By Diane Mina Weltman, BMFI Member and Film Fan
The chariot race.
While it is not the only reason that William Wyler's Ben-Hur is a favorite, the chariot race ranks at the top of my list of reasons to see the film on a cinema screen. Nine four-horse chariots race around a Circus Maximus set, the definition of grandeur. In a film laced with trumpet and string orchestration, the actual race sequence has no music. This means the thundering beat of horses hooves, the snap of whips, the grinding of wheels by metal spikes, the roar of the 5,000 extras cheering in the stands fill the senses for nine glorious minutes as Charlton Heston (as Ben-Hur, a Jew) and Stephen Boyd (as Tribune Masalla, a Roman) race for glory and revenge.
In what could be characterized as a showing of uber machismo, the chariot race grabs us by the throat, daring us to ride alongside the stampeding wonder. As I recently listened to Charlton Heston’s commentary about the race (originally taped in 1993), I expected to hear some swagger. After all, he was to become the NRA spokesperson who, in support of his Second Amendment rights, thrust a rifle into the air famously announcing it would have to be removed “from my cold dead hands.”
Heston (who died in 2008) was circumspect, lathering praise for the chariot training he received as well as lauding the work of his stunt double, Joe Canutt. Joe was the 24-year-old son of Yakima Canutt, the film’s stunt supervisor and trainer who went on to work with Heston in El Cid and Khartoum. Heston recalled the elder Canutt telling him to “Just stay in the chariot. I guarantee you’ll win the damn race.”
Heston also debunked three myths that sometimes surface regarding the making of Ben-Hur. The rumors that there was a red Ferrari parked inside the arena, that a stuntman was killed, and that Heston was wearing a wristwatch during the race are all false. His last comment about the race came wistfully; letting the work speak for itself, he said, “Best action scene ever filmed.” While our politics may have differed, I agree 100 percent with his succinct review.
Ben-Hur blends pageantry with raw beauty in epic fashion. Filmed in Italy and the US, it is a testament to a pre-computer graphics era. Grand scenes provide wonder. Intimate scenes offer emotion. The 3 hour 27 minute running time serves them up banquet style.
Unlike films such as The Ten Commandments or The Robe in which Christ’s life is central to the story, this film incorporates it peripherally, integrating pieces in a parallel storyline. The face of Christ is never revealed, nor is his voice heard.
The impact of a foreign power occupying another country is a theme in Ben-Hur that resonated in America following World War II. The Roman Empire’s sovereignty over Jerusalem mirrored the groundswell of hate and resentment that the world was still recovering from in the post-war ‘50s. However, it is the film’s personal stories within this larger context—a man and his mother and sister, a man and his childhood friend, a Roman consul and his adopted son—that pierce our emotions and make an ancient story relatable.
I remember watching black and white gladiator movies on UHF in the sixties with my two older brothers. The campy grandiosity was irresistible. It hooked me into the Roman-era style movie. Ben-Hur, with its eleven Academy Awards, elevated the genre to combine storytelling and staging to levels unseen at the time.
No film of its type comes close to the impact of Ben-Hur.
Diane Mina Weltman is a BMFI member who enjoys attending performing and visual arts events and writing about them. Check out her blog, A Subject for Consideration.
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Ben-Hur is showing Tuesday, August 28 at 7:00 pm at Bryn Mawr Film Institute.