Ben-Hur is timeless: director

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Jack Houston and Morgan Freeman in a scene from the film.

Ben-Hur director Timur Bekmambetov compares the legend of a Jewish prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted Roman brother to Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet “and any story written by Chekhov.”

Ripe with betrayal, revenge and redemption but shaded with love and compassion, Bekmambetov says the story of Ben-Hur is “timeless.”

“The conflicts the characters experience are as relatable today as they were in Roman times or 1880, when Lew Wallace wrote the novel. It’s human nature and that doesn’t change,” says producer Sean Daniel.

The human story is the engine that propels the Ben-Hur narrative, but throughout film history it’s the tale’s chariot race that entertains the eye. In version after version the showdown between the hero and his duplicitous brother is the centerpiece of the action.

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This weekend Bekmambetov’s big-budget version of the story stars Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur and yes, there is a chariot race. “It was very, very dangerous work,” the director says of the scene that took 45 days to shoot and featured 90 trained horses. Each chariot was attached to four horses and could reach speeds of 65 to 70 km/h.

“There’s no suspension,” says Bekmambetov. “It’s shaky, it’s vibrating. The horses are snorting around you, behind you. It’s absolutely unprotected. You feel like you’re in the hands of fate.”

No animals were harmed during the shooting of Bekmambetov’s chariot race and, remarkably, the only human injury was a broken arm. Historically, however, shooting the chariot scenes has been fraught with problems.

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