Coming into Ben Hur, to say the stakes were high for this re-imagined Oscar classic would be an understatement. With the 1959 version having collected 11 Oscars back in the day replicating that same success was an impossibility. But with such a compelling story of a Prince (Judah) turned slave by his adoptive brother Massala then coming back for revenge; the film was primed to be an entertaining ride. Instead, Director Timur Bekmambetov stayed stuck between honoring the source material and giving us a style over substance featurette.
Now having had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Hur stars Jack Huston and Rodrigo Santoro, I can say the failure of this film is not due to the passion behind it. Both stars believed in the story and vision Bekmambetov had for the film. “To me it was such a huge honor because as an actor you are always looking for great characters and I truly believe that the character of Judah Ben Hur is one of the great characters” said Jack Huston. Even Santoro categorized taking on the task of playing Jesus Christ in the film as “a no brainer”.
But the film itself fails in depicting the brotherly love between Judah (Huston) and Massala (Toby Kebbell). The film’s opening horse riding scene served as the only moment in which we see these two happily interact with another. Aside from that, it felt as though we jumped straight into the conflict. Granted the Judah character is developed for the most part, but much of his development comes and goes without Massala’s presence. Leaving the disastrous decisions Massala makes against his adoptive family and Judah to fall flat. Having had more focus on their brotherly bond and the family’s lack of affection towards Massala, could have had at the very least made Judah’s mission much more enjoyable.
Another area where Ben Hur faced an uphill battle was that by re-imagining Ben Hur, you must come to terms with this new incarnation not being classified as an “epic” like the ‘59 version was. To the credit of the film’s stars, that seemed to be something they knew to be true. “With all the special effects and progression of the film business what Ben Hur and we wanted to do was almost take it back and bring it back to the character and the story” said Huston. So while there were thankfully more practical effects, the film’s story was not grounded enough for us to care for our protagonist’s journey.
Now for a film that showcases Jesus, the film to its credit, does not beat audiences over the head with religious overtures. It instead simply sends audiences a message of being kind to one another which in today’s day and age is a much-needed one. But what was even more surprising was the personal effect this film had on Santoro.
“I wanted to bring something to this character that is instantly relatable as a man. If it wasn’t Jesus there feeding water to Judah it could be another man still doing an act of kindness…I want people to feel (after watching the film) like we are sons of God too, we can do this which is probably, I don’t know, but probably what Jesus was trying to say. We all can do this.”
As for Huston, his focus, like that of Santoro, was more on the affect the film has on audiences after they walk out of the theater. “I always say if I watch a movie about a painter I sometimes feel inspired to go out and paint, if I watch a movie about a writer I feel inspired to write. In this movie, the message doesn’t have to be a religious message but it has a message, and it’s a really good one and if some people walk out of the cinema and feel like they’ve learned something, then all the better for it and I feel incredibly proud about that.” Said Huston.
While the film’s ingrained message is grand, the story in which it’s attached failed in creating a film worthy of an audience’s dollars.