Fraser Heston, a film director who made an acting debut as the infant Moses in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film “The Ten Commandments” checks in with AMFM Magazine to talk about the new “Ben-Hur” film. This 2016 version is the fifth film adaptation of the book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880, and considered “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century”.
Despite critical opening reviews, 2016’s version shows audience approval is much higher (current Rotten Tomatoes statistics) and as yet remains to be seen how this latest movie, produced by husband-wife team Mark Barnett and Roma Downey, will fare. The movie stars Jack Huston, (grandson of Director John Huston and nephew of actor Angelica Huston) as Ben-Hur and Toby Kebbells as his brother Messela Severus. In the interview below, Heston urges us to see the movie as well as the 1958 version starring his father Charlton Heston and make up our own minds.
AMFM: What do you think of the new “Ben-Hur” movie?
FH: I thought Jack Huston was a great “Ben-Hur”, he did a great job. It was a great piece of casting, he’s a real actor, not just a movie star.The chariot race is definitely worth the price of admission, even though there’s a lot of digital stuff in it, totally understandable these days. I love the galley sequence too.
I did miss some of the plot points and character points that were perhaps more eloquently done in the original, but this is a two hour movie and the original is three hours and a bit. So they’ve got to cut 90 minutes out of the story somewhere.
AMFM: That’s true. The critics are giving it a rough time, because of the screening numbers on Thursday, and it’s not even had a chance yet – that’s a shame.
FH: It’s seems like they’re really slamming it. Some of it is “it doesn’t have a right to exist, they’re crazy to do this, how dare they…”I think that’s all wrong. The ‘58 version was a remake of the 1925 version. William Wyler’s son did a remake for TV back in the early 2000s. I did a remake in the 90’s that was an animated version with my Dad. So there are a lot of remakes out there.
Every generation has a right to see this, and Mark and Roma are great producers for this kind of product, and they’ve chosen a wonderful subject, good director, good actors. You know, Morgan Freeman, I could listen to him all day.
I definitely sympathize, I think some of the subtleties of the original is lost, the drama has been leached out of some portions of the screenplay – not all of it.
But again, they had a time constraint, and oddly enough for a $100 million dollar movie, budget constraints. Fifteen miillion dollars back in 1958 was a heck of a lot of money. They were trying to be reasonably responsible – it could have cost $250 million easily.
AMFM: What do you think they are really criticizing? Hollywood has a reputation for being anti-Christian, for the most part. Not everybody in Hollywood, of course.
FH: I think they will make Christian movies for cynical reasons, if they think they can make money on them. I don’t think Mark and Roma are cynical producers. I think they know what they are doing and are good promoters. Whether this can make money or not, no one can say. Despite bad reviews it can reach a Christian audience. But this is a good film for Christians and non-Christians alike.
The message is equally as valid in 1958, 2016, or the year 0. We are still fighting this fight in many ways, we are still fighting each other. But I think the message of love, redemption and forgiveness, which trumps anger and hatred and fear and killing – it’s as valid today as it was 2000 years ago. Maybe more.
AMFM: I know you’re a prolific filmmaker, so if you were to have made this film, what would you have done differently?
FH: I would have kept Quintus Arriusas the Commander of the Galley where Ben-Hur has been enslaved for five years. It’s a wonderful sequence that’s missing from this film, where chooses to unchain “41” which is the number given to Ben-Hur and his oar. As a result, he survives the galley wreck – it’s a direct result of the little piece of kindness. Ben-Hur returns the favor by rescuing Quintus Arrius from the sinking. He saves his life, and helps his enemy. This is a very Christian theme. Ben-Hur is in turn made into a chariot driver and given Roman Citizenship.
So when Ben-Hur returns to Jerusalem, it’s as a Roman citizen, and he’s untouchable, Messala can’t arrest him. That adds a lot of poignancy and drama to that element. Clearly, that’s a whole sub-plot that takes out 20 minutes of half-an-hour of the film. But I missed that, I would put it back in.
AMFM: Is that the only thing you would have changed if you were to do it?
FH: I would have taken pains to have Ben Hur’s mother and sister witness the crucifiction, as they did in the 1958 version. In the book that’s very important. They don’t get cured of leprosy because a magic rain falls on their heads, they’re cured by a miracle witnessing the crucifiction of Jesus. It’s a terribly important event, and having them witness it is essential not only for their physical transformation, but the spiritual transformation Ben Hur undergoes, as perhaps one of the first Christians.
AMFM: It’s too early to say what this movie will do, I think a lot of journalists will jump on a bandwagon.
FH: I agree, a lot of people have asked me what do I think this movie will do? And would I recommend it?
