The Horses Need Their Own Agents 

Stars: Jack Huston (Ben-Hur), Toby Kebbell (Messala), Morgan Freeman (Sheik Liderim), Rodrigo Santoro (Jesus), Pilou Asbaek (Pontius Pilate), Nazanin Boniadi, Sofia Black D’Elia, Ayelet Zurer, Marwan Kenzari and James Cosmo
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Scriptwriters: Keith Clarke and John Ridley from the novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” by Lew Wallace
Composer: Mario Beltrami
Cinematographer: Oliver Wood
Rating: R for violence including war, slavery, chariot racing
Running Length: 125 minutes

Comparisons with the 1959 “Ben-Hur” film starring Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur)  and Stephen Boyd (Messala) are inevitable. Why remake a classic? This is why “Gone With The Wind” is still intact. However, the powers-that-be decided to try a remake with “Ben-Hur” and what they have is a movie unto itself, compacted within 125 minutes instead of over three hours and an intermission.  Emotional highlights are gone and the film is laid out with a timeline. Then, there is the situation of casting. Jack Huston (Judah Ben-Hur) was originally to have played the Messala role, while Toby Kebbell (Messala) would be Ben-Hur. The change was made to reverse their roles.  Thus, we have a man with a mischievous face (Huston) playing the somber role of the galley slave Ben-Hur, while the man with the somber face (Kebbell) is the military man, Messala.  Not only that, but neither man looks capable of a) living five years as a galley slave, or b) fighting his way across Europe for the Roman Empire. The color palette of technicolor heightened the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” while the 2016 version is toned down and a more earthy quality to clothing and life style. Morgan Freeman is the horse racer, Sheik Liderim (played in 1959 by Hugh Griffith and winning an Oscar for his role). The 2016 Sheik  uses modern language as in “OK”. Really stands out. However, the sea battle is wonderful and the chariot race (Huston is a good horseman) is spectacular.

This story begins with two young men, Judah and Messala, racing across the countryside, their favorite occupation. Judah is a Jewish prince with privileges in this Roman world, while Messala’s grandfather tried to assassinate a Caesar and this darkness covers the family name. Alone in the world, the child Messala was taken in by the Hur family and raised as one of their own, though certain family members never did take to this idea. As an adult, Messala leaves and joins the Roman army, working his way up the ranks and comes back home an army veteran. He asks Judah’s help in stopping the Zealots (Resistance) who cause riots and other destruction. Messala is certain there are Jewish people in the group, but can't prove it. Judah won't give names, and as Messala’s military group is passing by the Hur house, someone shoots an arrow and kills a member of the high-ranking government. The Hur house is ransacked, and under Messala’s orders, Judah becomes a galley slave and his family put to death. Fast- forward five years, and there is a naval battle in which Judah’s ship is destroyed and he is freed, washed ashore and helped by Sheik Liderim, who is a horse racer, having a team of beautiful white horses.

Two-plus-two still make four and you know that Judah Ben-Hur and Messala will end up in the new Circus built in Jerusalem with entertainment scheduled by Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek). There is an enormous bet placed by the Sheik which Messala and Pontius Pilate accept. Then comes the race and hold on to your arm rests for this one as Judah and Messala try to outride each other with thousands looking on. It’s personal. As far as the other characters---the mother (Ayelet Zurer), the sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), and Judah’s wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi),  plus family friends--- they are there for moments and then the story goes on to something else, though there are secrets to unfold.

What is added here is more contact with Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro) who talks about peace and forgiveness and has an effect on Judah. Religion is not stressed except in places with reference to a person “having another god.”  This land was under Roman control at the time and it was stressful for everyone. Punishment for infractions were severe and death was the result, with crucifixion being one of the methods.

Little did Lew Wallace know, when he wrote his book “Ben-Hur,” that it would be filmed as an early black and white film, an epic, and in the 21st century, yet again. It is an interesting story of jealousy, betrayal, revenge and redemption. The actors do what they can in this version, but there is scant time in-between action scenes. Special effects are down to a minimum and the camera work places the audience in the naval battle and in the Circus going round and round controlling your horses and a chariot. If you have not seen the 1959 “Ben-Hur,” take the time to view it for acting, chariot race, soundtrack and those extra emotional moments.

Be aware that this movie was filmed abroad and the horses are used for racing and the accidents that occur in racing. The horses need their own agents.


Copyright 2016 Marie Asner