For all their piety, the Bible epics of the past are best remembered for their violent set-pieces. God smote evildoers with earthquakes and lightning, armies clashed on land and at sea, and villainous charioteers were trampled to death by their opponents’ horses. Death and destruction were what kept the crowds coming; but audiences wanted more than blood and guts, so most films offset the violence somewhat by touching on nobler themes, perhaps even by paying some attention to the Prince of Peace.
People may mock the pieties of ancient biblical epics, but when I was a lad, I watched them for the gore. Ben-Hur was a particular favorite: slaves were crushed under the collapsing hulls of their ships, Charlton Heston ran around the deck throwing spears through pirates and shoving torches in their faces, and of course there was the carnage of that famous chariot race, in which, among other things, Stephen Boyd was dragged by his own horses and trampled by the thoroughbreds behind him.
I thought of that film while watching Gladiator, the first true sword-and-sandals epic since the 1960s. Set in the second century, it follows a similar storyline, and it’s full of beheadings, stabbings, and flaming arrows; one person is even split in half by the spoke on a passing chariot wheel. Russell Crowe plays Maximus, a victorious Roman general who is betrayed by the jealous new emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and enslaved, his family slaughtered. With nothing to live for but revenge, Maximus distinguishes himself in the arena and ultimately works his way to the big leagues in Rome, where he itches for a chance to stand before Commodus again and plunge something sharp into the emperor’s belly.