The first question was always going to be, ‘Will the chariot race be as good?’ To which the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ The second question, ‘why would they bother to make another version of William Wyler’s 1959 classic?’, is more problematic.
On IMDb, this movie has rated a paltry 5.4 among 3,000-odd voters, and my companion dismissed it as ‘hokey’ – but I thought it was better than that, notwithstanding the forgettable performance of Jack Huston as the eponymous hero and a wooden Toby Kebbell as his adopted Roman brother, Mesalla. As a caveat, however, there is a pretty decent and relevant story being told, so who needs another granite-jawed Charlton Heston mugging the screen with the superstar’s persona? The message, unheeded as it has been for millennia, is that resentment, hatred and violent reprisal do nobody any good, as Jerusalem’s princely Judah Ben-Hur loses all, is thrown into slavery, redeemed in the arena and ultimately finds rapprochement with the estranged Mesalla.
Ancient Rome never gets a good rap at the cinema, despite it bringing civilisation to half the known world (more people wanted to be inside the Pax Romana than not), so it is a given that when Mesalla joins the legions he will return as a jackbooted son working for oppressive masters. The voice in the wilderness, preaching love and peace, is that of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro, who looks exactly like the Nazarene), but Russian director Timur Bekmambetov sensibly only makes him an incidental character in the tumultuous passing parade.
Morgan Freeman turns up as a wise old dreadlocked Bedouin who actually says ‘okay’ at one point (surely his next role will be as God), while Pilou Asbæk is an unlikely Pontius Pilate, but the pièce de resistance, rather than the chariot showdown, is a fantastic battle at sea, with Judah chained to an oar in a Roman galley. Reluctantly, I also concede that, as a lifelong atheist, the crucifixion at Golgotha affected me in a way that it never has done before in film.