Ancient chariot racing was a powerful spectacle. Four-horse teams thundered across the dirt. Cart-mounted drivers bent over the reins, commanding their teams. Crowds lined massive hippodromes where ovular tracks stretched for hundreds of yards. Accidents were frequent, spectacular and often deadly.
A one-time sensational draw that provided entertainment for rich and poor Greeks, Romans and Byzantines for centuries, chariot racing was an early Olympic sport, debuting at the games in 680 BC. By the seventh century AD, it had mostly disappeared.
While it is unlikely that the world will ever witness the thunder and tension of a live chariot race again, Paramount Pictures gets us pretty close in Ben-Hur, which drops Aug. 19. The story of vengeance and violence crescendos to a roaring horse-drawn showdown between brothers Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell).
Raw and rippling with collisions and enormously fast, the race sequence transports us to those ancient arenas, where an errant piece of wreckage could send a chariot lurching skyward and a driver dragging behind his team. The scene is an unrelenting visual tornado, visceral and immediate due in large part to the fact that the actors are not standing on some mocked-up chariot in front of a green screen, but actually gearing up and plowing behind real horses on a real track.
“Everyone’s going to think this is some big CGI feat that we managed to construct, but it’s not at all,” said Huston. “We decided very early on that every time you see us with those horses, that’s us with those horses.”
To underscore the point, the filmmakers put together a short featurette, releases on YouTube last week, that shows the wagons and the horses geared up with cameras, the actors tense with game-day anticipation as they prep for filming the scenes, and un-retouched footage of the filming in process.
“It’s very scary,” says director Timur Bekmambetov. “There’s no airbags. There’s no brakes. It’s like today’s NASCAR. People enjoy the speed, the tension, and, most of all, when somebody crashes.”
Check it out for yourself. It’s a pretty spectacular bit of filmmaking:
The film looks to be loaded with exactly these sorts of historically evocative scenes. There are stone cities built into cliff sides and snowy battlefields and armor-plated armies marching in formation. Perhaps most chilling is an opening scene of an attack vessel with a human sacrifice lashed to the hull at water level slamming into a slave-crammed ship to sink it. Watch the full trailer below for a glimpse.
Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, and also starring Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, and Sofia Black D’Elia