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Behind the Camera - Ben-Hur
Remind Me

Behind the Camera on BEN-HUR

More than 300 sets were built on location at the Cinecitta studies in Rome for Ben-Hur. They were constructed following 15,000 sketches and covered more than 340 acres. The city of Jerusalem set took up 10 square blocks. Altogether, the production used about 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, more than a million pounds of plaster, and 250 miles of metal tubing. Ben-Hur's house was constructed of wood frame covered with stucco painted to look like stone. Sculptors cast more than 200 pieces of statuary to supplement the thousands of props used from Cinecitta's warehouse.

The chariot arena was built by more than 1,000 workers beginning in January 1958, according to some reports. It was 2,000 feet long by 65 feet wide and covered 18 acres, the largest single set in motion picture history to that time. Reputedly, 40,000 tons of white sand was imported from Mexico for the track.

Famed stuntman Yakima Canutt was brought in to coordinate all the chariot race stunt work and train the drivers. Heston was among the first to begin training, arriving on location a few months ahead of scheduled shooting. He was also there to do costume fittings.

Heston mastered the driving of the four-horse team more quickly than anyone else in the chariot scene, probably because of his experience with the smaller two-horse chariots he drove in The Ten Commandments (1956). Nevertheless, he was concerned about his ability to pull off the race with all the other teams on the track. Canutt assured him, "You just stay in the chariot; I guarantee you'll win the damn race."

Stephen Boyd had a much more difficult time driving the chariots. His hands and wrists blistered, and rest time had to be scheduled.

Although only about 36 horses would ever be seen on screen during the race, 82 animals (to cover for accidents and rest periods) were brought in from Yugoslavia.

Because the main set for the chariot race was still being built, an identical track was constructed next to it to train horses and drivers and lay out camera shots.

Principal photography on Ben-Hur began May 20, 1958, with a scene between Heston and Hugh Griffith as the horse trader Sheik Ilderim.

On May 24, the first spectacular scene for Ben-Hur was shot––the entrance of the chariots into the arena, with 8,000 extras on hand.

The chariot scene alone cost about $4 million, or about a fourth of the entire budget, and took 10 weeks to shoot.

According to Andrew Marton, who directed the chariot race, the track was constructed of steamrolled ground rock debris covered with 10 inches of ground lava and finished with eight inches of crushed yellow rock to make the surface hard enough to hold the weight of the chariots and horses while still having enough give not to make the horses lame (which Marton said was achieved by a top of sand). After one day of shooting, the upper layer of rock was removed because it had slowed the pace of the race considerably. The lava layer, which Marton and Canutt had initially opposed, proved to be the most workable element.

Marton had three 65mm cameras at his disposal for shooting the race. The larger format film proved to be an issue. The standard close-up lens for 35mm photography was 100mm; it became, in the wide-screen process, a 200mm lens, which could not be focused closer than 50 feet. So he had to use a 140mm lens, requiring him and his crew to move closer to the dangerous action of the race.

After a few days of shooting, Marton discovered the most effective way to shoot in the arena would be to have the cameras right in the midst of the race, necessitating a camera car that moved with the chariots. He also noted that the best shots on the curves were done using a specially built camera chariot with rubber tires.

The heat of Rome proved to be a serious drawback for the action scenes in Ben-Hur. Horses could only make about eight runs a day at most. Because of this, most of the shots in the race were done on the first take.

Marton said Boyd and Heston really did all their own driving, although for the scene where Judah's chariot flips over a crashed one, Canutt's son Joe was brought in. Driving toward the wreck at great speed, the younger Canutt could not hear his father screaming "Too fast! Too Fast!" The chariot easily sailed over the wreckage but bounced hard when it came down, flipping Joe over the front and between the two horses. Luckily, he had instinctively grabbed the cross-bar on the chariot to keep from falling out and under the horses' hooves, but he was still dragged for some feet. He was rushed to emergency care but suffered only a cut on his chin requiring four stitches. Marton called it the most spectacular stunt he had ever seen.

The shot where Messala's body is dragged behind and under his own chariot was tried first with a dummy, but it looked bad. Boyd was protected with some steel pads and did it himself.

During a shot of chariots swinging around the large curve, two of the vehicles smashed into the cameras, which were fortunately protected by a wooden barricade. Nevertheless, production was held up for small repairs and testing on the cameras. No cast, crew or horses were badly injured in the mishap.

Marton later said that, to his knowledge, never before in one motion picture were there so many short cuts in a sequence of only 11 minutes duration, many of which were reduced to only a foot or more of film.

Wyler kept up a 16-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week schedule for the nine months it took to shoot Ben-Hur.

