Exhibit A: The Leading Man
Whom do you find more believable as a Middle Eastern Jew who ages from 17–25, the Mexican-born Ramón Novarro, or Charlton Heston, of British and Scottish descent?
Obviously, good actors can make you believe in their performances even if they’re not exactly like their characters. Ramón was gay in real life, but that doesn’t mean I disbelieve the romances he has with women in his films. I can’t help but wonder how he really felt inside, being forced to do these romantic scenes when he wasn’t attracted to women, but it’s not something that distracts me from enjoying a movie.
Ramón was also in his early twenties while the picture was being shot, as compared to how Heston was 36. Heston was way too old to believably play a young man, whereas Ramón was not only in his character’s real age range, but also had very soft, boyish facial features which kept him looking young. In spite of his baby face, he was totally able to look more stereotypically masculine when the scene called for it. The 1959 remake had to alter the script so Ben-Hur starts out older than he is in the book.
Plus, I just feel Ben-Hur’s character so much more with Ramón. He gets lost in his character and makes us believe he’s not just acting. Let’s be honest, Heston didn’t exactly have a huge amount of range or subtlety, and comes across as wooden more often than not. He’s physically but not emotionally compelling, even in scenes which are supposed to be very emotional and dramatic.
Exhibit B: Length and Focus!
The 1925 original is almost 2.5 hours, but the time goes by like that, and I’m never thinking about how much time is passing. The focus is also on all the right places, without too much time spent on subplots like the plight of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister or the scenes from the life of Jesus. Obviously, those subplots are an important part of the story, but since this isn’t a story with multiple leading characters, the focus remains right where it should, on Ben-Hur.
The remake is 3.5 hours, which wouldn’t be a problem at all for me if it were actually a riveting, focused story. I adore long films, just as I adore long books, but the length has to work for that particular story. A gripping film can last 5 hours and feel like only 15 minutes have gone by because it’s that good, whereas a bad film that’s less than an hour long can seem to drag on forever.
A lot of scenes in the remake could’ve been shortened or cut, particularly all the “As you know, Bob” dialogue. I understand wanting to not be an exact remake, but that still could’ve been accomplished by cutting a lot of fat. Sometimes it seems like they just wanted to show off their costumes and sets, the epic scope, and the massive cast. Until the famous chariot race, the remake moves pretty slowly for me, above and beyond a typical film which just takes longer than usual to establish itself and get to the action.
Exhibit C: Timelessness
I’ll be honest, the Fifties and Sixties aren’t my favorite decades for film. I’m not saying I think every single film is awful or that there were only a few good films made during that time, but in general, it really seems like a lot of films from that era haven’t aged too well. I’m just not a fan of the acting style from that era. The original film meanwhile speaks a universal language with silence, and doesn’t need such frequent dialogue to convey a great story.
I often have a feeling akin to, “I’m watching a person from the Fifties/Sixties, acting in a movie made in the Fifties/Sixties, instead of watching an actor in a movie that just so happens to have been made in [any other decade].”
Exhibit D: Emotional Impact
As I said, Heston is physically but not emotionally compelling, whereas Ramón really gets lost in his character and comes across as far more than just someone playing a role. Ramón also had more than one basic facial expression. Due to the remake’s length, a lot of things are unnecessarily drawn out, whereas the original kept them focused and to the point. The leprosy storyline in particular is much better done in the original. It just felt unemotional and unrealistic in the remake.
Exhibit E: The Subtitle
For a film with the subtitle A Tale of the Christ, the remake really doesn’t spend an awful lot of time depicting the life of Jesus or the religious message found in the original. It even completely removes the rather important storyline about how Ben-Hur becomes a Jesus follower. Their encounter on the Via Dolorosa is so much more emotional and believable in the original.
What the Remake Does Get Right:
The chariot race. While I find the silent version more dramatic, the sound version is still quite good.
Better development of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. In the original, Messala is a villain almost from the jump, and we don’t really get a plausible sense he and Ben-Hur were ever best friends or why Messala turned on him so quickly.
A dark-featured Esther (Haya Harareet). May McAvoy was really pretty and portrayed innocence well, and there’s honestly no such thing as “looking Jewish,” but by first century standards, it’s a lot less likely a Jewish woman would’ve had blonde curls and blue eyes. Their relationship also has more substance, though I didn’t feel any real chemistry.