Ben-Hur director Timur Bekmambetov compares the legend of a Jewish prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted Roman brother to Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet “and any story written by Chekhov.”
Ripe with betrayal, revenge and redemption but shaded with love and compassion, Bekmambetov says the story of Ben-Hur is “timeless.”
“The conflicts the characters experience are as relatable today as they were in Roman times or 1880, when Lew Wallace wrote the novel. It’s human nature and that doesn’t change,” says producer Sean Daniel.
The human story is the engine that propels the Ben-Hur narrative, but throughout film history it’s the tale’s chariot race that entertains the eye. In version after version the showdown between the hero and his duplicitous brother is the centerpiece of the action.
This weekend Bekmambetov’s big-budget version of the story stars Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur and yes, there is a chariot race. “It was very, very dangerous work,” the director says of the scene that took 45 days to shoot and featured 90 trained horses. Each chariot was attached to four horses and could reach speeds of 65 to 70 km/h.
“There’s no suspension,” says Bekmambetov. “It’s shaky, it’s vibrating. The horses are snorting around you, behind you. It’s absolutely unprotected. You feel like you’re in the hands of fate.”
No animals were harmed during the shooting of Bekmambetov’s chariot race and, remarkably, the only human injury was a broken arm. Historically, however, shooting the chariot scenes has been fraught with problems.
Toronto-born director Sidney Olcott’s 1907 silent version focused on the race. Shot on a beach in New Jersey with local firemen as the charioteers and firehouse horses pulling the chariots, the scene was lifted directly from the novel, which triggered the first major copyright infringement case in movie history. It wasn’t standard practice to ask the author’s permission before adapting their work, but after Ben-Hur the Supreme Court decreed film companies must obtain rights to previously published work.
According to an MGM memo 1925’s Ben-Hur A Tale of the Christ’s chariot sequence took 42 cameras and two months to shoot at a cost of $500,000. The result was 60,960 metres of film which was whittled down to 228.6 metres. The completed sequence was named the Most Edited Scene of all Time by The Guinness Book of World Records and was copied, almost shot-for-shot in the animated film The Prince of Egypt and in the pod race scene from Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
The spectacular scene featured thousands of extras, including William Wyler, who would go on to direct the most famous version of the story, the 1959 movie starring Charlton Heston.
Legend has it that a stuntman was killed during the shooting of the Wyler’s legendary sequence but according to Snopes.com the rumour is false. In fact it was 1925 shoot that claimed the life of a stuntman who was killed when his chariot wheel broke and he was thrown in the air.
On Wyler’s set a stuntman was injured when his chariot overturned and two other horse drawn carts crashed into a bank of cameras but no one was hurt. Later, when Heston, who did most of his own driving in the scene, was asked if he liked shooting the scene he said, “I didn’t enjoy any of it. It was hard work.”