Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Mediocre in Comparison
Ben Hur was on my movie watching list this weekend and I relived the days of yore when William Wyler directed Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd in their epic grudge match. Aside from realizing that Charlton Heston was wearing a really bad wig and beard as a rower in the bowels of Roman galleys, the movie still thrilled me. Maybe it was the music. It could've been knowing that the villa where Heston and his family stayed during the filming of Ben Hur was crawling with lice, as the Italian scandal sheets claims, or that Stephen Boyd nearly went blind during the filming because he had to wear two pairs of brown contacts to hide his brilliant blue eyes. It was mainly because the musical score stirred my emotions almost as much as watching Judah ben Hur and Messala fight it out in the circus as they took their grudge match to the circus and fought it out with their chariots. The movie holds up even after more than 50 years.
As Amazon always does, they suggested more movies for me to watch and I was surprised to find a remake of Ben Hur of a more recent vintage. The remake starred Joseph Morgan (The Vampire Diaries) and Stephen Campbell Moore (Hunted and He Knew He Was Right) and was a miniseries made for TV in 2010, which is probably how I missed it before. I don't watch TV. I haven't even turned on my TV in 3 or 4 years. I do dust it infrequently, but I don't turn it on. I think the batteries in the remote are likely corroded as well. Oh, well.
Anyway, I watched the remake. There is a grittier look to the movie and it is a much smaller scale in terms of story and scenery. There are also a lot of changes made to Lew Wallace's 1883 novel, which I am in the process of reading. I want to know exactly what was changed and how. I do know that Cecil B. DeMille's version of the book with Heston and Boyd was much closer to the original story, and to the first time DeMille made the movie with Ramon Novarro. (Yes, I have seen the older version.)
For starters, there was lots of nudity, male and female, and there was sex, quite a bit of sex, but only with Messala's father's personal whore, Athene, who was also adept at the art of poisoning. After all, how is a senator like Marcellus Agrippa supposed to ascend to power without poison adept whores who gain access to a rival's bed so he can whisper state secrets in the afterglow of sex? A man is less able to think clearly once his interest has been aroused -- and sated.
Where Heston's Judah was chaste and focused on revenge, Morgan's Judah loses his virginity to Athene and continues to bed her, especially since she taught him how to please her so fully.
Instead of Esther being a slave and Judah's property, she is the daughter of the merchant Simonides. Simonides wishes to form a more lasting alliance by betrothing Esther to Judah. Big difference there, and one I'm sure was not in Wallace's book, not to mention Simonides being crucified in Judah's place after the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, played simperingly by Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), who is struck by the falling tile Judah knocked from the roof of his home. Oops! I thought it was Tirzah who knocked loose the tile while Judah took the blame. Guess not -- at least not in the miniseries.
I could go on for at least another 10,000 words explaining the differences between the 1959 and the 2010 versions of the movie. What I noticed most is that Morgan and Moore looked more like boys playing the parts of Judah ben Hur and Messala while Heston and Boyd brought not only their stardom to the parts, but gravitas and power that Morgan and Moore lacked, even though Morgan and Moore were nude more often. After all, everyone knows that nudity and sex make a story more real and popular when on the screen -- little or big. And I don't mean the size of breasts or penises either.
Morgan simpered and pursed his full lips in place of real acting and Moore was marginally better in his close cropped hair and shining bronze armor. Where Boyd had smiling and venomous villainy, Moore was conflicted and weak in his bitter rivalry, which amounted to little more than constipated pique. About the only truly villainous character was David, played by Marc Warren (Hogfather as Teatime), who traded his overseer's position for ownership of Judah ben Hur's vast fortunes and coveted Esther. His lying, scheming, back-stabbing best nearly eclipsed Moore's vengeful Messala, who turned out to be Marcellus Agrippa's bastard son and a man who felt he didn't measure up to his Roman father's high standards. After all, his mother, who died when Messala was a boy, was another of Marcellus's personal poisoning whores. A slave.
There was far too much modern psychology in place of real characters with real motives in the remake that will appeal to audiences who haven't seen the 1959 version of Ben Hur on the big screen. The pretty boys and sex did nothing to enhance the remake and the only stand
out performance wasn't by Ben Cross, who played the frightened tyrant, Emperor Tiberius, but by Art Malik, the Sheikh Ildarim. Malik's mischievous sheikh was a match for Hugh Griffith's smoldering and lightning tempered sheikh bent on proving the 4:1 odds were more in favor of the Jew -- and Arab -- than the Romans.
I'd give the 2010 remake of Ben Hur a mediocre 3/5 stars on its own de-merits. It is an admirable attempt at reimagining Lew Wallace's sweeping epic that succeeded only in gritty and realistic scenery and pretty much failed in elevating these boys to the larger than life characters and heart of the story. It was, at best, amusing at times, and quite mediocre the rest of the time.