EXCLUSIVE: Gearing up to start production in Europe early next year, MGM, Paramount and Timur Bekmambetov have made their first formal casting in Ben-Hur. They’ve set Morgan Freeman to play the role of Ildarin, the man who teaches the slave Ben-Hur to become a champion-caliber chariot racer.

The studios are getting close to finding their Judah Ben-Hur and his friend-turned-bitter-rival Messala. I’ve reported that Tom Hiddleston was one of those being courted, and at this point it’s not clear if he will take part. They’ve set a February 26, 2016, release date on the epic remake, that is based more closely on the 1880 Lew Wallace novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ — the biggest-selling novel of its time until it was eclipsed by Gone With The Wind — than the 1959 William Wyler-directed film that starred Charlton Heston. Keith Clarke wrote the script and John Ridley did the rewrite. Mark Burnett joined Sean Daniel and Joni Levin as producers, with Clarke and Jason Brown exec producing with Roma Downey.

benhur__130819154558This version plays up the parallel storyline of Jesus Christ, but the focus is the blood feud between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, who grew up best friends before the Roman Empire took control of Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur was a Jewish prince and Messala the son of a Roman tax collector. After the latter leaves to be educated in Rome for five years, the young man returns with a different attitude and mocks Judah and his religion. When a procession passes by Judah’s house and a roof tile accidentally falls and hits the governor, Messala betrays his childhood friend and manipulates the accident so that Judah is sold into slavery and certain death on a Roman warship, with his mother and sister thrown in prison for life. Judah vows revenge, culminating in the famed chariot races.

Freeman played the Almighty in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty. Freeman, who just signed on for Ted 2, is repped by CAA.