Ben-Hur: the greatest sports scene in Hollywood history
Late Christmas afternoon, I flipped some channels and stumbled upon “Ben-Hur,” about halfway through its three-hour run. So I watched the rest of it.
And this time, I studied the chariot race scene. It’s the greatest sports scene in Hollywood history, and frankly, nothing else is really close, with the possible exception of the fight scenes from “Raging Bull.”
The chariot race is eight minutes long, an eternity for a movie, and its preamble is about eight minutes. Cameras alternate from wide shots to close-ins, and the up-close takes are herky-jerky, making you feel like you’re riding in the race.
Best of all, there is no music. Hollywood relies on music to tell you how to feel about most scenes. Not this one. The only music comes from the thunder of the horse’s hooves. Two or three racers are trampled by the chariots, a remarkably graphic scene for 1959.
Spectators flood the track after Judah Ben-Hur wins the race, looking like Yankee Stadium circa 1977. It’s really something.
The scene took three months to complete and five weeks to film. It used 8,000 extras and was shot on the largest film set ever constructed, 18 acres. Eighteen chariots were used; half for practice.
No detail is too little for William Wyler’s masterpiece. The nine laps are counted down by golden dolphins, which are tipped over to signify a lap completed, same as was used in the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous movie scene, and it’s 100 percent sport, even if it was set 2,000 years ago.
ESPN put together a list several years ago of the best sports scenes since 1979. Here are the top five:
1. “The Natural”: Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) hits the pennant-winning home run into the lights. It’s a great movie scene. It’s not a great sports scene. Baseball players do not hit home runs off the lights, and if they did, it would break the bulb, not short-circuit the electrical system, causing a fireworks show.
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