Homoerotic Subtext and the Ben-Hur Remake

Regardless of one’s personal opinions of film remakes, there’s something rather culturally significant about making a new Ben-Hur in 2016. Since the release of the 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet, it has become well-known that Gore Vidal went into writing the screenplay for the 1959 film with the idea that Ben-Hur and Messala were former lovers ((link) which drove much of the subtextual conflict of the story. Though the audience of the day, via their substantially heteronormative attitudes and expectations, was predominantly unable to detect this secret inclusion, today it is viewed as a successful attempt at LGBT representation in the early days of film history.

Fast forward 57 years, to a time when society has progressed enough that homosexuality is no longer the social taboo that it once was and is not at all prohibited from cinematic representation. To remake a film like Ben-Hur at this time presents a world of possibilities, namely that the filmmakers are now able to present the homoerotic tension between these characters more explicitly and overtly than was allowed in 1959. However, based on the two trailers [the film has not yet been released at the time of my writing this], there appears to have been a conscious creative choice to make Ben-Hur and Messala adoptive brothers in this new rendering of the story. One might be inclined to speculate that this decision was made to exorcise the spirit of the story’s homoerotic past, thereby using "brotherly love" in lieu of "ambiguously gay duo" to unburden their hard-core action movie with something that they believe to have "non-masculine" qualities.

Discuss the differences between the two films in this respect. How does it reflect views toward LGBT characters in the film industry, particularly in the action genre? What might it say about the shifting standards for what can be deemed as acceptable and unacceptable film content? Clearly something is a little socially retrograde if a movie in 1959 is able to do a better job of including gay characters than its 2016 counterpart. Might the remake’s heightened religious emphasis have something to do with this? What other examples of recent films might exemplify this phenomenon? Furthermore, what value is there to remake certain films if not to better express aspects that can receive new meaning in our contemporary context?

  • If there's space in this discussion, I'd like to see some exploration of the encoded homoeroticism of the "sword and sandal" genre generally, beyond the politics of explicit representation. This massive scale celebration of exposed male flesh and sweat, associated with Greek homoerotic pederasty, seems a curious counterpoint to the social conservatism of the 1950s, and yet it existed at the very core of the mainstream. – TKing 8 years ago

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