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Tuesday April 23rd 2024

Ben-Hur | 1959

Biggest, most-expensive... this remake of the 1925 epic, filmed at Rome’s vast Cinecittà Studios, earns the full list of superlatives.

Full-sized galleys were floated on a titanic man-made lake. So who says size isn’t important? The film took a then-record eleven Oscars, and gave birth to a wonderfully entertaining feud between star Charlton Heston and writer Gore Vidal, who claims he added a homosexual subtext to the script, which Heston vigorously denied. Watch the movie and make up your own mind.

The ‘Nazareth’ scenes were filmed in Arcinazzo Romano, northeast of the spa town of Fiuggi, 50 miles east of Rome.

The sea battle, where Judah Ben Hur (Heston) is rescued from slavery after he saves the life of Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) was shot at Nettuno, a coastal town famed for its Medieval town walls, 30 miles south of Rome.

Production notes are notoriously untrustworthy. Contemporary publicity material claims that the oasis, where Ben Hur meets up with Balthasar (the very Scottish Finlay Currie) and Sheik Ilderim (the very Welsh, Oscar-winning, Hugh Griffith) is at Folliano, but I can find no such place in the vicinity of Rome.

The valley of lepers, where Hur’s mother and sister serve out their time, is Latomies di Salone, the ancient tuff (rock formed of consolidated volcanic ash) quarry at Salone, just to the southeast of the junction of Via di Salone and Via delle Case Rosse, alongside the River Aniene and the Autostrada A24, east of Rome.

Then of course, there’s the stupendous chariot race – shot by Second Unit Director Andrew Marton on an 18-acre section of the backlot at Cinecittà. The gigantic race-track, modelled on the Circus of Antioch (in present day Turkey), was filled with 40,000 tons of white sand, imported from Mediterranean beaches.