Hollywood must’ve run out of ideas if they thought rebooting Ben-Hur was a smart choice. What made them think that they could reproduce a film that won 11 oscars? The original is an iconic piece of cinematography that had over 300 handmade sets, 200 statues, and 15,000 extras. For those of you who haven’t seen this 1959 classic, Ben-Hur is the story of Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) who is forced into slavery after being falsely accused of attempting to assassinate the new governor of Judea. While his story is ultimately one about revenge, it also touches on the importance of faith and includes appearances from some historic biblical characters.
The 2016 remake follows the same premise but has undergone some changes. Sure these may seem minor and unimportant to the casual movie goer, but for a purist like me, these types of alterations take away from the film’s overall appeal. In this week’s edition of Reboot Camp, we’re doing a side-by-side comparison of the 1959 and 2016 versions of Ben-Hur to see which is a better adaptation of Lew Wallace’s book.
Jack Huston and Charlton Heston play Ben-Hur. In 1959, Heston’s Ben-Hur was enslaved for three years on a galley ship, freed by Roman Consul Quintus Arrius, and becomes a chariot racer during his year in Rome. In 2016, Huston’s Ben-Hur spent five years as a slave, escaped by chance when his ship sank, and was taught how to chariot race by Ilderim. Both are equally volatile when it comes to interacting with Masala. But while Heston is able to restrain himself from actually laying a hand on his former best friend, Huston is eager to settle the score with a good old fist fight. Sorry, Jack Huston, but Charlton Heston is Ben-Hur and nobody can convince me otherwise.
Toby Kebbell and Stephen Boyd play Masala. In 1959, Boyd’s Masala is the best friend of Judah Ben-Hur. He is an officer in the Roman army who betrays Ben-Hur after he refused to become an informant for the Roman Empire. In 2016, Kebbell’s Masala is the adoptive brother of Ben-Hur who leaves Judea to join the army and make a name for himself. The writers actually didn’t make any major changes to this character. The only notable difference between the two is that Masala became Ben-Hur’s brother in the remake. This was probably done because screenwriter Gore Vidal had revealed in the documentary The Celluloid Closet that there was a gay subtext to the 1959 version. I can’t choose between Toby Kebell and Stephen Boyd, as both do a good job of playing an uppity antagonist. Sorry, boys, but it’s a tie.
Morgan Freeman and Hugh Griffith play Ilderim. In 1959, Griffith plays Sheik Ilderim who lets Ben-Hur use his horse and chariot in the arena after having realized that he’s the famed chariot racer from Rome. In 2016, Ilderim teaches Ben-Hur about the rules of the arena and how to chariot race so that he can kill Masala. While I love Morgan Freeman and could probably listen to him read a takeout menu, Hugh Griffith portrayal of Ilderim takes the cake. I mean, who else refers to their horses as their wives?
Rodrigo Santoro and Claude Heater play Jesus. In 1959, Heater plays Jesus who helped Ben-Hur when he was a slave and gave him a ladle of water. Heater is uncredited for this role most likely because you never actually see his face. While he has a huge influence on the characters of Ben-Hur, in this version he’s a minor character. In 2016, Rodrigo Santoro plays Jesus and seems to have a bigger part in the remake than his predecessor. This was probably done to draw in more religious viewers, but by doing this, they’ve taken away the mysticism that surrounds him. Forgive me, Santoro, but Claude Heater is Jesus. Maybe you should’ve taken a page out of his book and covered your face; it would’ve added some holy mystery to your character.
How’s the saying go: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it? This remake was unnecessary and does nothing but tarnish the Ben-Hur moniker. If you haven’t seen the original (and don’t plan to in the foreseeable future), then you’ll probably enjoy it, because you don’t know any better. For me, no CGI-infused scene can replace or replicate the beautifully crafted sets from the original. Some things are better done in real life than in front of a green screen. If they’d decided to spend all that money on real locations then maybe it would’ve had a chance at catching my attention. MAYBE.