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William Wyler is the director of the 1959 award-winning version of Ben-Hur. The film is an adaptation of General Lew Wallace’s novel. Karl Tunberg is credited with the actual screenplay. Sam Zimbalist was the original producer of Ben-Hur, but he died before the completion of filming. The two main characters are Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd). Another important person involved in this film is Miklos Rozsa. He composed the award-winning musical score in a total of eight weeks.
Ben-Hur was released in New York City on November 18, 1959, and in Los Angeles on November 24, 1959. It was re-released in the USA in 1969. This film has grossed $70 million in the United States alone. As for location, this film was shot in entirely in Italy. Ben-Hur is one of two films to win eleven Academy Awards, the other movie being Titanic. The awards include best leading and supporting actors, best cinematography, best director, best music, best sound, and more.
This film has some interesting behind the scenes trivia, most of which is in connection to the stadium or the chariot racing. According to The Internet Movie Database the design of the stadium was a controversy. “MGM asked an archaeologist what the stadium in Jerusalem had looked like. ‘Roman,’ came the reply. A second archaeologist was asked. ‘It was in a Phoenician style,’ he said. A third archaeologist was consulted, who said: ‘Stadium? I was not aware that Jerusalem had one!’ MGM engineers eventually sat down and carefully studied Ben-Hur (1926), and based their design on that.” Another intriguing fact is during the chariot race Charlton Heston’s stunt double was flipped out of the chariot. The stunt man hung on to the reigns and climbed back into the chariot. That blooper was left in the film to add more action. Marketing for this film was almost as big as the movie itself. Hundreds of toys were created, as well as ‘Ben-his’ and ‘Ben-hers’ bathroom towels.
The Internet Movie Database also points out another big goof in editing. “Nine chariots start the chariot race. After the first crash, there appear still to be nine chariots in the race. After the third crash, six are shown, but as Ben Hur passes to catch up, clearly there [are] a total of seven in the race. After five have crashed, five are left. Messala is the sixth chariot to crash, but Ben Hur and three others finish the race.
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This film takes place during 26 A.D., which is not in concordance with the events portrayed. Judah Ben-Hur and his family are fictitious characters. Some of the real life characters are Messala, Pontius Pilate, Tiberius Caesar, Jesus and Balthasar. Tiberius fit into the time period correctly. He was emperor from 14 to 37 A.D. Pontius Pilate was governor from 26-36 A.D., which puts him in the same time period as Tiberius. Balthasar and Messala were influential men; just not in the time period we are given in the movie. It is believed that Jesus’ crucifixion took place sometime between 12 B.C. and 14 A.D, which shows that Jesus does not fit into this time period either. The chariot races were true to the period, except that Jerusalem did not have a stadium.
The scene I have chosen to analyze goes from Judah Ben-Hur winning the chariot race, defeating Messala, to Judah being crowned by Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring). This paper will cover the filmic elements of mise en scene and sound as they are represented in Ben-Hur.
The dominant figures in this shot are the Roman soldiers, and the Roman spectators. The Romans are set apart from the native people by the color of their clothing. Roman soldiers stand out because they wear red capes, with bright white tunics underneath. The upper class Romans shown are costumed in bright colors while the Jews are wearing drab earth-tone colors. The Jews seem to blend in with their desert-like surroundings, and the Romans call attention to themselves with their flashy clothes.
As for lighting, it seems to be natural sunlight. This scene takes place in hours the sun is out full; it was not necessary for extra lighting to be brought in. The use of natural lighting gives the shot a realistic feel. There are not any dark shadowy places, which means the sunlight created high key lighting.
Shot and camera proxemics heighten the drama in this scene. We see Judah and the crowd in medium shots; no close ups are used. Medium shots show us what the crowd and Judah are feeling; it is not necessary to get in any closer. At the finish of the race we can see Judah’s feelings perfectly, we know that he is content with the outcome of the race, other than Messala being in the condition he is in. We need to see Judah from the waist up to see his body language, his face shows a lot, but the extra effect is in his movements. We also see Pilate, the governor of Judea, and his associates in medium shots. They are upset that Messala lost, but are indifferent other than that. There is no need to see more or less of them in the shot. The crowd is in a long shot from the box where Pilate is sitting. He does not need to see their faces; hey are nothing but stupid little people he must watch over. Crane shots are used during the race so we can see how close the charioteers are to each other. This allows us to watch everything, and it makes the racers look like they are in a box, like they are stuck, with nowhere to go except around and around.
Camera angles are important in this film, especially in this scene. From the start of the clip the camera is slightly below eye level, looking up at Judah. This slight angle up makes Judah look strong and powerful; he is a man to be looked up to and respected. When Judah crosses the finish line the crowd pours onto the track, and at this point we are seeing all the Jews with the camera at a low angle looking up. They are higher than the Romans, and Messala himself, because Judah won the race. Pilate and his entourage look down on the mass hysteria from their box seats. We are shown the crowd from Pilate’s perspective through a high angle shot. Pilate is better than the commoners, and the soldiers who are on the track. The high angle shot emphasizes his authority over those celebrating Judah.
Pilate also portrays some of the color values of the film as a whole. He is wearing purple, the color of royalty and power. All of the other upper class Romans shown in this scene are wearing bright colored clothing. On the other hand, the Jews and commoners are wearing drab, earth-toned clothing. This shows the difference in their social status. It also implies Roman superiority over the Jews. Another big contrast is between the two main charioteers and their horses. Judah’s horses are white, symbolizing good. Messala’s horses are black, which symbolizes bad, or evil. Judah and Messala racing represents a battle between good and bad, a struggle for power. Red is the most prevalent color in this scene. The Roman soldiers wear red capes, and have red accents on their armor. Messala is lying on the tack bloody and bruised after being trampled. The color red signifies pain, blood, anger, and conflict. The men, Judah and Messala, are angry at each other, which is the reason for their fighting. Obviously Messala is in pain when he is lying on the track half dead and bleeding. There seems to be a red tint throughout the entire clip.
