Being aware of this being a box-office flop in America (and very likely to be emulated as such here - I was in an audience of about ten), as well as the majority of reviews being negative or lukewarm at best, I didn't really want to bother with seeing this, but did go assuring myself that I could always leave at the self-decreed two-thirds point which would qualify as my having 'seen' the film. Against these considerable odds it was surprising and pleasing to find that not only did I sit it out but thought that it was not at all bad - or, better expressed, it was not all bad by any means.
I've not seen the Charlton Heston version (itself a re-make) since its original release in 1959 when I was 12 or 13 - and all I remember of that was the chariot race, though that particular memory has been polished up by having seen clips of the race section several times on TV over the years. This new film, even at over two hours long, is still more than ninety minutes shorter than that William Wyler directed version, in which I hardly had a clue as to what was going on.
Which brings me to what I regard as a strength of the new version - its admirable clarity of motivations of the characters. I wasn't lost for one moment - and not only that, I was interested enough to want to follow it.
Jack Huston (nephew of Anjelica and Danny) and Toby Kebbell play Prince Judah Ben-Hur and his step-brother Marcellus respectively, bosom friends who become deadly enemies after the now Roman commander Marcellus' request to B-H to keep a rein on Jewish discontent against Roman rule, culminating in a guard of ginger-bearded Governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Ansbaek) being killed by an arrow shot from B-H's home during Pilate's procession through Jerusalem. B-H, his mother and his sister are arrested, separated, and the hostility between B-H and his former close buddy is complete when B-H, despite his wealthy former princely status, is consigned to being a scum-of-the-earth galley slave. (These scenes at sea are quite remarkable - violently harrowing but also exciting).
When B-H miraculously survives this ordeal he is taken in, still as a slave, by a powerful African potentate, in the frame of Morgan Freeman (yes, playing a mortal! - and the only well-known member of the cast). B-H's way with horses endears him to his new owner who suggests he enters an upcoming major chariot race to compete with Marcellus, and thereby securing his freedom as well as winning a bet for the African. (No prizes for guessing who crosses the finishing line first).
The race itself, with half-a-dozen four-horse charioteers competing simultaneously, is extremely well shot, and almost nail-biting, even though one knows the outcome.
Oh, and I ought to mention that there are a few scenes featuring Jesus Christ himself (Rodrigo Santoro, in a speaking role), first seen lovingly doing a bit of carpentry work while voicing a few succinct bon-mots - and last seen being crucified in a scene to which Christian fundies could not make any objection at all, so uncontroversial it is, sticking rigidly to the conventionally accepted and blessingly approved version (unless, of course, one considers the entire event as 'controversial').
Btw: Why do we still have to have 'celestial choirs' singing their "Aaaaah aaaaaahs" on the soundtrack to evoke religious mood and reverential solemnity? I would have hoped that this notion would have been vanquished to the films of yesteryear.
Much has been made of the anachronisms in this film and they really are glaring ones. The first I picked up on was seeing the young men wearing breeches (this is, of course, supposed to be early in the first century C.E.). Other reviewers have said they are wearing what are definitely jeans. Whatever it is, the men would also have looked out of place, though maybe not quite as gratingly, if the actors had been part of Robin Hood's gang of merrie men.
There are other dubious features I could mention but I don't want to further spoil the fun of anyone who wants to see this.
It reads like I'm fairly down on this film but it's not really the case. It was far better than I expected and I really did feel for the characters. It's also been said that the cast acted as though they couldn't care much about the situations they were portraying. I didn't find that. I thought they all managed to put in a good effort with a somewhat creaky and hackneyed, frequently sanctimonious storyline. I could easily have done with considerably less 'treacle' in the closing minutes, though.
Director is Russian/Kazakh, Timur Bekmambetov, whose best known directed film up to now has been 'Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Slayer', not seen by me.
I'd suggest that if you're in any way interested in seeing this, do give it a go and I think you may well find your hopes and expectations being met - or even exceeded - as mine were....................6.
5 hours ago