Heston said Wyler was not reluctant to change his mind about an approach to a scene or character, resulting in frequently conflicting direction. He also noted in his diary: "I doubt [Wyler] likes actors very much. He doesn't empathize with them––they irritate him on the set. He gets very impatient, but invariably they come off well. The only answer I have is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it." Heston made a big blunder early on by composing a lengthy "Selznick-type memo" outlining his ideas about his character in the first scene with Messala. He later noted that it took him considerable time to get back in Wyler's good graces after doing that and may have had something to do with the rough time the director gave him during production. He also wrote that Wyler once told him he wished he (Wyler) could be a nice guy on the set but that "you can't make a good picture that way."

Heston noted favorably that Wyler, who had no experience with such a large-scale movie, was "no more awed by a $10-million-plus production than he is by a $3-million one."

Fry remained on the set throughout the production of Ben-Hur ("to the profit of the picture and the eventual chagrin of Vidal," Heston wrote), making script changes where necessary. And changes were still needed in the tone of the dialogue to avoid what Wyler thought would sound like everyday American vernacular rather than the classic literary tone he wanted. For instance, when Cathy O'Donnell, as Judah's sister Tirzah, uttered the line "Dinner is ready," Martha Scott, as mother Miriam, remarked, "That sounds like Andy Hardy."

Wyler decided he wanted blue-eyed Stephen Boyd to have a contrasting look to the equally blue-eyed Heston. So he was fitted with dark-colored contact lenses. Over the course of shooting, they began to hurt him terribly, forcing a rescheduling of scenes so he could rest his eyes.

One of the problems Wyler and director of photography Robert Surtees encountered was composing shots for the wide-screen process. They had to figure out how to avoid empty screen space, wanting neither to film two actors in a vast screen void nor fill the frame with pointless, distracting elements.

Lighting scenes for the camera that had to be used for the larger format (then called Metro 65, later known as the Panavision process) also proved complicated. Light couldn't be brought in too close to the action since the camera was very sensitive to it, so scaffolding had to be built to place the lights farther away. Nevertheless, the combination of "blazing sun, blazing reflectors, equally blazing 10-K spots," according to Heston, made acting very difficult.

The 65mm cameras were also extremely heavy; it took four men with steel bars to move them, so Wyler ended up using a crane most of the time.

By summer, costs had already ballooned to $10 million, nearly 50% higher than the original budget. Joseph Vogel, president of Loew's, MGM's parent company, came over from New York to say that there was growing concern among the board and stockholders over the picture. He asked Wyler if there was anything he could do to help; the director politely answered "No, thank you," and continued shooting. Vogel left for a five-week European business trip. When he returned to the set, Wyler had returned to pick up the scene he had been shooting on Vogel's last day before his trip, now improved by some new wording from Fry. The nervous company boss wondered if they had been filming the same scene the entire time.

The pace and scope of the production, combined with miserable summer heat, began taking a toll on everyone, although it was never so bad that, as MGM publicity claimed, a 20-bed hospital staffed with two doctors and two nurses was on hand. Veteran General Manager Henry Henigson was forced to take a vacation on Capri, but he returned after four days, too involved with the production to stay away.

The most tragic casualty of the production, however, was 54-year-old producer Sam Zimbalist, who collapsed and died of a heart attack 40 minutes after leaving the set complaining of chest pains.

Less than two weeks after Zimbalist's death, word reached the set that 44-year-old Tyrone Power had suffered a fatal heart attack on location in Spain while filming a dueling scene for the biblical epic Solomon and Sheba (1959). The news shook 35-year-old Heston, who opted to carry Cathy O'Donnell's 90-pound stand-in during a scene they shot that day, rather than the actress herself. (Power was replaced in his movie by Yul Brynner.)

It was estimated that 500 journalists visited the Ben-Hur set during production.

The last shot of the epic movie was filmed on January 7, 1959. It was of Ben-Hur watching Christ's body being taken down from the cross.

By the end of photography, approximately a million and a quarter feet of the expensive 65mm Eastmancolor film had been exposed, and processed at a cost of roughly $1 per foot.

After shooting, the studio ordered the dismantling of all the sets (at a cost of $150,000), partially to sell off whatever could be salvaged and partly to prevent Italian epic producers from using the same materials.

Vogel asked Wyler to stay on through post-production to supervise the cutting, scoring, and release of Ben-Hur, and offered him an additional $100,000.

Oscar®-winning composer Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound, 1945, A Double Life, 1947) labored to create a 110-minute score (excluding the overture), using such devices as fourths, fifths, and inversions to create an archaic, heroic atmosphere, and weaving folk motifs and marches into the narrative.

Wyler's wife said that as soon as photography was done and he and his cast left Rome, he started getting migraines, which lasted until Ben-Hur opened in November 1959.

by Rob Nixon