Lew Wallace’s book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, first published in 1880, has been the subject of five film adaptations. In the latest adaptation Ben-Hur (2016), directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the makers have sought to distance themselves from the previous adaptations, calling their version a new interpretation of the novel.
Ben-Hur’s most obvious comparison is with the classic film Ben-Hur (1959). Bekmambetov was initially reluctant to take up the project because of its predecessor’s looming shadow. The 1959 version is directed by William Wyler and featured actor Charlton Heston in the lead role of the prince who becomes a slave. It is one of the highest grossing films of all times and won a record 11 Academy Awards, a feat that remained invincible till Titanic (1997) tied with it for the same number of trophies won.
The 1959 production made history with its nine-minute chariot race sequence. The scene cost $4 million at the time and took 10 weeks to shoot. Several stories of its making, including the false rumour of actress Audrey Hepburn’s presence as an extra, fuelled the headlines.
The chariot scene is the main event in the book. Wallace wrote a four-page description of the arena in the ancient city Antioch where the action takes place. The book’s fictional hero, Judah Ben-Hur, races his friend-turned-foe Messala in a competition. Wallace describes Ben-Hur as a fierce competitor who wrecks Messala’s chariot, leaving him to be trampled by horses. The 1959 film tweaked this detail by adding spikes to the wheels of Messala’s chariot, which he used against Ben-Hur.
The race has been the driving point of all the adaptations. In the 1927 silent version by Sidney Olcott, the race was shot on a beach in New Jersey. The race lasts over five minutes, leading to a thrilling climax in which Ben-Hur emerges as the winner against all odds.
The 1925 version, directed by Fred Niblo set the standard for future adaptations. It was the most expensive silent film for its time. A featurette documents how the scene was filmed.
A documentary by Scott Benson and narrated by actor Christopher Plummer provides a comprehensive guide to the making of the 1959 classic. In ’50s America, film companies were facing stiff competition from television broadcasting. To lure audiences back to theatres, they invested in the widescreen experience with techniques such as Cinemascope, VistaVision, Cinerama and 3D. Ben-Hur was shot for a widescreen format followed by a promotional blitzkrieg running into millions of dollars.
The trailer of the new adaptation features actor Jack Huston leading the race sequence against Toby Kebbell’s Messala. The action is not entirely computer-generated – Bekmambetov has tried to shoot with the same derring-do seen in the 1959 version. The chariot scene is a little over nine minutes, much like the original. Those challenging minutes alone will decide if the film surpasses the 1959 epic.