Monday 25 March 2019

Film... 'Ben Hur': The epic that broke the mould

Biblical epic: Charlton Heston in Ben Hur
Biblical epic: Charlton Heston in Ben Hur
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Though it may come as mixed news to some, Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov is currently in Rome shooting a remake of Ben-Hur. His production, which stars Jack Huston as the irrepressible Israelite, will use the latest CGI effects to retell the Biblical epic for a modern audience, and is due out early next year. But Mr Bekmambetov's shoot suffered a major setback last week when the Italian government banned him from filming in the Circus Maximus.

The 2,000-year-old historical site featured prominently in the classic 1958 version starring Charlton Heston, and has been used relatively recently for concerts by the likes of Lady Gaga and The Rolling Stones. But the Stones' gig there last year caused a major row: the billionaire rockers paid just €8,000 to use the site, and the Italian culture ministry was apparently horrified by the sight of 65,000 music fans tramping all over the site of an ancient Roman racing track.

Archaeological experts argue that the influx of heavy filming vehicles and hundreds of extras to the arena could cause untold damage, and so the ancient gates of the Circus Maximus have been firmly closed to Timur Bekmambetov and friends, who must now content themselves with the sets and sound stages of Rome's famous but faded Cinecitta Studios.

Cinecetta was also used by MGM's 1959 version, but William Wyler's production comes from another era entirely, and was filmed on a now unimaginably grand scale. As Ridley Scott demonstrated in Gladiator, recent advances in computer-generated special effects mean that historical epics can be made using much smaller crews and more modest sets.

A lot of the Roman backdrops in the new Ben-Hur will be created by the effects team, and you'll notice that when we referred to the crucial chariot-racing scenes earlier, Timur Bekmambetov is only talking in terms of hundreds of extras.

In William Wyler's Ben-Hur, a staggering 15,000 extras were used to form the baying mob that watched Judah and Messala race to the death, a truly colossal logistical undertaking. Horses were flown in from Spain and Austria, sand from Mexico, and more than 300 sets were built for the film.

This was film making on a truly epic scale, and involved a production so big it could only be compared to going to war. The effort of making almost killed William Wyler, did kill one of his producers, and helped save a major studio from ruin. But it marked the high point of a Hollywood genre that rapidly declined thereafter.

In fact, in many ways, Ben-Hur was the final, crowning achievement of the old Hollywood, a land of wild excess and dictatorial moguls that would soon be transformed by the arrival of actor-power and 1960s counter-culture. But it is a magnificent film, a vast, sweeping melodrama that Mr Bekmanbetov's remake is, with all due respect, very unlikely to match.

The 1959 movie was itself a remake, however, inspired by a story that had already been filmed twice. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, was written way back in 1880 by Lew Wallace, a former Civil War general. It was a sweeping, sentimental bestseller, that conflated the story of a Jewish prince who's sold into slavery with the rise of Jesus Christ. While unsophisticated, it was a cracking good yarn, and within a decade had inspired a hugely successful play.

With its slave ships and chariot races, Ben-Hur's cinematic potential was obvious, and in 1907, Kalem Studios used Wallace's story as the basis for a lively 15-minute short which concentrated on that epic chariot race. Only trouble is, they didn't ask Lew Wallace's estate for permission first, a common practice among unscrupulous early filmmakers. In a landmark copyright case, the studio was successfully sued, putting manners on film producers thereafter.

MGM's 1925 adaptation did have film rights: a splendidly lavish, big-budget spectacular, it ran for almost two-and-a-half hours and was the most elaborate motion picture of its time. It was also the most expensive, and a troubled shoot in Rome and Hollywood lasted almost two years and blew the budget out to an unprecedented $3.9million.

Horses died and stuntmen risked serious injury in the film's famous chariot-racing scenes, but they helped make the finished film a massive global success. And director Fred Niblo's handling of the chariot races marked a huge leap forward in terms of editing and montage. William Wyler worked as an assistant director on Niblo's film, and so seemed the natural choice when MGM decided to remake their silent classic in widescreen Technicolor.

