A less chaotic state: 1959’s Ben-Hur

Photos courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

Ben-Hur holds a unique place in cinematic history for a wide variety of reasons. It’s a movie you’ve definitely heard of, but it’s only on the fringe of what I’d call an enduring classic. It’s highly emblematic of the time it was made, so much so that it’s often the go-to example of what movies were all about in the later stages of the Classical Hollywood era, but the fact is it’s three and a half hours long and most of it doesn’t hold up. Movies have evolved rapidly in the 57 years since its release, and one key scene aside, it represents something audiences just aren’t looking for anymore.

But at the same time, it’s cinematic holy ground. The film brought in 11 Academy Awards, a feat matched only by the fantastic success of Titanic and the honorary nostalgia around the third Lord of the Rings movie. It was a technical marvel in its time, and it remains just as fantastic because the techniques that made it so would begin to fall out of favor just a few years later. Remaking something with that level of success is sacrilege, even if the movie could use an update.

They’re not really trying to update it, of course. Ben-Hur was the third longest film ever made at the time, and new movie is going to be a full hour shorter. At $100 million, it’ll actually cost less than the classic did — the $15 million budget in 1958, at the time the biggest production budget ever spent, translates into $124.9 million in today’s money. This is the same cynical pulp we’ve seen a hundred times over the past few summers, the result of studios scrambling to find anything at all they have the copyright for with name recognition and then pushing it through in the hopes of striking pay dirt — and then not even taking care of their investment. Paramount and MGM have spent $100 million on this movie and stuck it with a mid-August release and a barely there marketing campaign, and fully deserve their impending financial disaster even if it’s a decent movie.

We could talk about the pitfalls the new Ben-Hur is racing toward all day. But that’s boring. Those are pitfalls remakes fall into all the time these days. Instead, we’re going to talk about the scene the marketing is laser-focused on, and the one part of the original that modern viewers wouldn’t simply tune out.

Ye uninitiated heathens, the chariot race:

This video covers the scene’s incredible sound design and brilliant visual storytelling. Everything you need to know about the characters and their relationships are all right there. The script just said “the chariot race,” everything actually in the scene was come up with by second unit directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt.

What it doesn’t cover is the scale. Ben-Hur released at a time when Hollywood was first beginning to compete with television and needed to give people something they couldn’t see on their small screens, a struggle that has only grown more intense with the advent of home video and Netflix. Ben-Hur was shot with massive, heavy cameras fitted with 70mm lenses, the kind Quentin Tarantino brought back into the limelight with his Hateful Eight roadshow last year. The lenses alone for Ben-Hur cost $100,000. The lenses produced a 2.76:1 aspect ratio, something nearly impossible to replicate — and so wide it’s difficult to appreciate — on the small screen. The entire movie had to be visually composed around the extreme width of the frame, and the minimum focusing distance of 50 feet wasn’t helping anything either.

The film itself was so big they couldn’t edit it. Equipment didn’t exist to handle the 70mm stock, so they had to reduce it to 35mm to work with it, but that meant they couldn’t see the real image. The editing work was essentially done blind.

For the race, a thousand workers spent a year carving the 18 acre circuit out of rock quarry, the largest set ever built at the time. It was completed with 250 miles of metal tubing, 40,000 tons of sand and four 30 foot high statues. Construction alone cost $1 million, $8.3 million in today’s money.

Right next to that, they laid out an identical race track to train the 78 horses and plan out the shots, a process that took the same full year to complete. They were so worried about the danger shooting the sequence posed they also set up a 20-bed infirmary next to the circuits and held two doctors and two nurses on call. The production hired 7,000 extras to fill the stands, and when shooting began to wind down and they didn’t need all those people every day, they actually had to deal with a riot when they turned away 3,000 unemployed Italians.

When it finally came time to shoot the sequence, there were only a couple of problems, but they were expensive. Marton and Canutt wanted to shoot the horses at full speed, so they mounted their camera on a car and had it drive around with them, but the car they bought couldn’t keep up with the horses, and since everything had to be 50 feet away to be in focus, they could only get a few seconds of usable footage per shot. They imported a more powerful car from America, but that couldn’t solve the distance problem, so they had to order another lens with a shorter focusing distance and have this car driving as close as two feet away from the horses, which is exactly as dangerous as it sounds.

The scene took five weeks, spread out over three months, to shoot, involving 200 miles of racing, costing $1 million and two of those priceless lenses, which were broken taking close-ups. For every 263 feet of footage they shot, only one foot made it into the final cut, one of the highest ever ratios of unused footage. For context, the same ratio for the film as a whole was just 58:1.

It’s genuinely tough to appreciate how tight the sequence is and how tense it is throughout after the two-and-a-half hour schlog that precedes it, and the scene is really best viewed out of context for this reason. The movie’s general legendary quality combined with this being the only scene really worth talking about has lead to it being mythologized, and several myths about people or horses dying on the set still linger — mostly because the 1925 version of the sequence actually did result in the deaths of an actor and almost 100 horses and people confuse the two. 

The biggest reason this sequence remains special, though, is that this sort of sequence just doesn’t get made anymore. Hollywood has gone through a number of drastic changes, starting with the New Hollywood movement in the 1960s and ’70s when better-educated directors became the big draw.

Today, Hollywood has several ways to fight back against television, and they tend to stick to things that aren’t this risky or expensive — though movie budgets still do get way, way out of hand.

The remake will likely flop and make no real attempt to match the classic, but that’s OK. Last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road proved there’s still a massive appetite for these sorts of insane builds and shoots, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Revenant, two of the year’s subsequent most popular movies, capitalized on that desire in their marketing. Ben-Hur may not be riding toward the type of sequence that is the classic chariot race, but Hollywood in general has been shown the value.

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