The upcoming Ben-Hur is the latest adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, this time from director Timur Bekmambetov, as well as the screenwriter Keith Clarke (The Way Back) and the Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (of 12 Years a Slave and American Crime fame). Wallace’s source material has been adapted multiple times over the past century, including as a silent film (twice, in fact) and most famously as a 1950s Hollywood swords and sandals epic, starring Charlton Heston as the film’s namesake.
Jack Huston of Boardwalk Empire fame will take on the role of Judah Ben-Hur in Bekmambetov’s movie, while Toby Kebbell – of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fame and Fantastic Four (infamy) – will play Messala: Judah’s adopted brother, who betrays his brother in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, setting Judah on a journey to escape a life of slavery and oppose the Roman empire (and Messala with it). Other key players in the story include Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman as the Sheik Ilderim, who becomes a mentor to Judah; Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland) as Esther, a slave who falls in love with Judah; and Rodrigo Santoro (the 300 movies) as Jesus Christ himself.
Huston, when interviewed by USA Today, admitted that he initially balked at the prospect of starring in a re-adaptation of Ben-Hur, with nearly 60 years having passed since director William Wyler’s 1959 film adaptation took home 11 Academy Awards (including a Best Actor win for Heston). Obviously, the actor came around eventually, and he told USA Today that Judah Ben-Hur’s story remains as relevant as ever in the present day:
“There’s something really beautiful about it, especially in the current climate of the world, about different religions and people being at odds against each other. How do we find our way out of this, how do we forgive, how do we forget, how do we move on, how should we treat our fellow human?”
You can check out the first official images from Ben-Hur, below:
Huston’s comment bring to mind what Ridley has said about the new Ben-Hur in the past, as the latter pointed out to Collider in an interview a year back that “When you say Ben-Hur, people think of the chariot race, but they don’t think of racial slavery, back in the day, or what it would mean to be in occupied Jerusalem,” and noting that these thematic elements from Clarke’s script draft was what got Ridley onboard to do revisions/rewrites for the film. That being said, Huston also offered his assurances that the chariot race in Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur will be the film’s “crown jewel” and noted that he and Kebbell spent two and a half months rehearing the sequence in Italy:
“You get in with two horses on a chariot, which blows your mind, and then you put four horses on the end of your reins. It would be the equivalent of a Formula 1 race. It’s overwhelming and incredibly scary. But after the first day where you think every second, ‘I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die,’ you decide to put that out of your brain for good and it becomes just part of the job.”
Bekmambetov is known best here is the States for his highly stylized Wanted comic book movie and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter novel adaptation, though some film buffs would point to his Night Watch/Day Watch work as the better reflection of what the filmmaker could do with an epic narrative like Ben-Hur in his hands. Whereas Hollywood swords and sandals films nowadays tend to be more of the pulpy action movie variety (300) or CGI-heavy fantasy adventures (Clash of the Titans, Gods of Egypt), the caliber of the screenwriting and acting talent associated with Ben-Hur (2016) bodes well for Bekmambetov’s film – suggesting it could elevate the project above being a stylish, yet hollow, retread of a familiar story.
As for the movie’s box office prospects: Ben-Hur is a tentpole that boasts a truly international ensemble cast, which should help its performance at the global box office and has allowed the film to avoid the accusations of white-washing that’ve been made against such recent fare as Gods of Egypt and Exodus: Gods and Kings (something that certainly doesn’t help with the ticket sales). Ben-Hur will face competition from Disney’s Pete’s Dragon remake as well as the R-Rated animated comedy Sausage Party during its opening weekend (not to mention, the second weekend for Suicide Squad), but it may yet manage to carve out a decent-sized slice of the box office pie for itself all the same.
Ben-Hur opens in U.S. theaters on August 12th, 2016.