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  • Composed by Marco Beltrami
  • Sony Classical / 2016 / 66m

Lew Wallace’s Christian epic novel Ben-Hur became a huge bestseller following its release in 1880, becoming the most successful American novel yet written (a position it would hold for over half a century, until Gone with the Wind came along).  MGM adapted it for the screen in 1925 and then most famously in 1959, with William Wyler’s film becoming the epic of all epics as it took audiences by storm.  Films like it are certainly not made any more, but I suppose someone thought maybe audiences would still be attracted to the story because along has come a remake, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston as Charlton Heston.

It didn’t take a genius really to think that whoever decided that was plain wrong, and for a long time in advance of its release the film seemed particularly ill-advised; now it’s out it looks destined to be one of the great box office bombs unless it somehow finds an audience in large Christian countries other than the US.  At least we had another historical epic Marco Beltrami score to look forward to, following the year’s earlier great box office disappointment Gods of Egypt (whose music was excellent).

Marco Beltrami

Marco Beltrami

It all starts very well, with the opening “Ben-Hur Theme” being nothing short of outstanding.  Beltrami wrings much emotion from his players – strings, solo voice and choir along with various local colours.  The melody is a little simple, sure, but it’s exquisitely moving and not in any way out of place in a movie called Ben-Hur, where the musical bar has been set rather high by Miklós Rózsa, who wrote what is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest film scores of all for the 1959 version.

Unfortunately it all goes downhill very rapidly after that.  Horrible synthetic sounds usher in the second cue “Jerusalem 33 AD / Sibling Rivalry”, and while it does pick up after that to be a decent enough Beltrami action cue, for a while it sounds like it might be more at home in a Zack Snyder movie, which I guess is the point if they were hoping to engage the 300 audience.  It’s really quite grating.  I know – “you can’t compare it to Miklós Rózsa, it’s not 1959 any more” – but it’s impossible not to compare it to Miklós Rózsa.  Nobody in his right mind would have expected Beltrami to write music like that, but he’s an exceptionally gifted composer in his own right and so one could reasonably have expected him to write something that sounds vaguely like it might be from an historical epic rather than a modern techno-thriller but he was evidently instructed to do something very different.

There are moments of genuine quality – whenever that main theme appears it is a joy (even when it’s in a more dynamic, modern setting such as “Training”) and there are other sequences which are very effective: “Messala and Tirzah” is quite lovely;  in “Home Invasion” there is finally just a hint of the epic sound; “Horse Healer” offers a bit of a tentatively religious feel; “Ben and Esther” sounds like it belongs in a more serious moment in a modern rom-com but is still very pleasant; and at the end, “Forgiveness” brings the score full-circle back to where it began with the wonderful theme soaring away again.

Sadly they are the exceptions.  Listen to the big action sequences – “Galley Slaves” with its god-awful HORN OF DOOM approximation punctuating pretty soulless suspenseful noodling which wakes up only very slightly as it nears its conclusion, or even the music for the most iconic sequence, “Chariots of Fire”, which is probably the second best action track on the album but is just so generic it could be a Man of Steel castoff or something.  (The best action cue immediately follows that one, “Brother vs Brother”, when some much-needed emotion comes in, even a touch of heroism, but now the electronics are figuring so heavily the emotion gets rather drowned out.)

I have long admired Marco Beltrami and he has trodden hallowed ground quite successfully in the past (for instance on The Omen remake) so I can only hope that it wasn’t his decision to score the film in this way.  It’s perhaps unfair because I’m comparing it with preconceived ideas of what Ben-Hur should sound like – but that’s what a large number of other people will be doing too.  It’s not by any means awful from start to finish (but I have to say, there are times when it is, remarkably so given who it’s written by) and the album is partially redeemed by the few tracks of real quality, but if you said it was a Remote Control score for a modern thriller set in Jerusalem then I doubt anyone would doubt that it was.  You could probably make a decent 30-minute album from the material, but that’s got to go down as a very disappointing outcome from a score that could have delivered so much even if the movie never seemed likely to.

Rating: ** | |

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  1. Solaris (Reply) on Tuesday 23 August, 2016 at 23:27

    ” It’s perhaps unfair because I’m comparing it with preconceived ideas of what Ben-Hur should sound like – but that’s what a large number of other people will be doing too.”

    Okay, tbh when I read that line I instantly remembered your review for Tyler Bates’ “Conan”-Score, in particular the line about how important it is to throw the preconceptions as far away as possible.

  2. Kalman (Reply) on Wednesday 24 August, 2016 at 11:23

    I have to disagree with your review, James. I saw the movie yesterday – and I liked it a lot, to my surprise! It was not the same as the one made in 1959, but still a good movie in its own terms, mostly if you look at all that crap Hollywood gave us this summer.

    One of the aspects of the new veersion I liked was the music. It fitted the film like a glove, I think.

    I really like Rozsa’s score but it is something different – just like the movie was different.

  3. Randy (Reply) on Sunday 28 August, 2016 at 23:27

    If “Ben Hur” was written in 1880, and was the top selling American novel until Gone With the Wind” in the 1930’s, how does that add up to a century, James?

  4. James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 28 August, 2016 at 23:32

    I said “half a century”!

  5. ANDRÉ, Cape Town. (Reply) on Thursday 29 September, 2016 at 20:00

    Reviews were so scathing about this RE-IMAGINING of author Lew Wallace’s novel, that I’d programmed my mind to reject William Wyler’s Biblical themed version. I was told NOT to expect the opening sequence to include the Star of Bethlehem heralding the arrival of Persian astrologers, genuflecting before the Messiah, underscored by one of Cinema’s most sumptuous scores, composed by the Master of Epic Film Music, MIKLOS ROZSA. This version, by Bekmanbetov, didn’t even relieve the dreariness of Judea by having Ben-Hur arrive in magnificent Rome with its architectural splendours and banqueting feasts, adorned with ROZSA’S heraldic fanfares and exotic themes. So I ended up watching a mediocre film with a mediocre score. MORRICONE and GOLDSMITH tackled mediocrity, and created magnificent scores to elevate those productions. But not so MARCO BELTRAMI who studied under GOLDSMITH — who in turn, when he was an intern- composer, studied under ROZSA. In his liner notes to the 2006 remake of ‘The Omen’ BELTRAMI states: “…this was an incredible opportunity to pay homage to my old teacher…it would be rewarding to use the techniques that JERRY had taught me”. Really MARCO?? I suggest you take a sabbatical and listen to the amazing musical LEGACY that “your old teacher” left the world…and don’t exclude ROZSA’S legacy…brilliant music that inspired JERRY to write his masterpieces. Maybe, one day, we’ll hear your ‘homage’ score. // ROMA DOWNEY [‘Touched by an Angel’] was an Executive Producer for this ‘Ben-Hur’, and had previously championed movies that depicted Christian values [scored by ZIMMER and BALFE on a cheap sounding Synthesizer]…I was surprised with the way JESUS was depicted…greasy-haired and without the spiritual mystique associated with the MESSIAH. Perhaps that’s why the whole title ‘Ben-Hur, A TALE OF THE CHRIST’ was crudely edited??