Saturday, July 9, 2016

Ben-Hur (2016) Versus Ben-Hur (1959) - Wanna Bet?

It was probably an urban legend, but the story goes like this. During the lengthy run of the 1959 hit film Ben-Hur in San Francisco, a Market Street wino used to hang out in front of the box office and take bets on the chariot race. I have a feeling he put his money on Messala - otherwise, who would take him up on the bet? I remember, back in 1960 as an eight-year-old lad who had been wowed by this impressive epic film, rather admiring the guy's fervent optimism and his feeling that the magic of film might work a wonder. Obviously, he knew Ben-Hur won the laurel wreath, but perhaps he believed that Messala might pull ahead and win in one magical moment.

As for which version of the film will win the laurel wreath, my fondness for the 1959 version of Ben-Hur does not mean I will be bitter or disappointed if Timur Bekmambetov's "re-imagining" is better than the previous version. I just want it to be a great movie - and I am behind it all the way. The 1959er was the first significant movie to open my eyes to the expansive magic of film. After a very poor spring and summer movie season this year, I yearn for a film that can put the "wow" back into moviegoing. (If a new Ben-Hur can't do that, nothing can.)

As a frequent moviegoer I end up seeing the trailers for the big superhero movies so many times I try to avoid them. Oddly, I have only seen the trailer for Ben-Hur once in the theater. Although I've only allowed myself glimpses of the preview, I must say it looks good. Admittedly, the 1959er starts out too slowly. For the new one, I see, they have added some land-battle scenes, most likely flashbacks to Messala's days as a budding centurion expanding the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, 1959er's excellent screenplay does the same thing as battle flashbacks, as when Messala talks about conquering Libya:

"A tremendous campaign. We met their armies on the coast, and after two days of fighting they fled. Then we marched on their capital. Barbaric city, but fascinating, or it was till we destroyed it. (Dramatic pause before the blunt punchline.) Now it's nothing but ashes." (I love it when this stark ending to his tale puts a damper on his luncheon with the Hurs.)

I look forward to what the "re-imagining" will do with the new version. I had always wished the 1959er had included a flashback to the developing relationship between the younger Ben-Hur and Messala. Esther makes a reference to the time the boys went out lion hunting and Messala saved Ben's life. A scene like this would have pumped up the beginning of the film. The new version has a prime opportunity to include the lion hunt! Hope it does! That would be much more interesting than a battle flashback.

Finally, as I've said, the new film looks good, and I know it will have lots of action. Here's hoping the chariot race is not extended into CGI boredom. Listening to the trailer, it is clear that the 59er is a couple of lengths ahead of the 2016er in the writing department. When galley admiral Quintus Arrius harangues the rowers, he talks flatly about the ship being like a body and the rowers being its blood. Nothing can top, "Your eyes are full of hate, 41. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live." Indeed, there are many memorable lines that the 2016er will not be able to top. "What do you think you see? The smashed body of a wretched animal." Yes, the Heston Hur only features two major action scenes, but it has Messala's death scene - one of the most gruesome death scenes in cinema.

We shall see. I hope to see the new Ben-Hur at Downtown Disney in Anaheim on the morning of August 16 when I will be thinking of the lines, "This is the day, Judah. It's between us now." Indeed, on that morning, it will be between the two films, but I don't care which comes in first. I have a feeling I'm safe putting my money on the 59er, but I am open to being pleasantly surprised, and I look forward to any original elements that Bekmambetov might include.

For a lengthy discussion of the look of Ben-Hur I invite you to check out my older article posted for the 50th anniversary of the film.

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