For decades, it was the robust, never-seen-before chariot
race that lingered long after William Wyler won 11 Oscar trophies for his Ben Hur. It still is the chariot scene
that stands out in director Timur Bekmambetov’s reboot of Ben-Hur.
The falling out of brothers or best buddies is the
time-tested trope of many a classic. In this edition of Ben-Hur, Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur and Roman Messala Severus are
brought up as half-brothers in the same palatial household. Set in
Roman-occupied Jerusalem, the first testosterone-driven horse
race between the buddies is superbly picturised. It spotlights both their brawny
closeness and the sneering undercurrents that flow between Judah’s mother
and the Roman boy who believes in a different God. It makes their later enmity
that much more potent.
Messala joins the Roman ranks much against his buddy’s
advice and rises in Caesar’s force while Judah, content with his comfortable,
happy life, remains apolitical even when dissenters around him are crucified.
Judah doesn’t indulge the zealots who’ve risen against Caesar but he is
unwittingly drawn into it by an injured boy he gave shelter to. And Messala is
quick to conclude that Judah is a traitor to the Roman cause.
From the comfort of a nobleman’s mansion, Judah is
sentenced for sedition and chained as a galley slave. He fears that his mother
and sister have been crucified too. The scenes in the galley of the Roman ship where
he and the other prisoners have to row with all their might when they’re
attacked by Greeks, are stark and exceptionally shot.
When Judah emerges as the sole survivor of this brutal
sea battle, it is God’s will that he lives to take revenge on Messala.
Ilderim, a curiously sketched African played by Morgan
Freeman with dreadlocks, is God-sent to aid Judah. The wealthy leader of a
desert clan, Ilderim who wagers hefty bets, is won over by Judah’s love for
horses. Judah becomes the driver of his chariot in Pontius Pilate’s famous
chariot race where he takes on Roman champ Messala. This chariot race is just
as sharp, as edgy, as bloody and as mesmerising a watch as Wyler’s 1959
While retaining much of the classic Ben-Hur, there are a few essential
changes made like how the divide between Judah and Messala widened to turn into
enmity. It’s also more of a biblical epic this time with revenge climaxing in
Christian redemption and forgiveness with a bigger role for Jesus Christ and
If comparisons must be made, then Jack Huston doesn’t
fill the screen like Charlton Heston did as Judah.
Also, with visually stunning action choreography seen
often in recent films like Gladiator,
the question that arises is, was a remake that doesn’t inspire any more awe
than the original, really necessary? The answer won’t be welcomed by the
producers of the latest Ben-Hur
unless the aim was to drive a religious point home once more.
For a spectacular remake that doesn’t go beyond the
original, Ben-Hur gets a 3* rating.
Bharathi S Pradhan
Senior Journalist & Author