The filming of Ben-Hur began in 1923 when the Goldwyn studio sent cast and crew to historic locations in Italy. But labor strikes and political tension between Fascist and socialist workers soon led to frustrating delays and spiraling production costs. Filming proceeded sporadically until 1925, when Irving Thalberg suspended the shoot, scrapped most of the footage, and brought the production back to California.
Almost everything had to be reshot, including the enormously complex chariot race sequence. Eight hundred men working in continuous shifts took four months to reconstruct the spectacular Circus Maximus set in Culver City, at what is now the intersection of Venice and La Cienega boulevards. To film the famous race, 42 cameras were placed at every conceivable vantage point to capture the action. Cameras were buried in the ground, suspended from cables, hidden inside statues, and even concealed behind soldiers’ shields. Three separate camera cars were used to capture close-ups of Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, who drove their own chariots.
In 1987, film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, working in conjunction with the Czechoslovakian Film Archive and Turner Entertainment Company, produced the 35mm restoration of Ben-Hur, complete with the original color tints and two-strip Technicolor sequences. Brownlow writes, “It was a great privilege to be able to work on Ben-Hur. Turner had taken good care of their dupe-negative, but the Technicolor sequences had faded to a muddy brown … so we made enquiries and discovered that the Czech Film Archive had all eleven Technicolor sequences in one complete, uncut roll. A shot censored at the time, Christ’s hand on the cross, came from a private collector in Germany. By following the cutting continuity—or post-production script—we were able to restore all the tints to the film, which had been preserved in black and white.”
Presented at SFSFF 1996 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer