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10 Lessons We Learned From Filmmaking in the 1920s


10
California Is Easier
Lives, money and time were lost on the Italian set of "Ben-Hur." John Kobal Foundation/Moviepix/Getty Images
Lives, money and time were lost on the Italian set of "Ben-Hur." John Kobal Foundation/Moviepix/Getty Images

"Ben-Hur" was an epic in every way possible. The new studio of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) wanted to make its mark and chose to do so with a cinematic version of a hugely successful stage play that was itself an adaptation of a best-selling novel. Set in the time of Christ, "Ben-Hur" is the story of a wealthy young Jewish man who is enslaved by the Romans, crosses paths with Jesus and becomes a rockstar charioteer.

It was going to be a big, lavish production from the start, but to up the ante, MGM decided to film the entire movie on location in Italy. They didn't count on the country's new leader, Benito Mussolini, who was in a virulently anti-American mood when production began. Labor disputes, possibly fomented by Mussolini himself, delayed filming considerably. At one point, director Fred Niblo discovered that some of the Italian extras were planning to bring unwanted authenticity to a battle scene, having organized themselves into pro- and anti-fascist camps and sharpened the prop swords.

Several extras nearly drowned during a boat-sinking scene, a stuntman perished while filming the legendary chariot race and even the star, Ramon Navarro, escaped death by a hair's breadth. Astoundingly, more than a hundred horses also lost their lives for that cause, which was peopled by thousands of extras and shot by 42 cameras.

Even though the film was a box-office smash, it lost money because of cost-overruns. For more than two decades after the release of "Ben-Hur," Hollywood stayed home, preferring to build massive sets (even the Vatican!) on its own backlots rather than run the risk of foreign swords [source: Hagopian].