The screenwriter of the new Ben-Hur has responded to criticism that the film was de-gayed.
Keith Clarke (The Way Back), speaking to Vanity Fair in an article published Thursday, blamed copyright law for the fact that the gay subtext present in the 1959 film is not included in the 2016 version.
“Warner Bros. owned the old MGM library and so I can’t do a remake of that, because Warner Bros. owns that," explained Clarke. "I had to go back to the source material, so anything that’s in the '59 version that is not in the book I could not use."
The novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ by Lew Wallace was published in 1880. Gay writer Gore Vidal, a contributor to the 1959 screenplay, revealed in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet that he had convinced the film's director, William Wyler, that depicting sexual tension between its two male leads was necessary for a modern retelling.
Set in Biblical times, the 1959 movie showed how Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), an advocate of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), a Roman commander.
"The only way one could justify several hours of hatred between two lads — and all those horses — was to establish, without saying so in words, an affair between them as boys; then, when reunited at picture’s start, the Roman, played by Stephen Boyd, wants to pick up where they left off and the Jew, Heston, spurns him," Vidal wrote in the Los Angeles Times after the documentary's release.
Clarke himself was inspired to write his screenplay after watching the 1959 film with his wife. He saw the gay subtext in this version as obvious, unlike the new film's producer, Roma Downey (Touched by an Angel), who questioned its existence at the premiere.
“How can you not watch the ‘59 version, and hear Gore Vidal say what he said, and then look at the hugging, and the way Messala in that movie just looked at Judah?" Clarke said. "It’s like, yes, there was something else going on other than ‘Hey, buddy. I’m back from the war.'”
This storyline is steamy; it's also a key moment in LGBT history. At the time, the long-standing Production Code restricted depictions of gay characters in cinema, making Vidal's contribution to one of cinema's masterpieces a major victory for visibility.
Despite its significance, Vanity Fair, expounding on Clarke's remarks, explained that the gay subtext — as well as the famous death scene in which Messala dies in Ben-Hur's arms — is legally off-limits in the 2016 version, as it was "the invention of Vidal" and the other writers of the 1959 film.
However, this argument is specious. While Warner Bros. might object to a reproduction of scenes not included in the novel, it does not hold a copyright on gay subtext. Moreover, the queer history of Ben-Hur did not begin with Vidal. The 1925 silent version starred a closeted gay man, Ramon Novarro, as the title character. The inclusion of a character's secret gay history would pay homage to him as well and help continue the production's LGBT legacy.
Moreover, a different explanation, which conflicts with Clarke's, was provided this week by one the new Ben-Hur's stars, Toby Kebbell (Messala).
“It wasn’t something we avoided, but it wasn’t something we had," Kebbell told the U.K. Press Association. “In 1959 the gay context was very important. They need a voice. You shouldn’t have to hide in the dark about something you feel and you’re grown with. That was their own thing they wanted to portray and we didn’t need to. It’s a different time, thankfully.”
The excuses for gay exclusion are piling up. What is true, though, is that the 2016 Ben-Hur is in danger of becoming the summer's biggest flop. Variety reports that it could pull in as little as $10 million in its opening weekend, a paltry sum compared with its budget of $100 million.
In response, the film has been marketing itself to a faith-based audience. To promote the film, Ben-Hur has staged a series of early screenings for religious influencers. It has also hired PR firms Grace Hill Media and Motive Entertainment, which have connections to faith leaders.
Producers Downey and Mark Burnett, whose past Christian credits include the miniseries The Bible, have been leading outreach efforts as well, including the launch of a promotional video filled with reviews from religious leaders and writers.
"We, the Christian community, are hungry to watch great stories about our faith," Downey said in the clip. It includes testimonials ranging from a blogger for CatholicMom.com, who praised it as a film the whole family should see, to a nun, who called it "the beginning of the greatest story ever told."
Needless to say, an emphasis on Ben-Hur's queer history has been absent from these promotional materials. However, what is heavily featured is the character of Christ and his famous crucifixion. This is a significant departure from the 1959 version, where the son of God was represented as a light. In Clarke's script, Christ has been fleshed out in in the form of actor Rodrigo Santoro. (This is not Santoro's first divine role. He portrayed the homoerotic god Xerxes in the 2006 film 300.)
“For me, he was always an important figure in the book,” Clarke said of Jesus. “I’m OK not to shy away from that. In my original draft, he was in it more.”
“I think that the faith-based audience is going to get what they want from it and we don’t hide that,” Clarke added. However, he hopes secular filmgoers will walk away with an appreciation for its "contemporary context," regardless of its absence of gay subtext.