Sunday night, and I’m watching Ben Hur on the local PBS channel. I saw it the first time on a Saturday afternoon at the Rita Theatre in Del Rio, Texas, in 1961. The movie was released in 1959, but Del Rio was an out-of-the-way place, and films didn’t travel as quickly then as they do today.
It’s a beautiful movie. The highlight is the chariot race that pits the main character, Judah Ben Hur, against his childhood friend, later enemy, the Roman Messala.
My friends and I didn’t go home raving about the chariot race, of course. The story was about friendship and betrayal and hatred and revenge and forgiveness–mature themes–and if we appeared too much interested in the race, adults might think us childish. Nine-year-old girls don’t like to be thought childish.
Watching tonight (for the fifth or sixth time at least), I think how silly we were. The chariot race is magnificent. Andalusian horses and Lippizans, pounding hooves, blades on the hubs of Mesalla’s chariot cutting through his rivals spokes, cars tipping, drivers flying out, being dragged and trampled, Messala lashing Judah with his whip, the crowd cheering…
One critic wrote that chariot race “will probably be preserved in film archives as the finest example of the use of the motion picture camera to record an action sequence. The race . . . represents some 40 minutes* of the most hair-raising excitement that film audiences have ever witnessed.”
Moreover, it was done without the aid of sophisticated computer software. Those were real men, real horses, real dangers. I’m glad I grew up before special effects became easy, when we were still capable of being impressed and saying Wow!
A Baby Boomer, I’ve had a lifetime of Wows! When I was five, Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea. Wow! When I was nine, Alan Shepard traveled into outer space. Wow! When I was ten, the Absentminded Professor ironed Flubber onto the soles of high school basketball players, and they bumped their heads on the gymnasium ceiling. Wow! When I was eleven, John Glenn orbited the Earth. Wow! When I was eighteen, two Americans walked on the moon. Wow!
Older people told stories that elicited Wows, too. In 1910, my great-uncle and -aunt, Maurice and Bettie Waller, and Aunt Bettie’s best friend, Miss Annie Barber saw a stage performance of Ben Hur. After sending students home early–Aunt Bettie and Miss Annie taught together at a rural school–they and Uncle Maurice traveled by horse and buggy fifty miles north to Austin, saw the play, and immediately headed back home. They arrived just in time to open school the next morning.
When Aunt Bettie told me that, I was so impressed. Bouncing over a hundred miles of gravel roads in a horse-drawn buggy in less than twenty-four hours, just to go to the theater–that was a big deal.
But even more impressive–there was a chariot race. Two real chariots and two real horses. On the stage.
To read what other A to Z Challenge bloggers wrote on Day B, click here.
* The chariot race scene lasts for nine minutes. I’m not sure what the critic’s reference to 40 minutes means.