I would definitely recommend it. Go see both films. You can watch the 1958 version on DVD or on Amazon, for a few dollars you can make up your mind. See the original, go see the new one, and decide for yourself.
Personally, I think it’s well worth seeing, Jack Huston’s performance is extraordinary – he’s the real deal.
AMFM: With today’s socio-economic-political climate audiences may be needing this more than ever. What do you think is the difference in the times that the 1958 version was released and today? I mean, weren’t those days the golden days compared to now?
FH: That was the beginning of the cold war, it was during the atomic age, we were all faced with instant obliteration and annihilation of civilization as we know it. There was a lot of fear and anger and concern for the world, just as there is now. So perhaps nothing has changed in that regard.
I do think that the message of love, forgiveness and redemption is equally valid then as it is now. It was valid in the time of the Roman Empire as it is now. Those are commonalities we can look to in all eras.
“Ben-Hur” was one of the first modern epics. If you look at the 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments,” you will see a very old-fashioned but very effective C.B. DeMille movie. But if you look at William Wyler’s version of “Ben-Hur”, you will see a film that can stand up next to “Gladiator,” or “Game Of Thrones,” or the new “Ben-Hur”. in terms of cinematography, the action, the tone of the event, the acting, the camera angles, the music. All of those things are very modern in the ‘58 “Ben-Hur.”
AMFM: It’s definitely a classic. So do you have any stories about the days of when your father was making “Ben-Hur?”
FH: The best story is about the time when he was finishing training for the chariot races. He practiced chariot racing for two or three months, before filming began. They actually sent us to Rome, we lived in a villa off the Appia Antica (editors note: the old Roman Appian Way, which ran from Rome down to Brindisi, now an archeological park).
He would come home in his Chariot driving costume every day, bringing me a box of sand for my sandbox. He’d say this isn’t just any sand, this is MGM sand.
One day when he finished his training, he went to Yakima Canutt, second-unit director and stunt coordinator, who staged the entire chariot race. He said “Yak, I’m a little concerned. I’ve practiced driving, I can manage the four horses ok, but all the other men in the race are stunt men and wranglers and famous rodeo cowboys, I don’t think I can keep up with these guys.”
Yak looked at him, tipped his hat back on his head and said “Chuck, you just stay in the dang chariot, I can guarantee you’re gonna win the dang race.”
AMFM: Must have been amazing having Charlton Heston as a father. I read you guys grew up on film sets, an unusual childhood, but look what it’s led to – you’re in film and so is your son Jack.
I want to ask about your own projects, with Agamemnon Films – what you are working on now, what’s coming in the future?
FH: Our next project is based on a novel I wrote last year called “Desolation Sound.” We are preparing it as a television series, possibly as a streaming series online.
It’s about the true story of severed human feet that have been washing up on the shore of British Columbia. It’s an unsolved mystery. We’ve turned it into a “Silence Of The Lambs” serial killer thriller. That novel is available on Amazon.com. We’re talking to a Canadian producer about making it.
That one is a lot of fun. We have another project called “The Search For Michael Rockefeller.” It’s a feature based on a documentary that I made a few years back about the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Ginuea, his possible survival, or was he eaten by cannibals. That documentary is on netflix now, but we want to turn it into a feature with actors.
AMFM: Who do you think you’d like to have star in that?
FH: Maybe Christian Bale as Michael, but he’s a little long in the tooth for it. Hard to believe! Christian was in one of my first films, “Treasure Island” when he was 16 years old.
Maybe Jack Huston will star in it (laughs).
AMFM: That would be ironic. The way the distribution channels are changing these days, would you want to go the traditional route or stream it?
FH: I think the streaming networks, from Amazon to Netflix, Hulu and so on are the wave of the future. This is where television networks were in the ‘60s. I think some of the more sophisticated films are being made for television, and a lot of that is available on streaming platforms.
My son Jack Heston is a USC film graduate, he’s only 25 and he’s producing his third film for netflix right now in Denver. That’s definitely where it’s going.
AMFM: Totally agree. We share that, my son is a filmmaker too. So, if you were going to binge watch on Netflix, what would you be watching?
FH: I would certainly watch “House Of Cards,” definitely, and also “Bloodlines,” one of my favorites, about the family down in the Florida Keys and the Deputy Sheriff who gets involved with killing his own brother. Fascinating stuff.
AMFM: You know, AMFM Magazine is based in Austin, and we have the ATX Television Festival here – and it’s getting so big so fast.
FH: I would love to come to Austin, they have a great film festival for documentaries and the arts, one of the best areas to make films in Texas, super film-friendly. It’s got lots of great locations and people who love the arts, I think it would be great place to come and make a film.