BEN-HUR (1959) - MGM Production 1724
The classic BEN-HUR (1959) movie epitomizes the craftsmanship of writing, directing, miniatures, and editing coming together. Inspired by David's Model Ships in Cinema Ben-Hur tribute blog, this entry combines the working script, behind the scenes photos, and diagrams from the collection of A. Arnold Gillespie.
Additional diagrams and photos contained in the memoirs of Buddy Gillespie, titled "Wizard of MGM", provide insight into the planning of each shot. This blog touches upon the masterful work by the MGM studio; effects, painting, woodworking, Art Direction, and cameramen.
The Roman fleet initially appear in scene 156 as silhouettes. The larger scale Roman trireme 1/6th scale (2" to the foot) are revealed subsequently, The direction and placement of each radio controlled, cable guided, galley is carefully planned by the Art Director, A. Arnold Gillespie.
Using radio signals, catapults, arrows, oars, and seamen moved on command. Queued just out of frame, spring loaded and battery powered action was initiated.
Arrius's vessal, painted white, leads the fleet. Shot in August of 1957, filming was intermittently delayed due to weather.
Sc. 156 EXT. THE OPEN SEA - DAY
Across the sparkling blue Mediterranean
comes a galley of the Imperial Roman Navy,
a long, narrow fighting ship built for
speed, low-masted, square sailed, its bow
tapering sharply to vicious iron-snouted
The ship approaches swiftly, using both
sail and oars. There are hundred and
twenty oars, sixty to each side, rising and
falling in perfect rhythm.
Scene 156, the introduction of the Roman fleet, and scene 236, as Arrius and Ben Hur raft afloat see a ship on the horizon, were shot on the same day, August 20th, 1957, using profile ships. Note the similar cloud formation painted on the backing of Tank Lot 3. Perhaps the top of the long shot, scene 236, is a matte painting.
Shoreline silhouette was added as the barren shoreline of Judea for Scene 260, also shot on the same day. The background shot was flipped apparently to provide more open sky behind Charlton Heston.
Shooting finished on November 18th, 1957, with a total cost of $441,603. Galleys, profiles, rubber crew and special effects construction totaled $181,515. (See cost sheets posted at the end of this blog).
Sc. 203 FULL SHOT - THE FLEET - DAY
Arrius's galley joins the fleet. The
Conversion Pirate to Roman
Sc. 220x19 CLOSE SHOT - BEN-HUR
A pivotal scene known by the "ramming speed" quote, provides insight into the use of miniatures and background. Shots are frequently re-used as both foreground action and background, combined with live action. Scenes 220 and 231 showcase how proper planning, writing, and flawless execution come together. Camera angle, height and stability are carefully calculated.
through the oar-hole.
220x20 ON - DECK - NEAR FIGHTING TOWER
(Blue Backing and Straight Shots)
The forward section of Arrius's ship is
afire. Pirates have boarded and hand-
to-hand battle rages. Arrius and his
men fight valiantly as some of the
sailors and marines try to quench the
fire with water buckets. The Pirate
galley has withdrawn.
220x21 INT. GALLEY - FULL SHOT
The slaves are frozen with terror.
Suddenly a bloodcurdling SCREAM heard
above the din focuses attention on
We're going to be rammed!
221 CLOSE SHOT - NUMBER FORTY-THREE
He stares through oar-hole.
We're going to be rammed!
Scene 222 B.G. (background) - Each scene is diagrammed, specifying speed of the Roman and Pirate ships, camera lens, and film speed. Ship speeds are carefully planned to approximate full sized ship travel, taking into account film speed.
Art Director's schematics detail placement of the ships in Tank Lot 3. CL (center line) of the tank backing and feet from center are calculated. Every 10' are marked. Romans are identified by "R", Pirates by skull and cross bones. Cameras were floated in the turbine and drum whipped waters to transport the viewer into the scene.
Sc. 210 THE BATTLE BEGINS
Sc. 220X1 MEDIUM LONG SHOT - BATTLE
Sc. 223 FULL SHOT - INT. CABIN
With a rending, grinding crash, the break of
the enemy galley knifes through the hull,
snapping the great oak timbers. Some of the
slaves are crushed by the ram, others are
impaled by the splintered oars. A torrent of
water pours in, swiftly flooding the cabin.
The SHRIEKS of the dying and wounded mingle
with the SCREAMS of rowers who are trying to
the stairs, where they follow the hortator to
The miniatures in the battle scene were not the only rubber men created. Scene 223 introduced two rows of full size rubber slaves, impacted by the ramming Pirate galley. The set, built on a gimbal, tilts as water rushes in.
Sc. 231A,C,D BACKGROUND BATTLE ACTION FOR RAFT
Ben-Hur has added a piece to his make-
shift raft. He looks off to - -
230X2 ARRIUS'S GALLEY
It is ablaze and starting to list.
230X3 CLOSE ON BEN-HUR AND ARRIUS
We see over Ben-Hur and Arrius, the
ship sink slowly into her grave. Arrius
collapses into unconsciousness.
231 EXT. OPEN SEA (BLUE BACKING)
Ben-Hur has hoisted the unconscious
Roman up on a fragment of the deck and
is maneuvering his improvised raft away
from the battle, which can still be
seen in the distance. Laboriously, Ben-
Hur pulls himself up on the raft beside
Sc. 230X4 GALLEY - SHIP SINKING SLOWLY INTO HER GRAVE
Editing the scenes chronologically, the sinking of Arrius's trireme is revealed.