Bringing The First Century To The Twenty-First:  Re-imagining Ben-Hur

“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.”


Director Timur Bekmambetov during the filming of Ben Hur

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.

Ben Hur

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.

Timur Bekmambetov is a Russian-born producer/director whose work spans genres and continents. Bekmambetov was born in the city of Guryev, Kazakhstan in the former USSR. At the age of 19, he moved to Tashkent, where in 1987 he graduated from the A. N. Ostrovsky Theatrical and Artistic Institute with a degree in theater and cinema set designing. Between 1992 and 1997, Bekmambetov was one of the directors of Bank Imperial’s popular World History commercials. In 1994 he founded Bazelevs Group, an advertising and film production, distribution and marketing company. Bekmambetov’s first feature, Peshavar Vals (1994) aka Escape from Afghanistan (English title) was a violent and realistic look at the war between Russia and Afghanistan. Bekmambetov began his association with Corman when he invited Bekmambetov to direct Gladiatrix, a feminist version of Gladiator, which shot in Russia. Bekmambetov next produced and directed an eight-part miniseries for Russian television commissioned by RTR Media entitled “Our ’90s.”He returned to directing features, with the Roger Corman-produced The Arena (2001), a remake of the 1974 film of the same name. In 2002, he directed and co-produced (with Bahyt Kilibayev) the film GAZ–Russian Cars. In 2004, Bekmambetov wrote and directed Night Watch (2004), a popular Russian fantasy film based on the book by Sergey Lukyanenko. The sequel to Night Watch, Day Watch (2006), was likewise written and directed by Bekmambetov. Bekmambetov followed up Day Watch with the smash hit The Irony of Fate-2 (2007). This sequel to the famous Soviet film remains one of the most successful films in Russian history. In 2012 Fox released Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper and Anthony Mackie. His most recent US production, the contemporary thriller Unfriended ushered in a new era of horror, unfolding over a teenager’s computer as she and her friends are stalked by an unseen figure who seeking vengeance. The film grossed nearly 30 times its original budget. He also produced Ilya Naishuller’s innovative, aggressive thriller Hardcore Henry, shot entirely from the first person POV of a cyborg named Henry, starring Sharlto Copley.

“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.”


John ridley (Writer) is known for his work in literature, television, and film. Ridley is the creator of the Emmy® Award-winning series “American Crime”. His script for the film 12 Years A Slave received numerous accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Additionally, Ridley wrote and directed Jimi: All Is By My Side, an innovative biopic about Jimi Hendrix, which was released in the fall of 2014.

“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.”

Keith Clarke is a writer and producer hailing from the United Kingdom. With his producing partner Joni Levin, their production company Point Blank Productions develops feature films, television series, documentaries, and TV movies. Keith Clarke is best known for producing and writing the screenplay to the Oscar-nominated film, The Way Back. He also wrote and directed the documentary based on The Way Back, called The Journey of the Journey. Keith and Joni have also worked together previously on the TV mini-series, “MGM: When the Lion Roars,” the documentaries The Art of Action; Martial Arts in Motion Film, The Barrymores, and Hopalong Cassidy: Public Hero #1. Clarke also wrote the 1994 award winning TV movie, In Search of Dr. Seuss. Clark’s next film following Ben-Hur will be Tom’s Dad, directed by Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallström.

“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.”