“It’s a message of hope that’s been part of this story since Lew Wallace wrote it in 1880. It’s a story that’s been told before, because it’s a story worth telling again and again, for this generation and for generations to come.”
Ben-Hur returns in all its magnificent splendor and spectacle with Russian-born producer/director Timur Bekmambetov’s inspired re-imaging of this timeless tale.
Ben-Hur is the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery. After years at sea, Judah returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but finds redemption. Based on Lew Wallace’s timeless novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Also starring Rodrigo Santoro and Morgan Freeman.
When director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch) was first approached to direct a re-imagining of one of cinema’s most beloved films, he was hesitant.
“The 1959 Ben-Hur is not just a film, it’s a phenomenon that greatly affected the culture of the 20th century,” Bekmambetov explains.
“That’s why when I was offered to direct its reincarnation, my initial thought was ‘absolutely not.’ Luckily producer Sean Daniel persuaded me to read the script, which turned out to be this incredibly meaningful story, impressing with not just sensational action but with line-up of amazing life-like characters and deep thinking. Even though the setting and the circumstances are thousands of years ago, the characters’ emotions and actions are relatable and have a modern, universal resonance.”
Writer John Ridley had similar reservations while developing the script.
“The most ardent fans of the 1959 film might find it blasphemous to revisit it in any form, but they forget these characters existed 80 years prior. People only tend to remember Charlton Heston and the chariot race, but Judah Ben-Hur is such a rich, classic character. He’s a wronged man seeking revenge and redemption. Compelling characters like Ben-Hur and Messala are the reason we can return to these stories again and again, so I wanted to make the personal conflict between these former friends just as tense and memorable as the climactic chariot race.”
“The emotional themes of the film, vengeance vs. forgiveness, are timeless. The conflicts the characters experience are as relatable today as they were in Roman times or 1880, when Lew Wallace wrote the novel,” explains Daniel. “It’s human nature, and that doesn’t change.”
“In many ways we still live in the Roman Empire, we still live with its values,” comments Bekmambetov. “Power, greed and success rule the world, people try to achieve everything in harsh competition, and only few realize that true human values are collaboration and forgiveness.”
Screenwriter Keith Clarke found a timely story of forgiveness in the original novel, Ben-Hur, a Tale of Christ. Although Ben-Hur has all the makings of a classic revenge epic, the aspect that endeared the project to the creative team was its redemptive themes.
“One of the last sentences Christ spoke was ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they’ve done,’” explains Clarke. “With his last few breaths, he forgave those who responsible for his death.”
“So much tragedy in the world can be averted by forgiving our enemies,” Clarke continues. “I’m a huge admirer of Nelson Mandela, because he was able to confront the people who had wronged him and forgive them. In the Middle East, conflicts have raged for generations because of the difficulty of saying ‘I know what you’ve done to me is horrific, but I forgive you.’”
Producer Sean Daniel says, “Regardless of your own personal faith, you will appreciate the profound and universal themes explored in the film.”
“If you watch this movie, and you’ve never read the Bible, you’ll enjoy story, the action and adventure,” says Downey. “If you are a Christian, the film will mean that much more to you.”
‘’Ben-Hur doesn’t give you a message of faith overtly, but it is there to give you something to think about,” explains Burnett. “It’s a message of hope that’s been part of this story since Lew Wallace wrote it in 1880. It’s a story that’s been told before, because it’s a story worth telling again and again, for this generation and for generations to come.”
“Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur is one of my all-time favorites,” says Executive Producer Mark Burnett. “It was truly an amazing spectacle, especially for the time in which it was made. As much as that film means to me and so many others, my own teenagers had never heard of it. I realized there was a massive audience ready for a fresh approach to this classic story and with all the advances in filmmaking since then, we can create a spectacle even more thrilling for a modern audience.”
Bekmambetov proved to be the key to bringing the first century story into the twenty first. “We didn’t want the film to be another theatrical bombastic,” Bekmambetov explains. “It was epic not because of hundreds of horses, enormous amounts of extras and thousand feet sets of the Arena, but because of its idea. Its style, editing, acting and cinematography hopefully will appeal to the modern audience.”
“Timur is a very unique director,” comments Daniel. “He is cutting edge contemporary in his vision, but also a very classical thinker. He’s really the perfect combination for a project like this.”
Director of Photography Oliver Wood (the Bourne series) provided a grounded, visceral style. One of the most innovative tools used was a G4 camera. “The style of the camera works like your iPhone,” explains Bekmambetov. “It makes every scene feel as if you were really there, in the moment.”
Bekmambetov found visual inspiration on YouTube. Security footage from an actual bus crash in South Korea helped the crew create a convincing ship to ship collision between a Greek vessel and a slave galley ship. NASCAR footage helped Bekmambetov set the pace, speed and intensity of the chariot race.
“The style of amazing camerawork by Oliver Wood is designed so that every scene feels as if you were really there, in the moment,” explains Bekmambetov. “We tried to sacrifice the glossy artificiality for the sake of authenticity, so that the audience knows this world well. All the camera techniques we used will feel familiar to modern audiences. We wanted to catch the action as you would in reality, in order to achieve that we were looking for inspiration not in classic paintings but in photos on Instagram and videos on YouTube.”
Modern innovations, like Go-Pro cameras, allowed Bekmambetov and Wood to shoot from every possible angle, even placing cameras in the sand to get shots of the chariots thundering above.
“I do love the freedom of the Go-Pro,” says Wood. “Normally, you’re limited by spaces that need to fit a camera, a rig and an operator, but a Go-Pro can go just about anywhere.”