Like many epics, literary and cinematic, Ben-Hur is grand in scope and long. We all know that there is no such thing as a short and simple epic, but in Ben-Hur, Judah seems to not only travel the Roman world in grand (and sometimes, not so grand) style but has absolutely gigantic grudges and emotions. Ben-Hur was based on a wildly popular turn of the century novel of the same name. The late 19th century public was enthralled by Lew Wallace's tale of a wronged Jew seeking revenge in the Roman world, all while living his life parallel to the life of his contemporary, Christ. The story's true climax is when Judah recognizes Jesus during the Crucifixion and believes in him, but I think most film lovers will agree that the true climax is that chariot race.
Compare the '25 circus set (filmed in the US) to the '59 set (filmed in Italy)
The 1925 does have large statues, but they are clearly much different.
After all, the Ben-Hur chariot race has been in the minds of movie audiences since almost the birth of the medium (or at least the modern medium). And it is not because movie audiences are familiar with the Lew Wallace canon. You probably know this, but in 1925, the newly formed studio conglomerate released Ben-Hur, a major film epic that had a long and costly production history. Though its production had been plagued with problems, the film was a great success and inspired filmmakers and especially epic-makers for years. And most impressive, was the chariot scene. It is action-packed, wild, dramatic, giant... everything an epic should be. But, at least for that epic, it had better be, because it was one of the most dangerous and costly scenes in movie history: scores of horses were injured and killed and some rumor that even a stuntman faced his death in the spotlight.
|An opening view of the Jerusalem Circus|
a clever combination of set design and movie magic.
|The statues are clearly visible in most scenes, if only in the background|
I think any audience will recognize those huge statues that stand in the middle of the arena. That separator, by the way, was something that was actually used by the Romans in their chariot arenas (circuses), embellishments and all. Its official name, if you are ever asked on Jeopardy, is the spina, a Latin word that (as I'm sure you can guess) translates into spine. But what is with those statues? From my research, I've found classical statues, obelisks, and even colonnades decorating the spina, but never four giant bronzish statues of men.
I think, therefore, that they were constructed for the film to impress. Because, they truly are impressive, even scary, with their big brutish features. They add great gravitas to the race, with their stern expression and their giant proportions. I'm unable to find too many details about these statues: who designed them, built them, etc. I assume that some Italian or American props man will never go down in history for his work- but he probably should.
Now a great mystery for me is that today in Rome, one such statues still sits on the Cinecitta lot. Holding a grand torch with the studio's name on it, its a magnificent reminder of Cinecitta's long and illustrious history in American and Italian cinema. But here's the problem. I've checked the stills every which way and I can't find a torch-bearing statue on that spina. From what I can tell, they are all holding some sort of stick or something on their shoulder, none are holding anything up in the air. Yet the current statue is clearly of the same design and style of the Ben-Hur statues. Same color. Same posture. Everything. So, faithful readers, we clearly have a 1958-59 era statue sitting in Rome to this day but it doesn't seem to have been in the film itself though it is a relic of the time. Is it simply an extra built for the film or even the studio as a sort of Statue of Liberty-esque welcome to the Roman studio? Was it reconstructed from an original statue for this purpose? Perhaps it will simply be one of the great mysteries of film production history, but if you can help, I beg you to let me know!