New ‘Ben-Hur’ Chariot Race Tries to Rival Original

Filmmakers are bragging about not using CGI, but isn't that how they did in 1959?

There’s a new “Ben-Hur” on the horizon.

It’s taken years for Hollywood to tackle a remake of the epic story that became a classic film starring Charlton Heston in 1959. That “Ben-Hur” had the biggest budget of any movie of its time — $15 million. It grossed nearly 10 times that amount, and it won 11 Oscars.

Can the new “Ben-Hur” begin to compare? Paramount just released a trailer and featurette for the upcoming Aug. 19 movie, and so far fans don’t seem too impressed. An initial trailer in March was met with more than one YouTube viewer calling it “junk.”

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The grousing and dislikes are now happening again. “This is going to be a failure of biblical proportions,” joked one commenter on IMDB.com.  “It’s a creative team thrown together on a shoestring budget to cut costs and put out a cheap, poorly made blockbuster,” writes Cheatsheet.

The film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, played by Jack Huston (of “Boardwalk Empire”). He’s a prince falsely accused of treason by his brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), an officer in the Roman army.

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Stripped of his title and separated from his family and the woman he loves (Nazanin Boniadi), Judah is forced into slavery and spends years at sea. He returns seeking revenge — but along the way, Ben-Hur learns the value of redemption from Jesus, played by Rodrigo Santoro.

Directed by “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s” Timur Bekmambetov, the film also stars Morgan Freeman (in bad dreadlocks). It’s based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”

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The 2016 version, like the 1959 film, was filmed in Rome. The producers had planned to film the famous chariot race in the Circus Maximus arena there but were denied access, fearing the stunts would damage the historic site, which is currently under restoration. It was moved to a 100-acre facility elsewhere in Rome.

In the new featurette, the movie’s cast and crew, including director Bekmambetov, explain the steps they took to make the race look as realistic as possible. The actors were dragged by real horses at high speeds around the arena while a truck with a camera tracked their movements from the side.

“We decided very early on that every time you see us with those horses, that’s us with those horses,” says actor Jack Huston, who spent two months learning to drive a chariot. Some 90 horses were brought in for the scene, which took 45 days to film.

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“It’s very real,” says Bekmambetow, who compares it to people today who like to watch NASCAR, including wanting to see participants crash. “It’s scary.”

But for all that bragging, let’s not forget the original chariot race was also very real. It took a year to plan, and used 78 horses. Heston, like Huston, trained for days to learn to drive a chariot. The sequence took five weeks (spread over three months) to film.

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Screenwriters Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) are obviously hoping to provide a new interpretation of the story. “Ben-Hur” was executive-produced by Clarke and Ridley along with Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, so there’s plenty of street cred there.

It’s been 57 years since the first “Ben-Hur” film — but it may be that no matter how many years we wait, nothing will top the original.

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