BEN-HUR – Marco Beltrami
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was, and remains, one of the most popular and successful novels in American literature. The story recounts the life of a fictional Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur, in 1st century Jerusalem. Ben-Hur grows up wealthy and privileged with his childhood friend, a Roman named Messala. Years later, Messala returns home from Rome as a newly-commissioned commander in the Roman army, and his new status and increasing prejudice against Jews causes a rift between the two former friends. Messala falsely accuses Ben-Hur of attempting to assassinate a Roman prefect, and conspires to have him sent away to serve as a galley slave, while simultaneously imprisoning his mother, Miriam, and sister, Tirzah. Ben-Hur vows revenge against Messala, and spends years training himself to be a warrior and charioteer, waiting until his opportunity to achieve redemption appears. To give it its strong religious undercurrent, Wallace’s story takes place simultaneously with the life of Jesus Christ, who was born and lived during the same time period, which allows Ben-Hur and Jesus to cross paths at several moments during the formation of Christianity.
The story of Ben-Hur has been filmed cinematically several times. The first full-length feature was made as a silent film in 1925 by director Fred Niblo, starring Ramon Navarro as the titular character. The 1959 re-make directed by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd, is the epic by which all other epic films are judged, and remains one of the most beloved films in all of cinema history. This new film, directed by Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, and Morgan Freeman, is the third feature-length live-action version of the story, and has been strongly pitched as a re-imagined version of the original novel, rather than a remake of Heston’s film. This was clearly done to avoid being directly compared with its esteemed predecessor, but despite this the reviews have not been kind: one major critic called it “an amateurish effort that boasts direct-to-video characteristics [which] disappoints in almost every production aspect,” while another called it “a digitalized eyesore hobbled in every department by staggering incompetence”. The 1959 Ben-Hur ushered in an era of magnificent sword-and-sandals epics that lasted a decade; with an interesting sense of circularity, the new one may have finally ended the run of similar epics that began with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000.
The score for Ben-Hur is by Marco Beltrami, in what must have been one of the the most daunting musical assignments of his career. Miklós Rózsa write what many people believe to be one of the greatest scores in cinematic history for 1959’s Ben-Hur, and many people have been quick to point out that Beltrami’s score should not be judged by it’s standards – but how can you not? It’s essentially the same story, albeit one told 58 years later, with the same key plot elements, the same geographical and historical setting, and the same – if not more, according to the statements given by the producers – religious and theological undertones to counterbalance the themes of betrayal and revenge.
On the one hand I completely understand that the score Rózsa wrote in 1959 is not the type of score Hollywood films contain these days. Bekmambetov was apparently going for a much grittier, realistic portrayal of Roman Judeah, and filmed his fight scenes and chariot chases with a more modern Fast-and-Furious/super-hero aesthetic. But, still, we’re dealing with the same basic human emotions, the same underlying commonalities that link people across all time periods and through all geographical boundaries. The fact that Bekmambetov asked Beltrami to write a score which, to me, sounds like a modern techno-thriller set in the Middle East, suggests that the director adopted a tone completely at odds with the ultimate point of the book he is adapting, and fundamentally misunderstood his own subject matter. Beltrami, a consummate professional, of course gave Bekmambetov exactly what he wanted; unfortunately, what Bekmambetov apparently wanted was a depressing, dour contemporary action score, mostly devoid of the historical scope, humanity, romance, pageantry, and ultimately life-affirming sense of religious catharsis that flowed from every pore of Rózsa’s masterpiece.
The score’s one main theme is the “Ben-Hur Theme,” which is admittedly rather lovely. A stirring, emotional violin solo anchors the piece, and it is joined in its second half by Lili Haydn’s crystalline soprano vocals, and a gentle Middle Eastern dulcimer, before swelling to encompass much of the orchestra. Whenever the theme reappears in the body of the score – in cues such as the warm “Dear Messala,” the ethereal “Ben and Esther,” and the vibrant “Training,” for example – the score immediately becomes immeasurably better.
A secondary theme that appears to be for Messala, a descending motif often heard on brass, which weaves its way through several cues, including a harpsichord rendition in “Messala Leaves Home,” “Brothers Divide,” and the domineering “The Circus,” but many may overlook its presence entirely, such is its relative anonymity and overall lack of development. One further cue of note is the tender, lyrical “Messala and Tirzah,” one of the few moments of hesitant romance, but unfortunately that’s where the positive comments have to stop.
The action music is, for the most part, unexpectedly dull, and occasionally rather obnoxious, which is really a surprise considering how much aptitude for interesting, captivating action music Beltrami has shown in recent years. “Jerusalem 33AD/Sibling Rivalry” features lively, spiky string writing, accompanied by guitars, synth textures, and a variation of the Ben-Hur theme in the brass, and comes across as something from one of Hans Zimmer’s period scores, like The Prince of Egypt. Later, “Chariots of Fire” features some interesting and unusual string rhythms at the outset, but it quickly descends into being one of those gloomy, lifeless action set pieces that sound more at home in the current DC Batman and Superman movies.
