The making of a movie is extremely taxing. After watching a movie for three hours in a theatre we do get the flavour of the movie but not the aches and pains suffered by the team that brings the movie to you.
Benhur is a 1959 American epic historical film directed by William Wyler, produced by Sam Zimbalist, starring Charlton Heston as the title character. It was actually a remake of the 1925 silent film with a similar title. It was adapted from Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Benhur: A Tale of the Christ.
I will not go to the plot of this movie as it a famous one. But yes let me take you through the film production of this great all time movie. Especially, the chariot race. It may not be difficult to film such scenes today because of numerous computer aids available. But way back in 1958 it was one humungous task to accomplish
The budget of Benhur was approximately $132 million. The chariot race in Benhur was directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, both filmmakers The “pageantry sequence” before the race, is a shot-by-shot remake of the same sequence from the 1925 silent film version.
Marton and Canutt wrote 38 pages of script that outlined every aspect of the race, including action, stunts, and camera shots and angles. Producer Sam Zimbalist was deeply involved in the planning and shooting of the chariot sequence, and the construction of the arena.
The chariot arena was modelled on a historic circus in Jerusalem. Covering 18 acres (7.3 ha), it was the largest film set ever built at that time. Constructed at a cost of $1 million, it took a thousand workmen more than a year to carve the oval out of a rock quarry. The racetrack, featured 1,500-foot (460 m) long straightaways and five-story-high grandstands. Over 250 miles (400 km) of metal tubing were used to erect the grandstands. Matte paintings created the illusion of upper stories of the grandstands, and the background mountains. The production crew researched ancient Roman racetracks, but were unable to determine what a historic track surface was like. The crew decided to create their own racecourse surface, one that would be hard enough to support the steel-rimmed chariot wheels but soft enough, to not harm the horses even after hundreds of laps. The construction crew laid down a bed of crushed rock, topped by a layer of ground lava, and finely grounded yellow rock. More than 40,000 short tons (36,000 t) of sand were brought in from beaches in the Mediterranean to cover the track. Other elements of the circus were also historically accurate. Imperial Roman racecourses featured a raised 10 feet (3.0 m) high spina (the center section), metae (columnar goalposts at each end of the spina), dolphin-shaped lap counters, and carceres (the columned building at the rear that housed the cells where horses waited prior to the race). The four statues atop the spina were 30 feet (9.1 m) high. A chariot track identical in size was constructed next to the set and was used to train the horses and lay out camera shots.
Planning for the chariot race took nearly a year to complete. Seventy-eight horses were bought and imported from Yugoslavia and Sicily, the largest Mediterranean island, near Italy in November 1957 that were exercised into peak physical condition, and trained by Hollywood animal handler Glenn Randall to pull the quadriga (the Roman Empire chariot drawn by four horses abreast).
Andalusian horses (pure Spanish horses) played Benhur’s Arabians, while the others in the chariot race were primarily Lipizzans (originating in Lipica in Slovenia). A veterinarian, a harness maker, and 20 stable boys were employed to care for the horses and ensure they were outfitted for racing each day. When a blacksmith for making horseshoes could not be found, an 18-year-old Italian boy was trained in the art of blacksmithing in order to do so. The firm of Danesi Brothers in Rome built 18 chariots, each weighing 900 pounds (410 kg). Out of that nine were practice chariots. Principal cast members, stand-ins, and stunt people made 100 practice laps of the arena in preparation for shooting. Because the chariot race was considered so dangerous, a 20-bed infirmary, staffed by two doctors and two nurses was also built next to the set to care for anyone injured during shooting.
Actors Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd both had to learn how to drive a chariot. Heston, an experienced horseman, took daily a three-hour lesson in chariot driving after he arrived in Rome and picked up the skill quickly. (He also learned sword fighting, how to throw a javelin, camel riding, and rowing). Heston was outfitted with special contact lenses to prevent the grit kicked up during the race from injuring his eyes. Stephen Boyd, however, needed four weeks of training to feel comfortable (but not an expert) at driving the quadriga. For the other charioteers, six actors with extensive experience with horses were flown in from Hollywood. Local actors also portrayed as charioteers. Among them were Giuseppe Tosi, who had once been the bodyguard for Victor Emmanuel III of Italy.
The original shoot production schedule, called for the chariot race to be shot in the spring season, when the weather was cooler for the horses and when Wyler would not be placing heavy demands on Heston and Boyd’s time. But sadly, the arena surface was not ready; the arena set was not finished, and the horses had not finished their training. Shooting of the chariot sequence began on the same day as the principal photography (Principal photography is the phase of film production in which the bulk of the movie is filmed). So, for various reasons once again the filming was delayed. The racecourse surface provided was so soft that it slowed the horses down and a day of shooting was lost as the yellow rock and all but 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) of crushed lava was removed.
