Saturday, April 12, 2014

Arena Sculptures in "Ben-Hur"

I know I mentioned this last year, but there is just something about the Easter season that makes me think of those classic "sword and sand" Hollywood epics of the '50s and '60s. Obviously, they are visual splendors with a (usually) mildly stirring inspirational stories. While the content for many of the classic "sword and sand" epics is religious in nature, you don't have to be a religious nut to enjoy the glorious visual spectacle that plays out on screen. And no film is more glorious, more spectacular, than one of the top-grossing religious epics of all times: William Wyler's grand biblical epic, Ben-Hur (1959). Ben-Hur's highly Christian themes make it a very popular film for cable television around Easter when the Christian world is (or at least should be) feeling their most devout.
Ben-Hur has become one of the classic films that simply is synonymous for all classic epic films. People who couldn't tell you Charlton Heston from Charleston, SC would probably be at least basically familiar with the film or at least its name. Or maybe even the movie's famous chariot scene. After all, it is one of the film's most climactic action scenes and one of the most technically challenging and impressive action scenes in all movies. That scene, with its beautiful wide shots of the horses and chariots and arena, is awe-inspiring to this day. I'm going to return to the chariot race scene in a moment, but first I want to talk about the film in general.

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.
Ben-Hur (1925)
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.
 When William Wyler directed the 1959 film, he consciously copied some scenes from the original film but obviously embellished them with the techniques that were unavailable in the '29 film (in which he was an extra). I've compared the two chariot scenes, and I have to be honest- maybe its just my love of color in epics, but I much prefer the '59 version. It is just bigger, badder, and better. And one of the reasons that I think it is better is because the arena (the Jerusalem Hippodrome) is much grander and more magnificent. It makes that wonderful chariot parade scene in the beginning so much more impressive to watch when the setting it is conducted in is much better. Of course, much of it is simply movie magic, but much more is simply impressive production design.
Much of Ben-Hur was filmed on the legendary Cinecitta (literally "film city") back-lots in Rome. Dozens of acres were used in the construction of cities, towns, and yes... that arena. And much of the arena was actually built, though other parts (especially the grandstands) were "constructed" out of mattes. But other parts are just evidence of good, old fashioned prop work. Which finally gets me to the point of my post: those great statues. (I was just copying an epic-style form of story telling- giving you way too much backstory).
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!

6 comments:

  1. I agree with you. The statue that is being stored in the compound at the rear of the Cinecitte studios in Lanzio is NOT one of the statue's that was in the centre of the chariot race arena. Unless there is a fourth that is partly hidden, which I have failed to discover over the last 5 years of trying to find out. I requested some years ago If I could visit the studio's and was in contact by email with Catherine Lowing who works at the studio, I requested to see the statue for myself, being a manic of seeing the film Ben-Hur at least 2 dozen times I should think. Do you know that Messal's helmet was stolen by an extra dressed as an arab at the end of the race ? The extra is seen raising the helmet in excitement and running away with it. Let me know if you would like to visit the studio and see the statue and I'd willingly accompany you.

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    1. It is intriguing stuff. I'd love to visit Cinecitta when I visit Rome next winter. I'll have to let you know what I manage to find out!

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  2. I've always been in awe of those statutes...very impressive, and wondered who made/whatever happened to them. I agree-whoever made them should have been given credit. Perhaps one day we'll find out, hopefully. Thanks for your insight.

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  3. I happen to know that the great master scenic artist, Sante Barelli, who went uncredited, by his own choice, in ALL of the Fellini films, and he worked on every one, built and probably designed the two giant statues in Ben Hur. He told me this himself when we worked together in the 1978 film, "Bye Bye Monkey".

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  4. I happen to know that the great master scenic artist, Sante Barelli, who went uncredited, by his own choice, in ALL of the Fellini films, and he worked on every one, built and probably designed the two giant statues in Ben Hur. He told me this himself when we worked together in the 1978 film, "Bye Bye Monkey".

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  5. I love those statues-they added fierceness to the race. I also always wondered who designed, then what happened to them. thank you Unknown and Monty Diamond for your answers.

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