Ben Hur was originally a novel, then a silent epic, then the mother of all sword and sandals epics, courtesy of William Wyler and Charlton Heston. It is epic in length, in geographical scope, in its themes of betrayal, revenge and honour and at least as far as previous big screen iterations are concerned, budget and set-pieces. How this small-screen effort measures up will depend to a degree on your expectations, though it by no means disgraces itself.
It showed on UK terrestrial TV this past Christmas and now finds its way onto DVD, clocking in at 3hrs, a full hour shorter than Heston’s theatrical version from the 1950’s. Certainly it is a leaner film, moving through the fairly circuitous narrative swiftly, but it also shows up some of the film’s budgetary constraints. The sea battle, so eye-catching in Wyler’s film, is pretty effectively rendered here, but the climactic chariot race (actually quite some way from the final curtain in this and Wyler’s versions) suffers from looking cheap and hurried. Perhaps the comparison is unfair. In Wyler’s film, the chariot race took four months to film, lasts half an hour on screen and involved thousands of extras. This version cannot compete on that sort of scale and so plays the race out in Jerusalem on a dusty provincial track rather than in the Hippodrome in Rome. The filming gets right into the action and is exciting stuff, but given that this is the culmination of Ben-Hur’s rivalry with Messala, it needs more room to breathe, it needs to be on a bigger scale.
The acting is all very much up to scratch, with Joseph Morgan as Judah and Stephen Campbell Moore as Messala convincing as childhood friends and eventual enemies. They handle their scenes well and convey their respective emotional arcs effectively. Ray Winstone, Ben Cross and Marc Warren pop up as well, all to good effect and the script is well structured and paced. The problem is that Ben Hur is all about the epic scope and the visceral set pieces and although a few fruity love scenes are thrown in and much more care is taken with convincingly explaining and portraying the political shenanigans of the time, it remains an unaffecting, unengaging piece.
Whether this is trying to play off the recent resurrection of Spartacus on the small screen is unclear, but in the end the overall feeling here is “why bother”. It is not a bad mini series / TV movie, but it is a wholly unnecessary one and unfortunately is in the shadow of an unmatchable predecessor. You can get your copy here – it is out to buy now and to rent from the end of the month.
Extras: A six-minute making of.
You can see the trailer on YouTube here.