original and Haya Harareet in the remake) has a much more active role in the story in 1925. And there’s probably a decent sociology thesis to be written on the original film’s discomfort with the subject of slavery and how the remake completely accepts it as a normal element of life two thousand years ago.

The third go round, “Ben-Hur” (2016), is the shortest of the three at a smidge over two hours but proves that brevity is not always the soul of wit. This version received a sound critical thrashing when it was initially released and the moviegoing public practically ignored it, both of which were richly deserved. It differs substantially from the first two films, narratively and thematically, and every alteration is for the worse. This Throwdown would turn into a Russian novel if I tried to go through every problem with “Ben-Hur” (2016), so let me give one example that kind of sums up how wrong-headed this version is.

In the first two films, a stone accidentally falls from the balcony of Judah’s home and hits the Roman governor. Judah begs Messala for mercy but is denied, even though Messala knows it was an accident. In the third version, a Jewish rebel wounded fighting Romans is being hidden at Judah’s home. The rebel tries to assassinate the Roman governor as he passes by and Judah not only allows him to escape, he refuses to tell Messala about him. What exactly is Messala supposed to do in that situation? Someone in Judah’s home deliberately tried to murder a high government official and Judah won’t say or do anything to help Messala capture him. In the first two films, Messala finally reveals himself as a villain because he condemns Judah and his family when he could have just as easily intervened to save them. In the third version, Messala has no choice but to do what he does and it is Judah who is truly responsible for what happens next. Judah is, strictly speaking, the bad guy in the situation. And if the 2016 version had embraced that, it would have at least been interesting. But it still treats Judah like the hero and ignores its own internal dramatic logic.

And don’t even get me started on Morgan Freeman’s baffling refusal to even attempt an appropriate accent for Sheik Ilderim.
“Ben-Hur” (1959) wins this Throwdown, as it would win a comparison with nearly any other motion picture. “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” (1925) takes the bronze because it doesn’t deserve a silver and “Ben-Hur” (2016) is disqualified for the cinematic equivalent of trying to use performance enhancing drugs but actually injecting itself with diluted horse semen.


Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
Written by June Mathis and five more people credited for “scenario,” “continuity,” and “titles.” Just in case you though the Writers Guild of America was good for nothing.
Directed by Fred Niblo.
Starring Ramon Navarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Claire McDowell, Kathleen Key, Carmel Myers, Nigel De Brulier, Mitchell Lewis, Frank Currier, and Dale Fuller.

Ben-Hur (1959)
Written by Karl Tunberg.
Directed by William Wyler.
Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Frank Thring, George Relph, and Finlay Currie.

Ben-Hur (2016)
Written by Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.
Starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbaek, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Morgan Freeman, Marwan Kenzari, and Moises Arias.


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