Marton and Canutt filmed the entire, chariot sequence, with stunt doubles in long shot, edited the footage together, and showed the footage to Zimbalist, Wyler, and Heston to show them what the race should look like and to indicate where close-up shots with Heston and Boyd should go. Seven thousand extras were hired to cheer in the stands. Economic conditions in Italy were poor at the time, and as shooting for the chariot scene wound down, only 1,500 extras were needed on any given day. On June 6, more than 3,000 people seeking work were turned away. The crowd rioted, throwing stones and assaulting the set’s gates until police arrived and dispersed them. Dynamite charges were used to show the chariot wheels and axles splintering from the effects of Messala’s barbed-wheel attacks. Three lifelike dummies were placed at key points in the race to give the appearance of men being run over by chariots.
The cameras used during the chariot race also presented problems. The 70mm lenses had a minimum focal length of 50 feet (15 m), and the camera was mounted on a small Italian-made car so the camera crew could keep in front of the chariots. The horses, however, accelerated down the 1,500-foot (460 m) straightaway much faster than the car could, and the long focal length left Marton and Canutt with too little time to get their shots. The production company purchased a more powerful American car, but the horses still proved too fast. Even with a head start, the larger American car could give the filmmakers only a few more seconds of shot time. Since the horses had to be running at top speed for the best visual impact, Marton chose to film the chariot race with a smaller lens, with a much shorter, minimum focal length. He also decided that the car should stay only a few feet ahead of the horses. This was highly dangerous, for if the car did not make its turns or slowed down, a deadly crash with the horses could occur. The changes, however, solved the problems the camera crew was encountering. As filming progressed, vast amounts of footage were shot for this sequence. The ratio of footage (raw unedited material) shot to footage used was 263:1, one of the highest ratios ever for a film.
John Dunning and Ralph E. Winters edited the footage of the chariot sequence. The two editors decided that, once the race was under way, one of the charioteers should be killed immediately to demonstrate to the audience that the race was a deadly one. Inserts of the sharp barbs on the hub of Messala’s chariot were inserted repeatedly throughout the sequence to make it obvious that his chariot was highly dangerous. As the footage was shot, it was edited by Ralph Winters. If the footage was poor, the stunts didn’t come off on the camera well, and if the coverage was lacking, then more footage had to be shot. So, with all these uncertainties at the end of three months, Dunning says, ‘Winters had so much footage in hand that he asked Dunning to come to Rome to help him edit together the final sequence.’
One of the most notable moments in the race came from a near-fatal accident. Joe Canutt, Yakima Canutt’s son, did Heston’s most dangerous stunts during the sequence. When Judah Benhur’s chariot jumps over the wreckage of a chariot in its path, Benhur is almost thrown out of his chariot. He hangs on and climbs back aboard to continue the race. While the jump was planned (the horses were trained to leap over the wreckage, and a telephone pole had been half-buried in the earth to force the chariot to jump into the air), stunt man Joe Canutt was tossed into the air by accident; he incurred a minor chin injury. Marton wanted to keep the shot, but Zimbalist felt the footage was unusable. Marton conceived the idea of showing that Benhur was able to land on and cling to the front of his chariot, then scramble back into the quadriga while the horses kept going. The long shot of Canutt’s accident was cut together with a close-up of Heston climbing back aboard constitutes one of the race’s most memorable moments. Stephen Boyd did all but two of his own stunts. For the sequence where Messala is dragged beneath a chariot’s horses and trampled to near death, Boyd wore steel armour under his costume and acted out the close-up shot on his back, attempting to climb up into the horses’ harness to escape injury. A dummy was used to obtain the trampling shot in this sequence.
In all, the chariot scene took five weeks (spread over three months) to film at a total cost of $1 million and required more than 200 miles (320 km) of racing to complete. Two of the $100,000 70mm lenses were destroyed during the filming of the close-up shots. Once the “pageantry” and victory parade sequences of the race were finished, Wyler did not visit the chariot race set, again. Yet according to Zimbalist, Wyler said “it’s one of the greatest cinematic achievements” he had ever seen. Wyler did not see the final cut of the chariot race until the press screening of Ben-Hur.
A total of 1,100,000 feet (340,000 m) was shot for the film. According to editor John D Dunning, the first cut of the film was four and a half hours long. William Wyler stated that his goal was to bring the running time down to three and a half hours. The most difficult editing decisions, according to Dunning, came during scenes which involved Jesus Christ, as these contained almost no dialogue and most of the footage was purely reaction shots by actors. When the film was edited into its final form, it ran 213 minutes and included just 19,000 feet (5,800 m) of film. It was the third-longest motion picture ever made at the time, behind Gone With The Wind and The Ten Commandments.
We often belittle a movie that we don’t like. Henceforth before doing that think of the hard work that has gone to make that film.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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