The Miracle of Ben-Hur’s Chariot Race

Watching an epic movie being made on the set in Rome

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Posted in , Aug 17, 2016

Jack Huston, Carol Wallace and Rick Hamlin on the set of Ben-Hur. Photo: Andrea DiLorenzo, © 2016 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rick Hamlin and his wife, Carol Wallace, visited the movie set of Ben-Hur last year in Rome. Wallace is the great-great-granddaughter of Lew Wallace, author of the novel published in 1880. She recently published a contemporary version.

The chariot race in the new film of Ben-Hur is really terrific. And the most amazing thing about it is that the leading actors, Jack Huston, who plays Judah Ben-Hur (formerly the Charlton Heston part) and Toby Kebbell who plays his adversary in the race, Massala, did their own driving.

Imagine the challenge of standing in a chariot in costume and driving a team of four trained horses at top speed around a dusty track eight times–and many multiples of that to get the shots necessary for a visually arresting and believable horse race set at the time of Christ.

That’s what so impressive about it. It is intensely believable, probably because it was really happening. My wife, Carol, and I visited the set last year in Italy where they shot the race, and I can tell you the track looked to be just as big as the historic Circus Maximus in Rome.

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As the producers conceded, one of the challenges of filming the chariot race today is that viewers will easily dismiss the close-calls drama as the work of Computer Generated Imagery or CGI, as it’s called. “They just faked it,” people will think.

Quite frankly, I am completely won over by most special effects, but I can tell when actors are faking it, and the excitement of watching the 15-minute long race was feeling the absorption of the actors. By their eye movements, their focus, the turn of their heads, their grip on the reins, you know they’re not on some Hollywood sound stage.

“We tried doing some shots without the horses,” Jack Huston says, where he was evidently pulled around by a truck with cameras rolling. “That didn’t work,” he added. He might have been holding the reins but he didn’t have four horses on the other end galloping at 40 miles an hour.

Both Jack and Toby had worked with horses before, but driving a chariot was something completely new for both of them. One of the challenges is making sure the right horse is in the right position. As Jack pointed out, “On the curves the horse on the inside is going to go a lot slower the one on the outside.” No spoiler alert here, but this is even a plot point in the film.

Watch a Trailer of Ben-Hur

In preparing the shoot, director Timur Bekmambetov watched a lot of YouTube footage of NASCAR races, familiarizing himself with the sort of shots a contemporary audience is used to seeing. I thought of that when in one brief sequence a horse flies off the track and tumbles into the crowd. 

It’s reassuring to know that no horse was injured during the shot. These animals were treated humanely. The one accident that occurred during the shooting was when one of the drivers fell out of his chariot. A team of horses was right behind him and surely could have crushed him.

“But we watched them leap right over him,” said producer Duncan Henderson. “It was a miracle he wasn’t hurt badly.”

A miracle. Not a word that anyone in Hollywood tosses around lightly. The story of Ben-Hur includes several miracles, but for me one of the greatest pleasures of watching it was observing the craft of artists on both sides of the camera. It made me think it takes a miracle to get any story on film.    

This one is well worth seeing. Especially those nail-biting 15 minutes.

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