Last month it was rumoured that Tom Hiddleston was being courted for the upcoming remake of Ben-Hur, but those rumours were scuttled today when it was announced that Hiddleston is going to star in the King Kong spin-off Skull Island instead. No matter, the makers of Ben-Hur have an announcement of their own to make: namely, they have cast Boardwalk Empire co-star Jack Huston in the title role made famous by Charlton Heston in the 1959 film.
Huston, as it happens, is the grandson of legendary filmmaker John Huston, who played both Noah and the voice of God in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), which he also directed. The younger Huston played Flavius in the 2004 TV-movie remake of Spartacus — it was based on the same Howard Fast novel that the 1960 Kirk Douglas film was based on — and he played Lord Alfred in Al Pacino’s Wilde Salomé (2011). So he’s had a bit of experience with movies set in the ancient Roman empire. Nothing quite on this scale, though.
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.