Roman chariot races were a Roman sport that found their way into swords and sandals films, most notably in Ben Hur (1959). They acted as effective vehicles for the climax of the films the races appeared in and also served to represent the themes found in Ben-Hur and other sword and sandal films.

History Edit

Circus maximus

Chariot races were an extremely popular Roman sport dating back to at least sixth century BCE.[1] They were grandiose events of much fanfare, where riders had their own teams and standards.[2] They took place in circuses, which at this time were huge stadiums. Circus Maximus, located in present-day Rome, was one of the most notable circuses, and spanned an incredible distance of 620 meters.[1] Chariot races were a wide-appeal sport, bringing in a broad audience consisting of slaves and potentially even the emperor. Gambling was common practice during the event, due to chariot races being one of few places where Roman citizens could actually gamble.[3] The participants, or charioteers as they were called, were often slaves, though they could over time amass a fortune large enough to buy them their own freedom.[2] Horses involved in the event were often bred specifically for chariot races and most often consisted of teams of four.[2] Chariot races consisted of up to twelve riders racing around the circus' track, where accidents were frequent, whether they were intentionally caused or otherwise.[2]

Technical Elements and Use In Sword and Sandal Films Edit


Ben-Hur (1959) contains the most famous Roman chariot race to have ever been adapted to film. A marvel of cinema, the chariot race scene was perhaps the most technically complex feat accomplished by the film. It took 10 weeks to film and used up approximately a fourth of the film's budget.[4] The stunt work involved in the scene was choreographed by a famed stuntman named Yakima Canutt. The main two characters, Judah and Messalla, were not portrayed by stunt doubles during the scene, instead being portrayed by their respective actors. Charlton Heston, the actor who played Judah, was a natural at driving his chariot having had previous experience driving chariots from acting in The Ten Commandments (1956). Stephen Boyd, the actor who portrayed Messalla, had trouble with driving the chariots though, needing frequent rest breaks.[4] 82 animals were involved in the production of the scene, with 36 horses appearing on screen throughout the race.[4] The chariot arena itself was the product of 1000 workers' labor and spanned 2000 feet lengthwise by 65 feet wide.[4] The scene is the intense climax of Ben-Hur where Judah seeks to finally gain vengeance on Messalla for his betrayal earlier in the film. The intense camerawork and editing clearly portray the visceral nature of the scene and fully invests the audience into the action. It is due to the technical accomplishments and practical plausibility that the scene manages to be so effective even today.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) also makes use of the Roman chariot race but this time to produce a purely comedic effect. It achieves this by subverting the expectations held by the audience after Ben-Hur's use of a chariot race to produce a very grounded and impactful climax. Again representing the climax of the film, the chariot race scene in Forum is a ludicrous and over-the-top scene fitting of the rest of the movie. This time the race does not take place within a circus, instead migrating to outdoor forests and fields. Our main characters find themselves participating in all sorts of antics, such as the point where Pseudolus water-skiis upon his chariot while being dragged by horses. The scene was coordinated by well-known stunt director Bob Simmons and the result is a hilarious mish-mash of absurdity. A large part of the humor in this chariot race scene stems from the direct contrast to the violence present in Ben-Hur’s chariot race, where the riders are pulled under horses and flung off of their chariots to brutal effect. Instead, the violence present in Forum’s chariot race is inconsequential and has very low stakes, making it a purely comedic scene.

A chariot race also appears in History of the World: Part I and serves as the climax of the Roman section of the film. Very similarly to Forum, the intended effect is largely to be comedic. It again takes place outside of any circus, and is intertwined with absurd moments such as when Josephus lights a large blunt filled with marijuana to confuse the guards chasing our protagonists. Gary Combs coordinated the stunts on the scene. Though not as technically complex as Forum's chariot race, the scene still manages to act as a climax for the film and to contrast with the viscerality of Ben-Hur's chariot race.

Thematic Importance Edit

The Roman chariot race acts as an effective vehicle for the climax of a sword and sandal film, especially being effective in Ben-Hur in conveying a central theme of the move: revenge. The chariot race scene represents a culmination of Judah Ben-Hur's quest for vengeance upon his childhood friend, Messala. Over the course of the film, we see Judah fall into the chains of slavery and steadily work his way into a position where he can kill Messala, and the chariot race represents the culmination of Judah's quest. Finally, he has reached a point at which he can attain his vengeance, and the visceral nature of a Roman chariot race provides the perfect backdrop for this ultimate triumph. The race also represents a turning point for our protagonist and for the film itself. Consumed by his lust for revenge, Judah is empty after he finally kills Messala in the chariot race and has only darkness in his heart. It is at this point that Judah's quest turns from one of vengeance to one of redemption, which he finds through his conversion to Christianity. It is through the contrast from the brutal and exhilarating chariot race scene to the quiet and reflective scenes that follow it involving Judah seeking out his mother and sister and finding Christ that the message becomes so impactful. The story becomes one about the violent nature of man seen in the chariot race scene to the redeemable qualities within all of us. This culmination of the theme of redemption from the violence inherent to human nature is not limited to the Roman chariot race however, as is seen in several sword and sandal films such as Quo Vadis (1959) or The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), where our main characters learn that there are other answers to their problems, usually finding their answers through Christ as in Ben-Hur.

In films such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and History of the World: Part I the thematic implications of chariot races are not as prevalent, but still connect to the central ideas of both films which was to entertain and to subvert the audience's expectations after older films such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus (1960) took their content much more seriously. With this groundwork having been laid by older sword and sandal films, both of these comedy films had room to lampoon the older films' earnestness and chose to use chariot races as one method to do this, fundamentally subverting the gravity of a scene such as Ben-Hur's chariot race and fully establishing themselves as parodies.

References Edit

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