Epic fail: movie about arms dealers is bigger than Ben-Hur

Toby Kebbell plays Messala Severus (back) and Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur. Photo: Philippe AntonelloOn its opening weekend, the wheels have come off the $US100 million remake of Ben-Hur, the 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston in the title role.
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Russian director Timur Bekmambetov’s version of the Biblical epic took $US900,000 at the US box office on Thursday, compared to $1.3 million for War Dogs, a comedy based on a true story of two young arms dealers, directed by Todd Phillips. Ben-Hur is predicted to earn about $10 million for its opening weekend, half the $20 million its studios, MGM and Paramount, were hoping to draw. War Dogs is predicted to earn $15 million this weekend.

Starring Jack Huston in the lead, as well as Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell and Nazanin Boniadi, Ben-Hur has been roundly panned by critics.

“Ben-Hur feels like a film made on the cheap, although it looks costly,” said New York Times critic Stephen Holden. “It needed a star like the Russell Crowe of Gladiator to provide dramatic heft. What is Ben-Hur without a platform of moral grandeur? Not much.”

This is in stark contrast to the 1959 version, which was the fastest and highest-grossing film that year and won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for William Wyler, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Heston, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim.

The second-highest-grossing film at the time after Gone with the Wind, it handsomely paid off MGM’s $US15 million budget gamble, bigger than any film made before then. It was famous for its lavish costumes and sets, with 10,000 extras, 200 camels and 2,500 horses, and its exhilarating nine-minute chariot race remains an iconic cinematic achievement. It took a year of planning and five weeks of filming over three months to shoot the sequence.

Similar effort was put into the 2016 race scene, with three months of chariot-driving training for actors Huston and Kebbell then three months of filming.

It’s the third feature film adaptation of the 1880 book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, written by Lew Wallace. The first was a silent movie version in 1925, directed by Fred Niblo and starring Mexican-American actor Ramon Novarro. It was also the most expensive film to be made of its time, and one of its  assistant directors was William Wyler, who later directed the 1959 version.

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