The conundrum of remakes is that studios won’t take a chance on redoing an obscure movie because name recognition is worth millions – but at the same time, certain movies just seem too holy for a revival.
Take Timur Bekmambatov’s Ben-Hur. No one was asking for a remake of the 1959 Charlton Heston epic, and its epic flunk out at the box office over the weekend — it made just $11 million — suggests that it takes more than a famous title to successfully reinvigorate a classic.
Beyond its mediocre quality (the reviews were scathing) is the film’s place in the sword-and-sandals genre – a troubled class. It has mostly been bad news since Ridley Scotts Gladiator won Best Picture in 2000. 300, The Clash of the Titans movies, Pompeii, Brad Pitt pouting at the camera in Troy, and even a TV version of Spartacus all tried to subvert the genre, and only a few found any success.
Ben-Hur is another pile of dirt on the genre’s shallow grave, but in Hollywood, all it takes is one good movie to spawn a slew of imitators and wannabes. Here are a few good suggestions for a worthy sword-and-sandals remake.
5. Hercules vs. Whoever
Dwayne Johnson’s roided-up Hercules movie, directed by Brett Ratner, may not have had the strength to conquer the box office, but The Rock has revived franchises before. Back in the day, there was a series of low-budget Hercules movies featuring the mythological hero fighting any number of special effects-tinged foes – and maybe that’s where he needs to take any potential future outings.
The schlocky, mostly Italian quickies with titles like Hercules Against the Barbarians and Hercules vs. the Hydra, were inspired by the initial success of a Hercules movie from 1958 starring hunky Hollywood expat Steve Reeves (perhaps otherwise most famous for turning down the opportunity to originate the role of James Bond in Dr. No). It provides the perfect opportunity to take ridiculous, dated movies and remake them as something contemporary and fresh.
Because Johnson is one of the most beloved action stars in the world, and because it’s all about cinematic universes these days, a Hercules follow-up could expand into a huge mythological series if the budgets and stories were kept at a reasonable scope.
This notorious Malcolm McDowell-led Italian historical drama is known mostly for infamously depicting scenes of hardcore un-simulated sex. That’s what you get when you let Penthouse produce your movie. But, the story of the mad Roman Emperor Caligula is the perfect kind of batshit drama that would make for a rousing time at the theater.
It would probably even work as a Rome-esque HBO or Showtime series. The 1979 movie was all about the rise of McDowell’s character, tumultuous rule, and insane fall – and save for the pornographic bits, it could easily be adapted into a titillating look at one of the most controversial rulers of all time. Plus, Caligula was the dude who appointed his horse as a senator, so some laughs are inevitable.
Basil Dearden’s 1966 epic represents a bygone era in many respects. It was released when making ambitious and hugely expensive historical epics in 70mm with prestigious actors was the de-facto move for studios. Call it the Lawrence of Arabia effect.
The film stars Charlton Heston as a late 19th century British General who attempts to hold his empire’s colonial powers by battling a fanatical muslim leader named Muhammad Ahmad (played in brown-face by Laurence Olivier), is more than a bit xenophobic. But, at least its incredible desert landscapes and battle sequences are nice to look at. If someone could streamline and de-emphasize the dodgy politics, an update of a story like Khartoum could reposition the desert epic into a viable contemporary genre.
2. Quo Vadis
Quo Vadis was the Roman history epic the Coen Brothers lampooned in their recent Golden Age satire Hail, Caesar!. If the 1951 film’s original trailer above is any indication, it was a very serious movie about very serious topics – and perfect for spoofing.
But, a new look at Quo Vadis, which was about a Roman commander returning to a crumbling empire only to fall in love with a Christian woman, might be what it needs to turn the ridicule around. What a remake needs is to take the James Cameron approach to Titanic by using the historical backdrop for a broad romance that would inevitably make boatloads of money.
1. Jason and the Argonauts
Why not push the envelope of special effects with a new film by going back to a work that set the original standard? Visual-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen’s touch on 1963s Jason and the Argonauts had a profound influence on a range of subsequent filmmakers from Spielberg to Tim Burton. But, where Harryhausen made skeletons fight by using stop-motion animation, it’s time to continue into the digital unknown.
This would be a kind of long-term, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity usually saved for movies like Jurassic Park, which made dinosaurs walk, and Avatar, which made another planet come alive. You can’t get to the next step if you don’t take it, and you might as well make it epic. Fans might call a proper Jason and the Argonauts remake blasphemy, but if King Kong isn’t sacred enough to leave alone, then neither is this.