The Ben-Hur chariot race has returned to Rome.
Under bright blue skies and through a filmic, dusty haze, drums beat, the crowd roars, four-horse chariots sweep past, the drivers strain at the reins. Outside the arena an off-duty legionary sits in a canvas chair, listening to his iPod, watching the People's Front of Judea wander past.
This is not quite the set of the 1959 classic. It's half an hour south of the old "Hollywood on the Tiber", the Cinecitta Studios founded by Mussolini, home to Fellini, where five decades ago extras flocked to cheer the charioteers through one of cinema's great spectacles.
This is, instead, the backlot of "Cinecitta World", a muddy field near a shiny new theme park built over the former studios of Dino de Laurentiis.
And it's not quite as grand, either. Modern filmmaking means you don't have to build a full Hippodrome – you just lovingly render the first few rows of seats, the bases of pillars, then computers later jam it into the side of a mountain with a huge stone gate under a towering, impossible statue.
But it's still pretty impressive in the real world. The 250-metre-long, 50-metre-wide track, designed by a horse-race track expert, is rendered in intricate detail – even right up close the fibreglass arena is indistinguishable from sandstone. Hundreds of extras sweat through shot after shot, as Judah Ben-Hur staggers to his feet at the end of the race, the fans going wild, the track around him strewn with wreckage (and a startlingly realistic dead horse).
In case you haven't sat through the full three hours and 40 minutes of the 1959 film Ben-Hur (including the six-minute musical overture), the story is this: Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is enslaved by the Romans, freed, becomes a charioteer and converts to Christianity. In the background, the story of Christ happens. Think Gladiator meets Life of Brian.
Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted;Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) says he needed a reason to make the film – and it came from what he calls the old classic's fatal flaw.
Timur is a short, genial chap with kind eyes, shots of grey in his beard, in a red shirt and bright blue-rimmed glasses with orange ear-handles. In 2013, he got a call from a producer asking him if he wanted to direct a Ben-Hur remake.
"I said no," he says. "And he said 'but let me send you a script' and I read the script. And suddenly I understood this story is not what I expected. It's not a remake, it's an interpretation of the famous book."
Writers Keith Clarke (The Way Back) and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) had gone back to Lew Wallace's epic novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ.
Timur: "So I said OK, let's talk."
The 1959 version distilled a revenge story from the novel – and that was its flaw, Timur says. For him, the film ended with the chariot race. "What came after, I don't really remember or care. This  movie is about the two brothers, about revenge and forgiveness. Forgiveness is the most important message I think today in our world where we are all fighting – countries, people. I think to learn how to forgive each other is really important. Not many big movies have this message."
He wanted a "grounded and real" movie, not a togas-and-sandals fantasy. "There are no slow-mo action shots, it's all real-time. It's not a graphic novel, it's a drama with a lot of action. This movie is about the Roman Empire, how seductive and glamorous and dangerous its ideas are – it's about power and competition. And we live in this world. We live in the Roman Empire today – and this movie is trying to find a way how we can survive today. It's not a movie about Jesus' time, it's a movie about us."
As for the chariot race, he can call on new filming techniques and cameras to give the audience new perspectives – he's using Go-Pro cameras, drones and other hi-tech tools to take the audience inside the race, into the chariots.
Lanky, chatty producer Duncan Henderson says modern smaller cameras can be put in surprising places.
"We can mount them right where the driver's head is, we can put them in with the horses, you can hook them underneath the horses, you can put them down on the track and run over them. We try to be as 'live' as we can, but then when we get to a spectacular wreck we can use visual effects to go 'inside' it."
Special effects also allowed them to shoot with many fewer extras than half a century ago. "I've shot with 70,000 people in a crowd but that will never happen again," Henderson says. "I've paid for 10,000 people in a crowd, that will never happen again. So we are using the visual-effects tools. But we are filming with real horses – there are over 80 horses in the barn. It's been quite a wonderful experience."
It's not just "brothers and horses", Timur says. "It's really good to have women around, beautiful and smart."
But the story centres on two brothers. One of them, Jack Huston (Ben-Hur), saunters into the tent where the cast are giving interviews, his charioteer tunic covered in dust, a bloody (fake) injury on his face and neck.
His face seems familiar, then I place it: the disfigured marksman from Boardwalk Empire. But his voice is different: he turns out to be another of these young, terribly posh (the grandson of the 6th Marquess of Cholmondeley, no less) English actors who are all over Hollywood like a rash at the moment (Timur says Huston "will be a star").
Coincidentally, Charlton Heston's daughter-in-law is a friend of Huston's family, and he met Charlton a few times before he died.
"I remember being very struck by the film when I was younger," Huston says. The leper scene, especially, stuck in his mind. He re-watched the 1959 film prepping for this version.
"It's a hell of a movie, it's amazing," he says. "It's epic, it's vast and grand. The lovely thing for me was: watching that solidified for me that we're not stepping on its toes. It's not a remake. There was definitely room for a new interpretation of the book."
He liked the opportunity to explore elements that weren't touched in the 1959 version.
"You don't have to sacrifice character for scale and size in this movie. This is one of those great roles, one of those great movies where you realise that this is actually, at its core, entirely a character piece, which is such an amazing thing to discover in a movie of this size.
"This is fundamentally a story about love, betrayal and redemption. I've had the most unbelievable time exploring [Ben-Hur]. We're all being surprised by these beautiful correlations. You think you've read it 50 times then when you start acting you find something new."
Then he heads back out to the arena, puffs on a last cigarette as a make-up artist dabs glue onto his "neck wound", then lies back in the dirt next to his wrecked chariot, ready for his close-up.
Ben-Hur is released in cinemas on August 25.
'Nothing prepares you': chariot racing 101
According to film legend, a stuntman once told Charlton Heston: "You just stay in the chariot – I guarantee you'll win the damn race."
It's harder than it sounds.
Jack Huston, who plays Judah Ben-Hur in the new film, says he had a month of preparation before the shoot, with chariot training every day, but "nothing prepares you for the beast that is four horses on a chariot".
Toby Kebbel (playing Messala) explains: "You learn chariot racing with one horse, then you go to two, then four – and of course even one horse is stronger than a human anyway. Then you divide your strength by four.
"It's extremely hard and extremely terrifying. You have to be focused but it's exhilarating."
Much of their "acting" in the chariots was simply reacting naturally to the speed and power of the vehicles.
The race is shot with live horses as much as possible – switching to digital models only when things get too dangerous.
Massimo Pauletto, an art director on the film who built the chariots, says his team had to reinvent a forgotten skill.
"From the sketches, nobody was understanding how they could become real," he says. "The hardest part was to fit together our practical needs and the special-effects needs.
"Day by day the problems kept coming out. The horses were so strong they broke the bolts that held the chariots together. And the bar that attached the horses, they were able to bend it. Week by week we had to learn how to make them."
Multiple chariots were made for each character – some with brakes (though the horses are strong enough to overpower the brakes), some with room for a second "blind driver" or 'bonnet-fitted' camera, some with different-sized wheels for filming on the turns instead of the straights, some to flip over or crash.
Director Timur Bekmambetov says it's a unique experience driving these chariots. "It's like you're in a blender. Everything is vibrating, there is a lot of dirt flying, spit flying into your face. It's an unbelievable feeling. And my goal is to make the audience feel the same as I felt."