The others, as I stated earlier, just feel wrong, as though they were written for the wrong time period, the wrong genre, the wrong everything. “Brothers Divide” features the dreaded Inception horns of doom front and center, without a hint of irony. “Home Invasion” is whiny and dissonant, like something John Powell would have rejected from a Bourne score, although it does adopt a tone of appropriate tragedy towards its conclusion. “Galley Slaves” begins with the tortured drumbeat of the hortator, but quickly descends into little more than a series of brain-crushing brass blasts punctuated by processed Middle Eastern vocals and cello chords; these continue into the insufferable “Rammed Hard,” and later in “Brother vs. Brother.” These cues cry out to be majestic, triumphant, aggressive, and heart-stoppingly energetic, but again Beltrami’s music sounds more like a modern techno-thriller, a chase sequence across some nameless Middle Eastern city. Some may consider it to be good music on its own terms, but it’s not for me, and especially not in this context.
The slower, more dramatic music feels desperately understated, little more than elongated string lines enlivened by glassy textures, pulsating percussive electronic rhythms, and chord progressions that actually remind me of more of Carter Burwell than anything Beltrami has written recently. There are echoes of some obscure scores from way back in the murky mists of Beltrami’s filmography – The Minus Man from 1999, or perhaps Angel Eyes from 2001 – in cues like “Carrying Judah” and “Messala Leaves Home,” but for the most part it’s all very dreary, and ultimately forgettable. Beltrami does make an effort to introduce some traditional Middle Eastern instrumental textures into his score, notably in cues like “Ilderim Wagers,” but they are not featured frequently or prominently enough to leave much of an impression, leaving much of the score geographically anonymous.
Worst of all is the lack of anything remotely approaching musical religious catharsis. The whole point of Ben-Hur – the entire driving force of Wallace’s story – is the notion that Ben-Hur’s life, having been entirely driven by the desire for revenge against Messala, ultimately changes as a result of his encounters with Jesus, hearing his teachings, and witnessing the ultimate sacrifice Jesus makes for all mankind. Bekmambetov clearly says that this Ben-Hur is an adaption of Wallace’s book, and the character Jesus appears in this film much more than he does in the Heston version, so for this aspect of the story to be almost entirely ignored by the score is inexcusable. Just one cue, “Forgiveness,” reaches the sort of magisterial heights one would expect, with Beltrami giving his main theme an enormous orchestral and choral workout, and the result is stunningly lovely – but it’s way too little, much too late.
Preconceptions in film music are dangerous. Every director wants his or her film to be their own vision, and their feelings about the accompanying scores are sometimes different from those of film music fans. Of course, I understand that Timur Bekmambetov is not William Wyler, and that Marco Beltrami is not Miklós Rózsa. To expect Beltrami to emulate one of the greatest scores ever written is entirely unreasonable, especially when Bekmambetov clearly didn’t even want him to do that in the first place. But, even with that in mind, Ben-Hur is still an enormous disappointment; excluding the main theme, which is beautiful, the rest sounds like it could be any old music from any old action movie, without a real life or identity of its own. Unlike Rózsa’s masterpiece, which has endured for more than half a century, I doubt if anyone will even remember the score for this Ben-Hur next year, let alone in 2074.
Buy the Ben-Hur soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Ben-Hur Theme (2:52)
- Jerusalem 33AD/Sibling Rivalry (2:22)
- Carrying Judah (1:56)
- Mother’s Favorite (1:21)
- Messala Leaves Home (1:33)
- Dear Messala (1:46)
- Messala Returns (1:33)
- Speaking of Zealots (1:26)
- Messala and Tirzah (1:35)
- Brothers Divide (1:39)
- Home Invasion (4:40)
- Galley Slaves (4:59)
- Rammed Hard (2:18)
- Judah Ashore (2:29)
- Horse Healer (1:25)
- Ben and Esther (1:38)
- Training (3:18)
- Invitation (1:15)
- Ilderim Wagers (2:37)
- Leper Colony/Messala Will Pay (3:03)
- The Circus (2:39)
- Chariots of Fire (4:17)
- Brother vs. Brother (4:25)
- Carried Off (1:22)
- Jesus Arrested (3:09)
- Forgiveness (1:51)
- Modeh Ani Haiku (2:49)
Running Time: 66 minutes 29 seconds
Sony Classical (2016)
Music composed by Marco Beltrami. Conducted by Mark Graham. Orchestrations by XXXX. Additional music by Brandon Roberts. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Edited by Chris McGeary. Album produced by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.