A still from the new Ben-Hur. Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Pictures Inc

Ben-Hur can be fun on film but the real Roman spectacle would have thrilled anyone

The new big screen adaptation of the story of Ben-Hur promises to be a very 21st century version of the tale: “Jesus meets the Fast and the Furious” as the UK’s Daily Telegraph has already dubbed it. Amongst the merchandise is a Ben-Hur Xbox game.

The film, which cost US$100 million, is a “reinterpretation” of the fictional tale of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur. Enslaved by the Romans, he is later freed, becomes a charioteer and ultimately finds redemption by converting to Christianity. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, it stars Jack Huston in the titular role, with Toby Kebbell as Messala and Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, the charioteer trainer. The centrepiece of the film will be the 10-minute chariot race held in a hippodrome.

If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Ben-Hur has now been filmed six times. A 1907 version told the tale in an economic 15 minutes. The 1925 silent version directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro is still hugely enjoyable. An animated Ben Hur was made in 2003, featuring the voice of Charlton Heston, and a TV mini-series was made in 2010.

It is, however, the 1959, William Wyler-directed MGM spectacle starring Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd and Jack Hawkins that is most embedded in the collective memory. At a bum-numbing 212 minutes length, the movie went on to smash all box-office records and win a record 11 Academy Awards.

Early reviews suggest the new film will not equal the Heston version’s critical success. Still, Bekmambetov’s is a 21st century perspective on the tale: he employed Go-Pro cameras and drones to give the audience the feeling of being in the chariot race. It was filmed on a purpose-built, 250-metre long, 50-metre wide track designed by horse-track racing experts, at Cinecittà World south of Rome. (The production was prevented from filming at Rome’s original ancient Circus Maximus.) Unlike previous versions, CGI has been liberally employed.

First edition, Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur cover 1880.

All these movies were inspired by General Lew Wallace’s 1880 epic novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Indeed in the 19th century, literature was the general populace’s introduction to a classical history, often otherwise restricted to the educated elites. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii, inspired by contemporary archaeological finds at Pompeii, saw a revolution in the publishing industry at the time, with over a thousand novels with a Roman theme written in the subsequent decades. It also inspired an opera, a theatrical production and at least a dozen cinematic versions including, indirectly, 2014’s lackluster Pompeii starring Kit Harrington as a gladiator.

So what is it that keeps us, as a modern sophisticated audience, coming back to stories of Roman spectacles? Says Bekmambetov of his Ben-Hur:

This movie is about the Roman Empire, how seductive and glamorous and dangerous its ideas are. It’s about power and competition. And we live in this world. We live in the Roman Empire today … it’s not a movie about Jesus’ time, it’s a movie about us.

Thanks to Hollywood, tales of gladiatorial contests, animal displays and contests at the hippodrome are often the first thing people will think of if asked about ancient Roman life. The spectacle of the amphitheatre and the hippodrome are now more influential in modern perception than the forum, the senate house or the temple.

The gladiator theme is a common Hollywood trope, from Gladiator (director: Ridley Scott, 2000; itself largely a remake of Anthony Mann’s underrated The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964) through to vanity-projects, such as Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus (director: Stanley Kubrick, 1960). It is, however, the run of low-budget, B-grade, largely Italian or Spanish-made “sword-and-sandal” or peplum films of the 1950s for which gladiator films are most famous. Some are decent, and some laughably bad.

Spectacle was a significant aspect of Roman life. And recently uncovered archaeological evidence has revealed new insights into its role. A superb 4th century AD mosaic newly found at Akaki, near Nicosia in Cyprus, displays four phases of a four-horse chariot race. The riders and at least one of the horses are named on the mosaic.

2nd century AD chariot-race mosiac, Akaki, Cyprus. The mosaic is 11 metres long and four metres wide. Department of Antiquities Cyprus

Meanwhile, a German-Tunisian team working at the hippodrome at Carthage (the second largest in the empire after the Circus Maximus in Rome itself), has found evidence of an elaborate water cooling system using sparsores (sprinklers) to keep horse and rider cool in the North African heat.

Amphitheatres and hippodromes were constructed across the Mediterranean, from Jerash’s hippodrome in Jordan to the amphitheatre of Caerleon in Wales. Even earlier theatres such as the one my team is excavating in provincial Nea Paphos in Cyprus were converted in later Roman phases, as Roman entertainment tastes moved from dramatic performances to displays of wild animals and naumachae (naval re-enactments).

We know that charioteers were highly regarded sportsmen in Roman society (as were gladiators). One 2nd century AD racer, Gaius Appuleius Diocles, won almost 36 million sesterces during his career, equivalent to $15 billion today, and putting highly paid NBA, golfing and football stars to shame. Clashes and riots between fans of various charioteer factions (the Red, White, Blue and Green) were common.

Classical reception studies is the study of how the Graeco-Roman world has been appropriated and reconceptualised in the modern era. It is an academic field with significant contributions from classicists, historians, film historians and culture studies experts.

Cinematic depictions of gladiators and charioteers can be exciting, but are usually historically inaccurate. There is nothing to indicate Ben-Hur will be any different. This in itself doesn’t matter; we go to the cinema for entertainment not a history lecture. The archaeological and historical evidence tells us, however, that ancient Roman spectacle was a significant aspect of daily life, and the more we explore this realm, the more we are discovering about how exciting (and skilled) it was. It is safe to say that no cinematic version will quite capture this.

If you watch the new Ben Hur, it is worth remembering that the real Roman spectacle would have been on a scale to impress even the most jaded Hollywood producer.

Ben Hur opens in Australian cinemas on August 25

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