On the set of the new Ben-Hur

We saw the 2016 Ben-Hur chariot race.

France 4 repeats Ben-hur, 2016 version, from 9 p.m.

It was in Castel Romano, a suburb of Rome, in the Cinecittà studios. In front of the Cinecittà World amusement park – designed by Dante Ferretti – stands a full-size reconstructed Roman circus. 240 meters long. Not a Pinder circus tent, but the father of all circuses, the ancestor of race tracks. The new turns to its shadow Ben-hur, another adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel and new avatar of the post- neo-peplumGladiator. It is there that Judah Ben-Hur, hero in spite of himself of the Jewish people, will confront during a merciless chariot race his adopted brother Massala passed by the side of the Romans. We are in April 2014 – sorry, we are in 30 and a few years after Jesus Christ on the side of Jerusalem, and the race will start.

“We are Rome”
“It’s going to be authentic, gritty, it’s going to be the biggest chariot race ever filmed”, producer Sean Daniel promises us (the franchise The Mummy) in the shade of a barnum where we do our interviews while waiting to go see the chariot race. “We grab the big story … We come back to the original novel, it’s a story of forgiveness and not of revenge”, he got carried away. To rewrite the script of Keith Clarke (author of the superb Paths of freedom from Peter Weir released in 2010), Sean hired John Ridley, screenwriter for 12 Years a Slave. We could not theorize very far about the fact that the screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave adapts a novel signed by a Confederate general: what matters is that Sean has hired the always friendly Timur Bekmambetov to shoot the new adventures of Ben-Hur. The Russian foldingo is best known for Night watch and the excellent Wanted with James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie as super-assassins. “At first I said no, because it seemed crazy and dangerous to me”said Timur. “And then I told myself that I wanted to make a contemporary film that talks about us. We are Rome.” Above all, it was the prospect of shooting the chariot race sequence that connected Timur to the project, he who loves nothing as much as canning completely barred action sequences (remember -or not- the race / fight in the middle of the herd of cows in Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter).

“It looks like Apocalypto”
The challenge is daunting: to measure yourself against the legendary 1959 Ben-Hur racing sequence with Charlton Heston, a spectacular masterpiece that had required six weeks of preparation. The comparison will be inevitable, but Timur is comfortable. “The scene is going to be crazy, completely furious. To cut it out I did a real demo by mounting videos of Formula 1 races which rush towards the cameras and explode them, with the audience howling …” Dressed in black and purple Roman officer’s armor as befits the bad guy Massala, Toby Kebbell (Planet of the Apes: The Confrontation) compare the new Ben-Hur to a Mel Gibson: “It looks like Apocalypto in terms of atmosphere, feeling.” Jack Huston (Boardwalk empire), who plays Judah Ben-Hur, orders us to review the Wyler: “everyone should see the Wyler right away. Here, it’s very, very different, we’re coming back to the novel …” The watchword went well, but the public of 2016 is unlikely to make the link between Ben-hur and a novel – some bestselling – published in 1880. We are more likely to compare the 2016 film with 300, which has become the peplum standard today. But Ben-Hur does not see playing the card of historical fantasy like the Zack Snyder: “we wanted a general look more contemporary, more realistic. No fantasy, not a fairy tale”, says designer costume Varvara Avdyushko. “For the legionaries we were inspired by the look of today’s special forces with their massive and over-equipped side.” And also, “there are more” multiethnic “actors here than in 1959”, Ayelet Zurer, Superman’s mother notes in Man of Steel who plays Ben-Hur’s mom here. Sean insists that Jesus – who will appear at the end of the film – is played by the Brazilian Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxès in 300 and its continuation), and “it doesn’t look like paintings in churches”. That’s already it, but Ben-Hur remains played by a native of Norfolk and Massala by a guy from Yorkshire – and this despite the fact that Sean insists that “It is not a star film, the two actors are on an equal footing, little known to the general public.” Ridley Scott’s excuse for whitewashingExodus: Gods and Kings was the impossibility of financing a big historical film without star. The horizon of Ben-hur of 2016 remains large-scale entertainment.

Rodrigo Santoro: “I was told that I had the qualities to play Jesus”

Start your engines
We climb in the stands about thirty meters high: the Hebrew extras crushed by the sun protect themselves with small umbrellas. A makeup artist goes with sunscreen. In post-production, the circus will be backed by a cliff to be even more spectacular. The circus is already 240 meters long, barely less than the Parc des princes: “the distance has been calculated so that the horses reach a sufficiently exciting speed”, explains production designer Naomi Shohan. “To create the decorations, we used the ruins of Pompeii, which are super well preserved and reflect well the Greek influence of the constructions”. Downstairs, Jack Ben-Hur and Toby Massala prepare in their tanks, which are both attached to a single truck carrying two cameras. While another truck with a crane camera for wide shots drags chains to erase its tire tracks on the sand of the circus, a quad passes, pulling a machine designed to print hoofprints and thus make the track more realistic. At the signal, the extras put away their umbrellas. Roman legionaries are planted everywhere in the decor. Some start hitting drums. Under the blazing Lazio sun, it’s damn impressive. It turns. The truck leaves and does circus tricks – with each passage in front of the extras they stand up and shout while Ben-Hur and Massala fight wheel against wheel, like Hunt / Lauda antiques. From above, the vision is magnificent and you can see the hills of Rome, thirteen kilometers away (yes, it’s oddly precise but it’s true).

Formula Unus
The comparison with F1 races is completely assumed by the technical team. By visiting the garage, we see that each chariot has its style: that of Ben-Hur has the star of David, that of Massala in the shape of a warrior eagle, the chariot of an African warrior is hung with (false ) animal skins. Hernan Ortiz, master of the horses in the film, even brought with him one of the chariots he used in Gladiator (during the scene of the reconstruction of the battle of Zama in the Colosseum) to bring good luck. The wheels of the tanks are very small compared to the image that one makes of it, but it is a question of speed and maneuverability here. “You should see the galley we built for the naval battle”, enthuses Naomi. “Twenty meters long, it can turn on itself …” The rest of the ships will obviously be digital. “The production did not want me to build seven full-size galleys to hit them”laughs Jim Rygiel, head of visual effects. From the top of the pulpboard circus, decidedly impressive, breathing a bit of the epic air of the cinoche at a big show, we regret it quite a bit because we tell ourselves that they would have been able to. A year later, we see the very first teaser of Ben-hur and the chariot race holds only a small place and promises additional twists (fortunately) like a mad horse galloping in the stands or the fall of Judah in the sand, dragged by its machine. The film seems to resemble the bastard son of Gladiator (the general look) and 300 (shots in subjective camera), which is not to displease us …

Ben-Hur Trailer:

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