The project had been knocking around MGM for a couple of years before Wyler got his hands on it: he hated the original script so much that he called in Gore Vidal to rewrite it. He did, but didn't receive a credit, much to Wyler's annoyance, and disputes over the final screenplay's authorship would continue for decades.

Years later, Vidal stirred things up by pointing out the homosexual subtext in Ben-Hur and Messala's relationship, a claim that horrified the ultra-conservative Charlton Heston, who rushed to refute the claims.

Marlon Brando and Rock Hudson had originally been considered for the role of Judah Ben-Hur, but said no. Burt Lancaster, an atheist, turned the role down because he didn't want to promote Christianity. Paul Newman was also approached, but reckoned he didn't have the legs to wear a toga. Bit spindly, apparently.

Meaty mid-westerner Charlton Heston certainly did have the pins, but was initially offered the role of Messala, Ben-Hur's arrogant Roman rival, before screen tests convinced Wyler and producer Sam Zimbalist that he ought to be playing the lead. Sadly, Zimbalist would not live to see the finished film: he died of a heart attack during production.

Advance parties from Ben-Hur's vast crew arrived in Cinecitta Studios in October of 1957 to begin preparing for a truly epic shoot. There was no CGI, and no in-camera trickery apart from a sea battle that was done using model ships in a huge tank in Culver City. Everything else you saw on the screen was real.

Two hundred camels and 2,500 horses were purchased for the shoot: a workshop of 200 artists and craftsmen worked night and day turning more than a million pounds of plaster into fake Roman friezes and statues; and on the outskirts of Rome, huge sets sprung up that attracted thousands of tourists.

In the grim economic climate of post-war Italy, the multimillion dollar production presented much-needed opportunities for hard-pressed locals. When the chariot races were being filmed, thousands of extras were used every day, and on June 6, 1958, an angry mob of 3,000 threw stones and rioted after being turned away.

Inside the huge, purpose-built racing arena, actors and stuntmen risked life and limb to make the sequences as thrilling as Fred Niblo's in the 1925 version.

Heston and Northern Irish actor Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, trained hard to handle their horses and 900-pound chariots, and did a lot of the riding themselves. But stuntman Joe Canutt doubled for Heston in the most dangerous scenes, and was nearly killed when he got thrown into the air off a moving chariot. The sequence was captured by cameramen zooming ahead in small cars, and can be seen in the film.

The production was so grandiose that nervous MGM executives flew to Rome every week to check up on Wyler's progress. The finished film cost $15million, making it the most expensive movie ever made to that point. It was a huge gamble for MGM, who were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, but it paid off, because the film grossed more than $140millon worldwide, rescuing the embattled studio.

It ran for years in cinemas here, having been given an unlikely thumbs up by the Vatican and, in CinemaScope on a wide screen, provided an unparalleled cinematic spectacle. But Ben-Hur's massive budget was a warning sign for the future of the epic: they were becoming infeasibly expensive, and after the financial failure of Joesph Mankiewicz's Cleopatra three years later, the genre fell completely out of favour.

It would be revived by Ridley Scott and others in the early 2000s, but for me, CGI crowds and arenas will never be a match for the real thing.

The history of Heston

Younger readers will probably dismiss Charlton Heston, who died in 2008, as a ham actor and reactionary gun enthusiast, but in fairness, there was a good deal more to him than that. Born in Illinois in 1923, he learnt his craft in theatre and television before being cast by Cecil B DeMille as a swaggering ringmaster in his 1952 spectacular The Greatest Show on Earth. Long-faced, lantern-jawed and six-foot-three-inches tall, Heston had the physical presence to hold his own in big productions, and DeMille chose him to play Moses in his 1956 smash The Ten Commandments.

After that, Heston became something of an epic specialist, appearing in Ben-Hur, El Cid, The Agony and The Ecstasy and The Greatest Story Ever Told. Charismatic if a little stiff, he showed some range in Orson Welles' classic 1959 thriller, Touch of Evil, and later starred in several classic sci-fi films like Omega Man and Planet of the Apes. In the 1960s, Charlton Heston was a keen supporter of the Democratic Party and a key figure in the civil rights protests. But later on, he changed his spots, becoming a Reaganite and the vocal leader of the National Rifle Association - a curious volte face for a contradictory man.

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