Ben Hur (1959) is an epic historical drama about a Jewish prince sent into slavery after some shoddy tiling fell on a centurion and made him look a right tit in front his garrison. Condemned to row himself to death aboard a Roman galley, he eventually wins his freedom and returns to his home country to confront the childhood friend who betrayed him in a deadly chariot race, in which almost everybody is trampled to death by hooves. Most agree that it’s really quite a good film.
Ben Hur (2016), on the other hand, is the story of some dude who looks like he’s just stumbled out of American Apparel’s thrift section and on to the set of an ITV drama. Jack Huston plays a weedy and gritless Ben Hur whose raw stupidity – rather than his noble will to do right by his people – gets him in trouble with the Romans. Antagonist Messala (Toby Kebbell) has had his guts removed too, no longer a conflicted but determined anti-hero seeking peace by any means, but a damp weasel-man bullied into his foul actions by his mean Roman supervisors.
Straight out of the gate, it trips over every show-don’t-tell rule going. Things that the 1959 classic could convey in a single scene take a dozen cuts and a Morgan Freeman voiceover here. Ben Hur and Messala were adoptive brothers, he bluntly narrates in lieu of anything of substance being shown on screen. They were very competitive, he condescends, as if reading off the film’s Cliffs Notes to a classroom of children. If he’d been sat next to me I’d have leaned over to press my finger to his lips.
The film starts with a brief tease of the chariot race, to reassure viewers that they’re in the right theatre, before flashing back to story’s beginning. Stripped down to 120 minutes, Ben Hur’s tale no longer involves his becoming the revered adopted son of a Roman consul, instead his spell at sea ends with him washing up on shore directly at the feet of a chariot racing Sheik (Freeman), who offers him a shortcut to the film’s finale and the opportunity to bloody the nose of his nemesis by beating him on the circuit. Why? A vague and unconvincing sense of vengeance.
Freeman makes for a really tedious wise-man Sheik, putting in an extremely Morgan Freeman performance that lacks any of the jesterly fun of the original character, and slamming the door on the only potential for light relief in this grim and humourless movie. You’ll laugh however, at the honest-to-god training montage, in which Freeman eagerly coaches Ben Hur on chariot racing tactics and tricks in the lead up to the showstopper.
How many CGI horses died to create the chariot race? Whatever the number, they didn’t sacrifice enough. It would take a mountain of mangled horse corpses to rouse you from the stupor you’ll be in by the time the freshly shaven Ben Hur trots up to the starting line looking like a Hugo Boss model. To expect it to be as impressive as the original would be asking too much. In 1959 real-life horses were bashed to bits and stunt actors were catapulted into the stratosphere. In 2016 we get a predictable mess of artless fakery, peculiar shots of fist-pumping Freeman, and weirdly animated horses that look like they’d be more at home in Zootopia. It’s not that I want horses to die for my entertainment, of course it isn’t, but I simply want to believe that at least one horse was in mortal danger during filming.
Jesus pops up from time to time too, as per tradition. Occasionally the camera will pan across to a Bee Gees looking guy hammering a nail into a piece of wood, and he’ll say something pleasant like “I’ve had this cool idea about not coveting thy neighbour's ass”, and everybody around him will nod and say things like “hey, I think this guy’s on to something”.
Never before have I been so relieved to see that chap strung up on the cross, as it meant the film was almost over and we could all go home. Thank you, Jesus.