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New Ben-Hur filmed Italy as ancient Middle East

Ben-Hur horsebackA new big-budget version of historical epic Ben-Hur was the first Hollywood movie in many years to film entirely in Italy.

Set in biblical times, the story follows Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur as he endures years of slavery to wreak vengeance on his Roman adopted brother who has falsely accused him of treason. Charlton Heston famously starred in an Oscar-winning version of the tale in 1959. 

Italy spent several years struggling to attract large-scale international movie productions, but this has changed since the government boosted the country’s national filming incentive support. 

Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were enticed by the improved finances for Ben-Hur and also by the town of Matera five hours south of Rome in southern Italy, which was used as a stand-in for Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.

“Filming in Matera was a production challenge that at first looked like no other I have seen in more than 35 years,” says Michael John Meehan, supervising location manager on the film, in comments to KFTV.

“The city is incredibly steep with uneven steps that lace the hillsides. There was very little flat area in the entire town and few roads that would support vehicles. At first glance it looked like an impossible nightmare. What made it work was the experience of the Italian crew. They knew all the nooks and crannies where equipment could be stored after a long schlep up the hillside."

Ben-Hur chariot race

“We fed our crew in as many as five or six different restaurants every day that were scattered throughout the town. As we moved up and down the hillsides, so did our equipment and support," Meehan says.

The Ben-Hur team spent three weeks filming in the town and worked around the locals to erect small-scale sets. Most of the crew was recruited in Rome but stayed locally in Matera for the shoot.

Meehan is full of praise for local producer Enzo Sisti and Italian location manager Andrea Alluni and his team, who helped with the logistics. Alluni and Sisti were also both involved with the Italian leg of Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron. Sisti then worked on James Bond movie Spectre in Rome, while Alluni has since been hired by Warner Bros. and DC for Wonder Woman, which also filmed scenes on location in Matera.

Meehan also notes that the Ben-Hur team was in Matera during the Italian winter, which made a huge practical difference to the efficiency of the shoot.

Ben-Hur and Morgan Freeman“You cannot find a room anywhere near the town in the summer as the tourists have made it a must-see stop in Italy. Filming in Matera in the summer would be impossible and likely the city would not allow it. If for some reason they did, you would eventually hate yourself for trying!”

Ben-Hur also filmed stage work at Cinecitta Studios in southern Rome, Italy’s iconic production facility where in fact scenes were shot for Charlton Heston’s movie back in the late 1950s. Now the studios offer nearly two dozen stages and an outdoor water tank.

One of the iconic sequences of the Ben-Hur story is its brutal chariot racing scene. The team on the new film staged their own version of the race, building the arena at Cinecitta World, a new facility near Rome that is mainly a theme park but can still host large-scale productions.

Italy’s boosted filming incentives have raised the country’s international profile and attracted major shoots, including Ben Stiller’s comedy sequel Zoolander 2 and a key car chase action sequence from Spectre. With the finances improved, Italy can steadily build on its global appeal.

For more on filming in Italy see our production guide.

Images: MGM/Paramount Pictures