Sunday, 21 February 2016

Ben Hur 1959

Among its many spectacular sequences Ben Hur showcases a colourful naval battle against the Romans and the Macedonians staged by A Arnold Gillespie and his crew in the MGM Lot 3 tank.

A. Arnold Gillespie in his waders in the MGM Lot 3 tank during the Ben Hur sea battle miniatures shoot.

The hero foreground ships were built at 1/6th scale and had molded rubber figures with poseable wire armatures populating the decks. A few of the figures were made to mechanically "walk the decks" while others were mounted to springs to effect some movement. There were motorised mechanisms inside to move the galley oars.

Distant ships were built at a smaller scale while the most distant were photographs of the models mounted on flat board cutouts pulled on tracks outside the tank.

The camera shot at three times normal speed, 72 frames per second while the ships were made to move at around 3 feet (1m) per second. The sinking ship was pulled down into the deeper well part of the tank by two cable and pulley systems.

There are some very interesting detailed layout drawings and photographs of the tank set up in the book The wizard of MGM Memoirs of A. Arnold Gillespie. There is also an interesting and detailed blog article by the author about the planning and filming of some of the miniature shots for Ben Hur on the Wizard of MGM book site.

The photo below shows one of the 1/6th scale models as it is displayed in the Baltimore Convention Center.

One other of the larger ship models was reported to be on display in a Ripleys believe it or not traveling exhibition, in this case at the San Diego Air and Space museum.

In 2012 nineteen smaller models came up for auction. According to the auction description the models were originally built for the 1925  silent version of Ben Hur and refurbished and modified for the 1959 version. They were between 5 and 9 feet long (1.5m - 2.7m) and made of wood with copper hulls. Some still had the rowing mechanisms inside in various states of disrepair. Another auction site has a single model of this series with an intact rowing mechanism and a description stating its use in 1925 but no mention of re-use at all.

Another of these 1925 models in somewhat better condition, can be seen in the National Museum of Ship Models and Sea History, Sadorus, Illinois, USA.



  1. Mike mcclernon7 April 2016 at 03:26

    I had no idea that tors tors tors even used models! I've always wondered where they got so many ships after ww2. Great article! Please sign me up

  2. Where are you located? I would like to talk with you offline about your model building information. please contact me at at your earliest convenience / I need your expertise. thanks

  3. Any images of the rubber 11" models on the decks of these ships ?


  4. I don't have any close up shots. All the photos I have are in the post however the 6th photo, which is black and white, clearly shows the rubber figures on the decks of the model ships.

  5. I worked for wehrenberg theaters, the oldest movie theater chain in the united states. wehrenberg bought the 19 ships at the profiles in history auction in California in 2012 with the intention of putting one under glass on display in each theater for the customers to marvel at. I am the person who was restoring them for that purpose. the owner of wehrenberg died in the fall of 2015 and the theater chain was sold in dec. of 2016. the new owner, marcus theaters did not want the ships so they were sold in the last month. not as a group as originally but individually at a private sale. I was given one of the roman ships by the owners wife and will treasure it for life. I retired at the sale of the company after 35 years with wehrenberg and will spend some time restoring the ship I have.

  6. Another site with a description and three more photos of the Baltimore Convention Center galley:

  7. One of those 1925/1959 refurbished galley models mentioned above came up for auction in December 2017 and sold for $84000 USD:

    But the real treasure trove on this web page are 16 photos that ain't thumbnails...

  8. Woa there - a slip on the key - again. The model sold for $8400 NOT $84000 - but give it time - it will get there.

    I wish there was an after post 'edit' button - and while I am at it a way of attaching images...

  9. Greg Winchester20 July 2018 at 19:50

    There were several Ben Hur models on display at the Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City during the 80’s. Not sure of their disposition.

  10. Hi I bought 1ship. It is same as pictured. Mine has the side rails that was inside the ship.. The oars and the sails missing. I made the two sails and oars out of. Brass. What a beautiful ship. I need a electric motor. For the motor carriage.

  11. Many of these ships (the 6' variety) went to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri. Lamar Hunt and Jack Steadman attended the 1971 MGM Backlot Auction and bought the Victorix (All the Brothers Were Valiant), Cotton Blossom (Show Boat), at least one gypsy wagon, and several Macedonian and Spartan 6' models. One, a galley ship was in front of one of the park's rides, and several were put in a lagoon next to Victorix. I have several pictures I can share with you if you contact me. I know the Ben Hur Galley Ship was removed in the early 90's and I am pretty sure the lagoon ships went before that as they would have been mauled by the man-o-war firing range on the nearby Victrix. I interviewed a gentleman about a year ago that restored them for the park back in 1972, he was a friend of Jack Steadman and literally had several of these boats sitting in his driveway! He gave me two of the small shields of a Macedonian ship (he made copies of the originals which he put on the ships and kept the originals). I am trying to find out what happened to these ships after they were removed from the park, because unlike many other theming elements they weren't dumped in a parking lot, or back grassy area and allowed to rot away. I think someone has them, or at least some of them, and I would love to find what happened to them. Please contact me.


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