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Movie Review: Paramount Remakes The MGM Classic 'Ben-Hur'


The new Ben-Hur opens today, which can't help but put moviegoers in mind of the 1959 MGM blockbuster. That classic starred Charlton Heston and won a pile of Oscars.


CHARLTON HESTON: (As Judah Ben-Hur) Rome is strangling my people and my country and the whole Earth. The day Rome falls, there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before.

MONTAGNE: As it turned out, this big budget movie became the highest grossing movie of the year. It was an epic production, not just in terms of budget but also costumes and sets, extras in massive battle scenes and cinematography. It's fondly remembered, and now it's been remade. MORNING EDITION and Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan has seen it, and he joins us now to tell us about it. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: And, Ken, with all that, you know, epicness, what - is the remake as long as the Charlton Heston movie - what? - three hours 40 minutes?

TURAN: Plus intermission. This one doesn't have an intermission, and it's shorter.

MONTAGNE: OK. Because it was big that way, too. But, Ken, why? Why would Paramount remake this particular movie?

TURAN: First of all, it's a great story. Childhood friends become dread rivals, but because it takes place in the time of Jesus and because Jesus is a figure in the story, I think they saw faith-based audiences as something that could come to this film even if they weren't familiar with the original or didn't, you know, know that much about it that they would be drawn in.

MONTAGNE: You know, one huge challenge, I would think, is beating the Charlton Heston version simply because it's a classic. So tell us a bit about the cast and also the director.

TURAN: Yes, well, this "Ben-Hur" is taking kind of a different route. They've used actors who are not big, established stars. They've used the young actors. Jack Huston, who is John Huston's grandson plays Ben-Hur, and a British actor named Toby Kebbell plays Messala. The director is a man named Timur Bekmambetov. He's a Russian director, made some big hits over there, came to Hollywood and did "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." So people feel he has a popular touch, and they've taken this on.

MONTAGNE: And does it work?

TURAN: Well, as you might expect given who made it, the action parts are good, but the drama is really lacking. The drama is weak. Even Morgan Freeman, who has a key part here as kind of an associate of Ben-Hur's - he doesn't - really can't find his footing the way he usually can. And, you know, even the action, you know - one of the reasons the action worked so well in the original "Ben-Hur" is that it's tied to the drama, and you really care about the characters. And they really haven't made that happen here.

MONTAGNE: So about the chariot race - the Charlton-Heston version, of course, legendary. How about the race in this movie?

TURAN: The chariot race is very important to this film, so important that they actually start the whole movie with a little tease from the beginning of the race where Messala and Ben-Hur have this kind of tense, pre-race conversation.


TOBY KEBBELL: (As Messala Severus) You should have stayed away.

JACK HUSTON: (As Judah Ben-Hur) You should have killed me.

KEBBELL: (As Messala Severus) I will.

TURAN: As you can hear, a very dramatic opening. You know, the race itself is a very modern version of things. The director has said that he was influenced by Formula One coverage, by YouTube videos, by use of GoPro cameras, and it does work. You feel very inside this race in a way that only the most modern technology can put you. So I think as far as the chariot races go, this one is on a par with the 1959 version.

MONTAGNE: The movie is "Ben-Hur." It's in theaters today. Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and The Los Angeles Times. Pleasure to have you.

TURAN: Always great to be here, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.