IT’S not easy revisiting an iconic action scene, and few moments from cinema history echo like the chariot race from 1959’s Ben-Hur, a sequence said to have taken almost a year to carry from page to screen.
But this is the challenge facing director Timur Bekmambetov who is overseeing the latest film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 literary blockbuster Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ.
The Kazakh director’s version of the race unfolds at a newly constructed Circus Maximus at Rome’s Cinecitta studios, once known known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’.
The story’s two great rivals, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) snap and snarl as their racing rigs, with super-small wheels, are dragged behind camera trucks. Hundreds of extras clap and cheer in the stands. The drums boom a hypnotic rhythm.
“Our technology is now far away from what they had previously,” Bekmambetov tells us when discussing the chariot race on set, “and the rigs we have are unbelievable. The goal for me is to shoot these action scenes so realistically that the audience feels that they’re in the chariot, driving.”
Later on, real horses replace the trucks as the chariots fly around the track.
“And these chariots have got no suspension, no brakes,” continues the director.
“We have eight drivers, 24 horses, all running together. There will be no slow motions. There are no huge special effects. Almost everything is real. The dust and shit flies everywhere. It is scary.”
Some wonder why there is a remake of the Charlton Heston movie, winner of 11 Academy Awards, but the filmmakers argue that this misses the point.
There are in fact four previous film adaptations of Wallace’s novel, released in 1907 (a short), 1925, 1959 and 2003, the latter an animated movie with Heston voicing the title character. There has also been a TV mini-series (2010) and a clutch of theatre and radio dramatisations.
“It’s a story written over 100 years ago and it’s caught the eye of many people because there have been so many incarnations,” says Huston, dusting off the debris from his charioteer outfit as he joins us on set.
Huston’s character, like Heston’s before him, is a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala, an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title and separated from his family and the woman he loves, Judah is forced into slavery. After years at sea, he eventually returns to his homeland to seek revenge.
And the one place he can exact justice is in the Circus Maximus.
“Racing is a blood sport,” says the character of Ilderim, the Sheik, played by Morgan Freeman in the new adaptation. “Lose and you die.”
The stakes aren’t quite so high for the modern-day actors — though many audience members will recall the story about a charioteer dying in the 1959 production.
This is one of the great myths of Hollywood filmmaking. Still, shooting the new racing sequences is not without danger.
“I grew up with horses,” says Huston, whose grandfather was the great John Huston; actors Angelica Huston and Danny Huston are his aunt and uncle.
“And a horse, no matter how much love and respect I have for them, will always be a wild animal. Then, when you add three horses to the mix, and a chariot, suddenly you are into some dangerous territory.
“But you do get a taste for it,” he adds. “There’s something so magical about being on the back of that chariot. You have three horses running in unison and being part of it is a very special thing. It is not something that you get to do in everyday life. It is crazy and it is dangerous.”
Some might say that taking on such a well-known role, last played by such an iconic actor, is both crazy and dangerous. Certainly, Huston is aware of the risk. The actor has worked hard to establish his own name, appearing in hit TV show Boadwalk Empire as well as the films Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Longest Ride, and American Hustle, among others.
“It is a little intimidating,” he says. “But the studio saw an opportunity that now where we might be able to do something new while in no way stepping on the toes of any of the predecessors.
“The last film was this giant, that won all these Oscars, so you don’t want to make a crappy movie. You want to make something special and the character and the role itself has been a gift. That said, even if you try not to think about it, the worry is always in the back of your head. You want to go out and make something beautiful. And if we are lucky, and if my senses are right, I feel we are doing that.”
The director, too, had reservations. “The first time I heard about this project I said, ‘No’, because that sounds crazy,” says Bekmambetov, who rose to prominence directing the Russian-language pictures Night Watch and Day Watch before shooting the American movies Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
“But then I read the script and suddenly I understood. It is a great drama and very contemporary. My pitch was that I wanted to make a movie about us, about the present, because I really believe that we are like the Romans.
“We still share the same values they did — power, competition and pride. Yet collaboration is the better way to solve our problems and this is the exact concept of the movie, forgiveness not revenge. We are making a movie based on the book, tonally and dramatically.”
BOX OFFICE ISSUES
For all their ambition and fighting talk on set, it appears that the filmmakers’ early reservations may have been well placed.
Despite its chunky $100m budget, the new movie crashed spectacularly during its August opening in the US.
It achieved a paltry $11.4m on its debut weekend, ranking the production amid the summer’s biggest flops this far.
The studio backing the production, Paramount, conceded that remakes are struggling, as are certain sequels. Both the remake of Ghostbusters, and the sequel to Independence Day struggled to make the desired impact at the box office.
“It goes to a general trend,” Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says in film industry magazine Variety.
“Audiences are saying, ‘remakes or sequels have got to be great or original if you want us to show up.’”
Variety does believe that the film could get a lift from overseas crowds. Ben-Hur picked up $10.7m in roughly a third of the global markets in which it opened during August and sources say it could ultimately gross $100m in non-American territories, which would at least recoup the production costs.
In the US, the film performed best in states with a strong Christian faith. As to how it does in the UK and Ireland, the filmmakers will have to wait and see.