“Ben-Hur” was shooting in the south of Italy last year when disturbing news reached the set: Islamic State had executed Christians on a beach just across the Mediterranean in Libya.
The movie’s principals found the parallels unsettling. As they were making a story about strife between Romans and Jews nearly 2,000 years before, religious-based violence was again sweeping the globe.
“I don’t want to make it seem as if our movie speaks to every conceivable issue,” said Sean Daniel, the producer who helped originate the film, which arrives in theaters Friday from distributor Paramount. “But it was, ‘Holy cow, we’re making this movie about the world in turmoil and several thousand years later it was still happening.’ It was a powerful moment.”
A new “Ben-Hur.” The very notion seems startling, almost sacrilegious. William Wyler’s 1959 film of the same name, about the Jesus-era relationship between a Jew and a Roman, was famous for its 11 Oscars, its star-making turn from Charlton Heston, its soaring epic-ness and, of course, its climactic chariot race. The work is one of the best known in the film canon, a classic synonymous with Hollywood history.
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Yet ready or not, here comes a who’s who of the modern film world to take another stab at it. There’s Daniel (“The Mummy”), the Kazakh stylist director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”), the prestige screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), the faith-minded television producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (“The Bible,” “The Amazing Race”), and even an actor with a Golden Age of Hollywood last name (Jack Huston, grandson of John and great-grandson of Walter).
The group came together to revisit the material, drawing from the same Lewis Wallace post-Civil War bestseller on which Wyler’s work and a 1925 silent film were based – only this time with modern touches.
Like the chariot scene shot mostly in the style of a NASCAR race over six weeks.
Or the themes, transmuted from revenge to feel-good forgiveness.
With a more prominent and evangelical-friendly spiritual quotient (in the context of a $130-million summer tentpole).
Oh, and all in 3-D.
Skeptical? Intrigued? Worried? A little of all three?
Its creators were, anyway.
THE REBOOT TRAP?
The new “Ben-Hur” is susceptible to what you might call the reboot trap. Deviate from an original and people say you messed with the good. Make it too similar and people ask why you bothered in the first place.
The costumes are in period but without excessive, as Bekmambetov puts it, “towels hanging off them.” And if the setup of estranged pals building toward a showdown can feel stodgy, the director looks to make it pay off with military scenes modeled after Delta force videos he found on YouTube and a chariot race shot (with no green-screen) using GoPro cameras and other documentary techniques.
As for the plot, the big beats are often the same. During a time of great Empire conflict, the Jewish Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) is betrayed by and sold into slavery because of his childhood confidante, the Roman officer Messala (Toby Kebbell). Judah then sets out to avenge Messala via a deadly race.
But there are strategic changes. The inciting incident that brings Mesala and Judah to loggerheads is handled differently; so too is the pair’s relationship, which here is that of adopted brothers. Distinct is the chariot race itself, a taut 10-minute affair with an oddly Olympic-like feel.
Maybe most significant, Jesus is a far more prominent figure in this film than in the Heston picture. Where he was previously seen in the shadows, inspirational only by proxy, here he makes several key appearances, including in a post-race scene that shades the film’s climax differently.
“Here’s a character we’ve seen so many times,” said Brazilian-born actor Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Jesus and sought out and received the blessing of Pope Francis at the Vatican before tackling the role. “How could we humanize him? How can we bring the figure closer and not a distant, son-of-God teacher? How can we enliven the portrayal with the world we live in?”
Including Jesus also helped turn the story into one of forgiveness. Filmmakers say their reasoning was simple: In 1959, with global religious divisions neither as prominent nor as bloody, revenge could rule the day. In 2016, the world may not need more of that.
MARKETING A HYBRID
As noble as such a hybrid sounds, it can present plenty of marketing challenges.
Faith-based audiences turn out to see movies like “Heaven Is for Real” and “God is Not Dead.” But even biblical and historical movies will fail if they come with more explicit Christian elements; Paramount itself learned this the hard way when its “Noah” failed to resonate with a faith-based audience.
At the same time, too much religion could signal to a large secular audience – the kind required for a summer tentpole – that this film isn’t for them.
Paramount has tried to walk the line carefully. It released one trailer that barely noted the religious elements and another rife with Jesus imagery that played over a song by the Christian rock band For King & Country.
Even as the studio takes out prime-time and late-night TV ads, it has crafted a kind of parallel campaign that recruited pastors such as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, who both have endorsed the film, and Tim Tebow, apparently now between batting-practice sessions.
They’re relying on the Olympics too. “Ben-Hur’ had to be pushed from February because of a lengthy post-production time, especially after a late-stage decision to convert to 3-D. Filmmakers are banking that a release on the Olympics’ closing weekend will a give them a Rio-related boost. A set of NBC spots in the coming days, including one that intersperses scenes from the film with moments of Olympic glory, underlines the point.
Their hope is that viewers also make other connections.
“People would say, when we took the script out, ‘How can you go up against 11 Oscars?’” said Clarke, who was motivated to write “Ben-Hur” after he and wife-producing partner Joni Levin took a trip to Israel and saw what they viewed as the hopelessness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “But this is a very contemporary story. It’s about fear and anger and how we’re ruled by it today just as we were then.”
Bekmambetov went further: “We live in a Roman Empire. It’s a place where we believe that everything is about competition and power and success. You see it in the political world, in global confrontations. And either we learn how to forgive or we’re all going to kill each other.”
A MODERN APPROACH
The idea of a movie connected to an earlier age of Hollywood could also hold some virtue on its own simply by reminding that a superhero-crazed industry has not forgotten its roots. “There’s something beautiful about the continuity, even by osmosis,” said Huston.
Ridley said that a more contemporary approach to race and representation than the 1959 film – one in which a white Welsh actor like Hugh Griffith didn’t don paint to play an Arab sheik – “was reason right there to come back to it.”
But maybe the most potent argument made on the film’s behalf comes with the idea that a new “Ben-Hur” is less the product of a 1950s nostalgia-raid than as part of a long and eternal chain.
“The Wyler movie came out in 1959, some 30 years after the silent movie,” Kebbell said. “You can imagine the complaints then. ‘The talkies. All these monologues. It’s ruining the action. Why are you messing with my childhood?’ They messed with someone’s childhood. We’re messing with theirs. And one day, someone will mess with ours.”