See It Instead: Ben-Hur.
The big spectacle remake of Ben-Hur is out in theaters, but here are 3 sword and sandal flicks to see instead.
MGM is carrying its cross into theaters this weekend with the big budget remake of the story of Ben-Hur. Early word is not optimistic. Ben-Hur follows in the wake of other biblical disasters such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, both which tried to revive the glittering historical epic genre, but failed to connect with viewers. Since the wheels seem likely to come of the chariot this weekend, we’re here with three solid films you can see instead.
Judah Ben-Hur was a Jewish nobleman sold into slavery by his treacherous adopted brother. Forced to live the life of a slave in the Roman world, Ben-Hur finds a chance at revenge and redemption by racing chariots. Jesus also shows up for some reason.
The Serious Pick: Ben-Hur (1959)
Despite being apocryphal, Ben-Hur is one of the crown gems of the biblical epic films made by MGM. It ranks high on the list of classic sword and sandal favorites alongside Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, and Quo Vadis. What it lacks in historicity, it makes up for in spectacle.
The story of Ben-Hur, framed for a crime by a jealous Roman rival, is given plenty of time to develop. The film clocks in at a hefty 212 minutes (though it’s no Cleopatra by any stretch!) The story follows Judah Ben-Hur as he is sold to slavery, freed by his Roman owner for bravery during war time, and as he regains his fortune and prestige in Rome by dominating the chariot races. It also depicts a slow change in the protagonists faith as he discovers Christianity.
Starring Charlton Heston and featuring one of the largest budgets ever spent for its time, Ben-Hur does not stint when it comes to tremendous sets, lavish costumes, and tremendous action sequences. If you want to get your fill of bread and circus, 1959’s Ben-Hur is still a fantastic watch.
The Unconventional Pick: Arjun – The Warrior Prince (2012)
A religious epic from a different corner of the globe, the story of Prince Arjun as adapted loosely from the Mahabharat epic, and is filled with excitement, grand visuals and a unique though strangely familiar story.
Prince Arjun is the pride of his family. Though not as strong as his elder brother or flashy as his younger siblings, Arjun has become the kingdoms finest warrior through dedication and a mind with a genius for problem solving. In a tournament to win the hand of a wise princess, Arjun bests all of the kingdom’s most famous archers by using the shadow of his target, a nearly translucent fish, to make a spectacular shot…while underwater…and facing the wrong direction!
Arjun’s fame causes jealousy from a rival family who fear that his family will supplant their own in the succession to the throne. These rivals engineer plots and intrigues to bring Arjun’s less canny brothers to shame, causing the family to be sent into exile. While exiled, Arjun reaches enlightenment and is able to save the kingdom by restoring his family to their rightful place.
An animated film made in India and backed by The Walt Disney company, Arjun has a distinct visual appeal, though it also suffers from some lack of polish. The cell-shaded imagery is lush and gorgeous in places (especially the action sequences with Arjun) but also slightly stilted and otherworldly. The big spectacle scenes are often the best, and the early arc of Arjun’s rise to prominence features a lengthy chariot race that will be sure to delight fans of the sword and sandals genre.
The Lighthearted Pick: The History of the World, Part 1. (1981)
Mel Brooks plunders history in one of his definitive comedies, showing us all that the past was much weirder than we were taught, and that it is good to be the king!
Traveling through 5 major points in ancient history, Mel Brooks delivers laughs and stinging social criticism in equal measure. He explores art and criticism with early cave-man culture, delves into the slap-dash nature of authority in the biblical era, tackles excess and social inequality in pre-Revolution France, and even does a little song and dance number about religious intolerance with the Inquisition. All of these bits are great and memorable, but the best (and longest) bit comes from the Roman Empire, where Brooks plays a stand-up philosopher named Comicus who gets on the wrong side of history’s weirdest empire.
Comicus and his servant Josephus (Gregory Hines) run afoul of the corupulent Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) and his sultry Empress, Nympho (Madeline Khan.) The pair have a series of adventures escaping the royal apartments, involving eunuchs, slaves, vestal virgins and a phalanx of bumbling cenurions led by Marcus Vindictus. The final escape scene has Comicus and Josephus trying to out-run Roman charioteers, and employing the local fauna, Roman Red, to role a mighty joint that puts the war-minded centurions into a much mellower mood. The escape into an inn, just in time to witness the Last Supper. That’s one hell of a weekend!