Thursday, February 8, 2018




A photo of one of the trireme models, and a still photo showing behind-the-scenes filming of the sea battle -- both from the 1959 motion picture Ben-Hur.

Pre-production on the film began at MGM and Cinecittà (the Italian studio where the film was shot) in October 1957. The script was nowhere close to being done; as many as seven different writers had worked on all or parts of it. Gore Vidal radically revised it beginning in March 1958, and Christopher Fry took over three months later. Fry worked practically until the end of principal photography, scripting the final scene only two days before it was shot.

Principal photography began in Rome on May 18, 1958, even though only about 10 to 12 pages of the script were complete.

The sea battle was one of the first sequences lensed for the film, waaaaaaay waaaaaaay waaaaaay back in November and December 1957. At no time did the script contain any description of or dialogue for the sea battle.

The sequence was filmed in Tank Lot 3 on the backlot of MGM Studios in Culver City, California. The tank was 300 feet wide and 300 feet deep. The water was 12 feet deep, except for the "pits". There were three pits, each 30 feet deep, to allow for ships to sink, whales or subs to burst from below, etc.

More than 40 miniature ships were built. Each "miniature" vessel was 20 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 10 feet tall. It cost $181,515 ($1.58 million in 2018 dollars) to construct the models, and another $260,088 ($2.26 million) to film them. Each miniature had eyelet hooks in the front and back to which cables could be attached, allowing the ships to move foward and backward.

Galley silhouettes were used in some shots. Photos of the miniatures (at the proper angle and distance) were made, and the silhouettes created from these photos. Any time the camera angle shifted (right or left, up or down), a different silhouette had to be created.

10 of the ships where repainted and re-rigged to be pirate vessels. Five days were needed to refurbish each vessel, and then they were shot.

Miniature rubber men were crafted to stand on the decks of the ships. The 11-inch figures had flexible wire armatures, allowing their arms to be moved up or down using rods or overhead wire. Some of these figures were mounted on springs, so they would roll or wobble slightly as the ship moved. Others moved across the deck on motorized pulleys.

For the ramming scene, the cameras were actually floating in the water to drop the viewer right into the action.

The sinking of Quintus Arrius's galley was accomplished by using underwater cables, controlled by off-screen pulleys, to drag the vessel downward into the water. Three separate pulleys (attached to the bottom of one of the deep pits) were needed to complete the effect. One caused the ship to heel over, another caused the stern to sink first, and the last pulled the bow under. Small radio-controlled motors inside the miniature made the oars wave violently as slaves signal for help. Debris and floating miniature men -- attached to an underwater sled pulled across the scene -- sweep past.

Editor John Dunning assembled the miniature work into a rough sequence. Writer Christopher Fry looked at this footage and wrote the interior and above-deck scenes.


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Two 175-foot (53 m) long Roman galleys, each of them seaworthy, were built for the live-action segment. The ships were constructed based on plans found in Italian museums for actual ancient Roman galleys. An artificial lake with equipment capable of generating sea-sized waves was built at the Cinecittà studios to accommodate the galleys. A massive backdrop, 200 feet (61 m) wide by 50 feet (15 m) high, was painted and erected to hide the city and hills in the background.

Third unit director Richard Thorpe was hired on July 17, 1958, at the request of William Wyler to film the above-decks sequences, but a directing commitment back in the United States required him to leave the production with filming still incomplete. Dunning says he directed most of the below-decks scenes, including the sequence in which Quintus Arrius' flagship is rammed.

When the ram pierces Quintus Arrius' ship, two rows of slaves are killed by the ram. These were full-size, highly detailed mannequins made of rubber. The set, built on a gimble, tilted as the ram hit and the water rushed in.

To make the scene bloodier, Dunning sought out Italian extras who had lost limbs in World War II, then had the makeup crews rig them with fake bone and blood to make it appear as if they had lost a hand or leg during the battle.

The above-decks footage was integrated with the miniature work using process shots and traveling mattes.


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MGM turned title to the artificial lake over to Cinecittà. MGM retained control over the artificial lake background, which went back to the United States. The life-size galleys were dismantled to prevent them from being used by competing studios.

The Peter S. Atsaides family, owners of Kibby's Restaurant, purchased the model of the galley in the eaerly 1980s. They donated it to the city of Baltimore. Students in the Vocational Educational Department of the Baltimore public schools assembled a vast amount of photographs and other materials from UA/MGM and through library research. They then repaired, reconstructed, and conserved the miniature under the direction of instructor Algimantas K. Grintalis. The ship was dedicated with a ceremony on April 28, 1986, and stands in the lobby of the Baltimore Convention Center.

There was so much footage of the sea battle left over that Charlton Heston used it in his 1972 film Antony and Cleopatra.

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