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 Post subject: Re: The Chariot race in Ben-Hur
PostPosted: Sat Jul 21, 2012 4:38 am 
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Prince Judah
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Hat's off to Joe, and now it is our Chuck's turn. Let's see what happened.

Joe Canutt, against all odds, was alive and well, but the shot itself was a dead loss, and after seeing his son go halfway to glory and back again, Yakima Canutt was in no mood to try it again. But according to Heston, at the screening of the dailies the normally detached William Wyler nearly choked when he saw the shot. "Jee-zuss!" he cried. "We have to use that!"

Yakima Canutt balked. "Don't see how y' gonna do that. I promised Chuck he'd win this race. I don't believe he can catch that team on foot."

But Wyler knew just how to salvage the shot. Neither Yak nor Chuck was crazy about the idea but they did it:

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With the chariot running at full speed, Chuck faked the end of Joe Canutt's tumble by clinging to the front of the chariot...

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...then, "in about three blinks of an eye", he clambered back in place and seized the reins once again. "It's a scary shot," Heston wrote. No doubt those three eye-blinks taught him a new admiration for Joe Canutt, if any new respect were needed. (UPDATE: Wyler biographer Jan Herman gives a different account of how this solution was arrived at, but I'm going with Chuck, who actually did it with his own body , mind and dedication.)

Now let's go back to the Alhambra Theatre in September 1960. Judah Ben-Hur's flying header out of that chariot got a reaction from those 2,500 patrons unlike anything people have ever heard in a movie theater -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Men bellowed. Ladies screamed. Not a soul in the house could believe we saw what we were seeing. And again, remember that 80-foot screen. This wasn't an image captured in a few thousand pixels on an HDTV. It was MGM Camera65, projected on a screen that looked like it covered two acres. When Joe Canutt's body went sailing into the air, you had to move your head to follow it.

And when Chuck climbed back into that chariot and gathered up the reins to race on, the joyful roar from that audience all but drowned out the Alhambra's seven-channel sound system. They cheered, they stomped, they whistled, they bounced in their seats shouting "Go! Go! Go!"

By finding a way to salvage Joe Canutt's stunt-gone-wrong, William Wyler gave Ben-Hur something nobody knew it was missing -- probably not even Wyler himself. He gave it a moment -- a split-second, a heartbeat-and-a-half -- when it actually looked like Judah Ben-Hur might not win the race after all. Tristan Bernard once said, "Audiences want to be surprised, but by something they expect." Joe Canutt (by accident) and William Wyler (by design) created a moment that achieved the near-impossible: it made Judah Ben-Hur winning the chariot race -- which everybody expected -- a genuine surprise.

For all the New York Times's puffing about engrossing human drama, or Time Magazine's mooning over lines of quiet poetry, I say Ben-Hur (1959) really pretty much boils down to the chariot race -- and the chariot race boils down to that somersault Joe Canutt took on a miscalculated stunt. Don't get me wrong, the whole race is brilliantly staged, shot and edited, but that moment makes it an emotional as well as a visceral experience. At that point, the chariot race still has nearly three minutes to run, and the picture itself nearly 50. But that's the emotional climax of the race, and of the whole movie.

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 Post subject: Re: The Chariot race in Ben-Hur
PostPosted: Sat Jul 21, 2012 2:33 pm 
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Damned Dirty Admin
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Thanks for the great read, Judah.

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 Post subject: Re: The Chariot race in Ben-Hur
PostPosted: Fri Apr 26, 2013 3:33 pm 
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Joined: Mon Aug 08, 2011 9:50 am
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Some impassioned words about the chariot race, and some details about screening and camera, which many of us don't know, I hope. Some wonderful stills are given at http://coolercinema.blogspot.in/2008_04_01_archive.html

"Ben-Hur placed 72nd in the American Film Institute’s inaugural “100 Years…100 Movies” rankings in 1998 and fell to 100th for the 10th Anniversary re-ranking. Regardless of the results of such quasi-scientific analysis, it’s a tremendous film certainly, though at 212 minutes it has plenty of time for imperfection.

What is flawless, however, is the legendary chariot race sequence, which I believe still stands as the most remarkable achievement in cinema history. The statistics alone are impressive: an 18-acre set, thousands of extras, plus horses and stunt men and urban legends, oh my! One shudders to imagine how the same sequence would be achieved today in the digital effects era. The set would be CGI, as would be the crowd, the horses, the chariots and sometimes even the actors. Not to mention that you can bet your bottom dollar that screenwriters would find a way to work in some play-by-play commentary. Yet I challenge you to watch Ben-Hur and tell me how digital effects could enhance the existing product.

Tremendously edited, using a wide array of camera angles, the chariot race captures the enormity of its arena without losing the intimacy of Judah’s duel with Messala (Stephen Boyd). And here is where Heston’s work ethic comes in, because while stuntman Joe Canutt stood in for the actor for several portions of the race (including the famous flip over the front of the chariot), that’s Heston doing most of the riding. Heston’s athleticism in the chariot enabled Andrew Marton (credited with directing the sequence, though the film’s director was William Wyler) to get close enough to Judah to capture Heston’s expressions while still picking up the genuine racing action unfolding around him in the picture’s super-wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio."

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 Post subject: Re: The Chariot race in Ben-Hur
PostPosted: Wed Oct 23, 2013 4:47 pm 
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El Cid
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Location: Lincoln, England
I never noticed that camera before, and I have seen BEN-HUR over 40 times in two different countries.


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