This scene is shot using a telephoto lens and a standard lens. The telephoto lens is used during the race, and when we see Judah driving away after winning. The standard lens is used when we see the crowd rushing onto the track to congratulate Judah, and when we see the crowd from Pilate’s eyes. As mentioned in the last paragraph, there is a reddish tint to this scene. The color red stands for pain, anger, and passion. Both men are passionate about their beliefs, and are in psychological pain because they are racing against each other. They are both angry because their relationship has changed, and they do not like the way the other has changed. I’m unsure about the film stock that was used. It is a good quality film, which is a characteristic of slow film stock. But, fast film stock is sensitive to light, and I do not believe that extra lighting was brought in for this shot. The fast stock would not have needed additional lighting; it would have picked up all the natural light.
During this three-minute clip there are two different groups of subsidiary contrasts. First is when we see Judah winning the race. Judah is the dominant figure in the shot; the next eye stop is on the other chariots, then on to the crowd. This follows the Gutenberg Diagonal; center to right bottom, around the right side to the top, over to the left corner, then back around to the middle. The second shot is when Pilate is crowning Judah for winning the race. The dominant is Pilate, then to his cohorts behind him, and on the right side of the frame, then on around to the left to end on Judah.
Pilate is shown in a moderately dense shot. There are a few props, and other characters, but he does have space to move around in. But, the shots of the chariots and the crowd are very dense. People are packed into the stadium like sardines, and the charioteers really have no place to go except around the track. They have no room to veer off the track, and the people have no room to move. Even when the audience runs down onto the track, they are still packed in, they all crowd around Judah.
Along with the density changing, so does the shot composition. Judah has at least half of the frame when he is in his chariot, and the other half is the crowd. This implies that Judah and the crowd are equal; one is not superior to the other. Pilate always has at least two-thirds of the screen. This shows his superiority over everyone, including the people he is enjoying the race with. The characters the director wants us to focus on are the ones taking up the most space in the shot.
This film has a closed form. Everything is in its place, and nothing is left to chance. This film is classicist with some formalistic influence. Also in this scene, Pilate is separated from everyone. He sits in his own throne, and he has other people in the box with him, but they are all a couple of feet away from him. This suggests that Pilate must have his own space, and nobody is worthy of sharing his space. If he was not in the middle of the frame he might be seen as an outsider to the group. He would only be an outsider because of all the power he has, because nobody comes close to being as first-class as he is.
Framing is also different between the two characters, Judah and Pilate. Judah is always tightly framed in. There is no place for him to move around. The track is crowded with other chariots, and then with jubilant spectators. He could not move around anywhere if he wanted to; he is stuck. Pilate on the other hand has space to move in the frame. He is free to go wherever he wants, but he does not really move. He has no need to get up and move about the frame, he has people doing everything for him. Pilate is in loose framing.
Depth changes depending on whose point of view we are looking through. The number of plains ranges from three to six. When we are looking at the crowd through Pilate’s perspective there are six plains: people in the box with Pilate, the railing of the box, the track, the building in the middle of the track, the other side of the arena, and what is out beyond the stadium. When Pilate is crowning Judah there are four plains: Pilate and Judah, furniture, people in the box, and the arena outside the box.
Character placement tells the viewer a little more about each character. We see which character is inferior to the other(s), and their relationships with each other. Pilate takes up at least two-thirds of the shots that he is in. This tells us that he is in charge; he has authority over everyone else. When the crowd is seen from afar they are in the top left corner of the screen, which shows that they really are not important. Pilate is higher in this scene than everyone else; this again signifies his superiority. Judah towers over everyone, except when he is meeting with Pontius Pilate, to get Arrius’ message from Rome, and when Pilate crowns him the victor of the chariot race. Judah is superior to the common people he is surrounded by all the time. He can be picked out of the crowd because he’s placed above everyone else.
The staging positions of the actors also tell us more about the characters. Judah and Pilate are really the only characters we have any contact with in this clip. Judah is never more than a quarter turn from the camera. We are able to see his face straight on most of the time so that we can see what he is feeling, and we can relate to him better. When we cannot see his face we can still tell what he is feeling through his body language. But, more often than not we see everything that Judah is going through on his face. Pilate, on the other hand, is not really shown straight on. We only see him face to face while he is watching the race. After the race we see people from his perspective, or he is only a quarter turn towards the camera. Not seeing Pilate’s face disconnects the audience from him. We are not supposed to feel anything for him that is why we do not see his face more. Pilate is not a character we are supposed to focus on.
Relationships between characters are shown through character proxemics. The distance between the actors tells us the strength of their characters’ relationships. For example, the crowd and Judah are smashed together after he wins the race. This closeness shows that they are equals. Judah does not push people away from him; they are his family, his people. On the contrary, Judah and Pilate are merely acquaintances. This relationship is revealed because they are feet apart. The only reason the distance between them is crossed is because Pilate’s duty is to crown the victorious charioteer. Pilate’s relationship with the audience in the arena is even less than that of he and Judah. The distance between the governor and the common people is miles. He does not know the people, nor does he care to know them. He just has to watch over them, and govern them.
Overall this scene has a good balance between historical accuracy and drama. The chariot racing and Pontius Pilate are accurate accounts of history, but the main character, Judah Ben-Hur is not. The stadium in this clip was also inaccurate. In 26 A.D. arenas such as this one did not exist, even if they had there probably would not have been one in Jerusalem.
Judah’s life was the drama added to the film, without him, obviously, there would be no movie.