How Director Timur Bekmambetov Recreated The Classic 'Ben-Hur' Chariot Race Sequence

The chariot race sequence in William Wyler's Ben-Hur took a year to plan. The massive sequence, which was shot in five weeks, involved 7,000 extras and a set that cost $1 million to build. All that hard work paid off, because that sequence remains just as thrilling today as it probably was back in 1959.

It's inevitable the new adaptation of Ben-Hur will face comparisons to Wyler's film, especially in regards to how the new chariot race holds up to the 1959 film's classic set piece. Below, director Timur Bekmambetov tells us about the planning and work that went into shooting the sequence.

If anyone is worried that the end of Ben-Hur is going to be packed with CGI, worry no more, because that may not be the case. Bekmambetov wanted to rely more on practical effects for the film, which he considers more of a drama than a "huge tentpole attraction." The director didn't set out to make a more stylized version of the past, as he did with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; he wanted to make a film that's more grounded and tangible.

To create a believable Roman chariot race, Bekmambetov and his crew used mostly practical elements:

We shoot everything in the Italy. We built 1,000-foot-long surface, with a track, stands, and gates. We had 90 horses trained for several months, to be able to race. We built very unique chariots based on original references, which is very different from previous movies, because usually chariots are like these huge battle axes [Laughs]. In reality, it was a very low, almost Formula 1-type of design. It was very difficult to race, because nothing protects you. You're just staying on a bench with two wheels, flying with a 40 or 50 mph speed, with a lot of horses around you. It was very, very dangerous work. What's very contemporary is there were teams — blue or red — and they were very popular in Roman Empire. They were so rich. They were paid well, if they survived. One of the champions, he'd be worth 40 billion dollars [Laughs]. It's a whole culture. We shot it in Rome, in Cinecittá studio, and also found a great medieval town, Latera. What's interesting is — it's all real. We shot chariot race for 45 days. It was 45 days with a crowd, horses, and great stunt drivers. Phil Neilson is a very good person, the second unit director, and he was my hero. He helped me make it right.

Neilson also worked as a stunt coordinator on a few of Ridley Scott's films, including Gladiator. Bekmambetov told us it was an "army operation" putting the sequence together, which involved plenty of real stunts:

You can't really change things on the fly. Horses need to be prepared. Actors spend months to prepare, to learn how drive chariot races. There were stunt guys, but only for the really dangerous things. Overall, it was actors in the chariots.

In Wyler's film, the actors were only seen in close-ups, but it hardly broke the reality of the sequence. A part of what makes the scene spectacular are the emotional stakes. After everything Judah Ben-Hur has been through, you desperately want to see him win. Hopefully this summer we'll feel the same way about Jack Huston's take on the character.

Ben-Hur opens in theaters August 12th.