By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER (review of Ben-Hur)It is possible to remake a classic without digging up the old remains and torturing them. Ben-Hur showed us how in 1959, by advancing well beyond the silent 1927 epic. Now there is a Ben-Hur for 2016, from Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmanbetov. O visionary Timur, Great Khan of Excess! He gave us Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and now leaves us grateful for one thing. He has not made Jesus Christ: Chariot Racer.
And yet, why so many changes, but no improvements? Heroic Jewish sufferer Judah Ben-Hur is no longer that glowering silo of man-beef, Charlton Heston. He is smiling Jack Huston, the amiable grandson of John Huston. He sincerely reaches for heroism, but after five years grinding away at the oars as a galley slave, looks no more buffed for the big chariot race. Messala, his adoptive Roman brother and friend turned nemesis, who ruins Judah’s life and family before facing him in the arena, is no longer 1959’s turgidly charismatic Stephen Boyd. He is lean, scowling Tobey Kebell, whose Messala looks like a dealer in fake passports and moth-eaten suits.
The homo-erotic subtext that script doctor Gore Vidal smuggled into the 1959 bromance of betrayal (also a “tale of the Christ”) is gone. Except for one wink: Judah, sizing up Messala’s virile rig as a legionnaire, says “How long does it take you to get dressed?” Entirely gone is Miklos Rozsa’s fine music. Gone is Jack Hawkins, as the Roman admiral who hauled his rescuer, Judah, to the grandeur of Rome (Rome has gone to Vegas). Gone are the moving Jewish women, now played by their costumes. Gone is Frank Thring’s eloquent Pontius Pilate, replaced by a drab creep. Gone is the disturbingly tragic Valley of the Lepers, replaced by a dull dungeon.
And gone is delightful Hugh Griffith’s horse-loving Arabian sheik, replaced by horse-loving African sheik Morgan Freeman. Crowned with enough ropey dreadlocks to star in Bob Marley: Voodoo Maniac, he dispenses pearls of wisdom. Freeman, a great actor now deep into paid retirement, seems to be narrating his lines for all future remakes, like a prophet whose Teleprompter floats in a radiant cloud.
In 1959 director William Wyler was the sage one. He wisely showed Jesus at a distance, or from behind. Now Jesus is a mannequin Savior, dropping by for quick miracles. After the chariot race (a gore binge of CGI blast and blur), Christ's crucifixion brings not just the healing of Judah’s family but … Messala! Rising from mauled, bloody wreck in the arena, he again becomes Judah’s buddy. Smiling, they ride together like Tom Toga and Huck Hebrew. Maybe that chariot slaughter was only a frat-house initiation. Such is thy vision, O Timur, and may thy herds multiply. But please, spare us the miracle of a sequel.
SALAD (A List)By my nostalgic appraisal, these are Charlton Heston’s Ten Best Roles:
Judah Ben-Hur (Ben-Hur), Mike Vargas (Touch of Evil), Amos Dundee (Major Dundee), Moses (The Ten Commandments), John Sands (The Wreck of the Mary Deare), Gen. Charles Gordon (Khartoum), Will (Will Penny), Andrew Jackson (The President’s Lady), El Cid Rodrigo de Vivar (El Cid), Christopher Leiningen (The Naked Jungle). One should always keep in mind the comment of actor L.Q. Jones about Chuck: “He’s a poser.”
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)John Houseman, a crucial figure in Orson Welles’s early stage career, made a perceptive attempt at summing up the approach and style: “Welles is at heart a magician whose particular talent lies not so much in his creative imagination, which is considerable, as in his proven ability to stretch the familiar elements of theatrical effect far beyond their normal point of tension.” (From Peter Cowie’s The Cinema of Orson Welles)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)In the splendid cast of Alice Adams, snappy Frank Albertson plays her brother Walter as a pistol mouth: “I’m no society snake! I’m as liable to go to that Palmer dance as I need a couple barrels of broken glass.’ He must be hooked on Cagney (Jimmy had five pictures in 1935). Hepburn ‘thought at the time he was a bit common. He turned out to be great.” (From the Katharine Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Charlton Heston drives his racing steeds to glory in the best Ben-Hur (MGM, 1959; director William Wyler, cinematographer Robert L. Surtees).
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