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teaser Ben-Hur (1959)


Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Jewish prince living with his mother and sister in 1st century Jerusalem. When his childhood friend Messala arrives from Rome as the commander of the Roman legions for the new governor, the men are thrilled at first to see each other, but it soon becomes apparent that they hold strongly opposed views on the issue of Judea's independence from Rome. They quarrel and part. Later, as Judah and his family watch the Roman governor parade through the streets, a tile from their roof comes loose, falling to the ground and injuring the official. Although he knows it was an accident, Messala arrests Judah to make an example of him, sending him off to the galleys as a slave and throwing his mother and sister into prison. Judah swears revenge against his former friend. During a sea battle, he rescues the fleet's commander and is made his adopted son. Judah rises high in Roman society and becomes a champion charioteer, all the while driven solely by vengeance. But chance encounters over the years with Jesus of Nazareth begin to lead Judah to understand that love and forgiveness are higher virtues than a thirst for blood.

Director: William Wyler
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay: Karl Tunberg (credited); Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal, S.N. Behrman, Maxwell Anderson (uncredited); based on the novel by Lew Wallace
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Editing: John D. Dunning, Ralph E. Winters
Art Direction: Edward Carfagno, William A. Horning
Original Music: Mikls Rzsa
Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim).
C-223m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

Why BEN-HUR is Essential

Lavish period epics, particularly those set in biblical or Imperial Roman settings, were born in Italy in the early days of cinema and exported with great success to the rest of the world, inspiring and challenging American directors like Griffith and DeMille. The genre went into decline after the arrival of sound but re-emerged after World War II and not only in Italy. Hollywood soon discovered these huge productions were a perfect counterpoint to the growing popularity of television, providing the grand wide-screen spectacle the tiny tube couldn't present. Many of these American epics, among them Quo Vadis (1951) and Helen of Troy (1956), were shot all or in part in Italy in order to make use of the facilities and technicians who knew how to do the style best. But as Hollywood had done so often with European styles and innovations, they took the genre and gave it a grandeur, gravitas, and great sum of money that even the Italians, with their more vigorous and cheaply made costume adventures of the 1950s, didn't match. Ben-Hur marked the zenith of this cycle. The genre continued in popularity for a few more years, but nowhere else did it quite achieve its heights of critical respect, awards, and box office impact.

Up to this point, director William Wyler was known for literate, often intimate, character-driven dramas, and he was reluctant to take on a production he felt more suited to the likes of the bombastic Cecil B. DeMille. But once he had become convinced, impressed primarily with the theme of the Jewish people fighting for their freedom, he committed himself totally to the process, determined to give producer Sam Zimbalist the "intimate epic" he was seeking, one whose abundant action and spectacle would not overshadow the personal story of one man's path from bitterness and revenge to love and forgiveness.

Ben-Hur was the biggest and most complex undertaking of Wyler's career (with the biggest pay-off, setting him up financially for life). It was also the grandest, most expensive production the motion picture industry had seen up to that point, using more people, bigger sets and inspiring more news stories and publicity hype than ever before. And, of course, there is that justly famous chariot race. Coupled with its reputation as a thinking man's epic, a big picture with a personal drama at its core, Ben-Hur displaced the more superficial standard for the genre to that time, the DeMille-directed The Ten Commandments (1956), to achieve lasting fame as the quintessential costume epic.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Ben-Hur (1959)

General Lew Wallace's enormously popular book (for a time, the biggest-selling book ever, after the Bible) was first turned into a stage production in 1899. It included a chariot race with two horses on a treadmill in front of a revolving panorama painting of the Circus Maximus.

The story was filmed twice before, in 1907 (with future Western star William S. Hart as Messala) and in a lavish 1925 MGM production starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. The first version was filmed without permission. Author Lew Wallace's family sued, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The family won, setting a legal precedent for copyright protection of a writer's work. The 1925 version, plagued by numerous production problems, cost a then-staggering $4 million to make and took years to recoup any of its money. In 1931 it was reissued in a shortened version with sound added, but that flopped and was quickly pulled from distribution, never to be seen again.

The director of Ben-Hur, William Wyler, worked as an assistant on the 1925 chariot race filming. Many of the sequences used in the later version were modeled very closely on those in the 1925 release.

An animated version was made for television in 2003, with Charlton Heston supplying the voice of Judah Ben-Hur.

For one of the march themes in Ben-Hur, Mikls Rzsa reportedly reworked one he had written for the earlier Roman epic Quo Vadis (1951).

Publicity for Ben-Hur really swung into high gear in the months just prior to the November premiere date. By mid-summer 1959, advertising-pr expenses of more than $3 million had been approved. Merchandising tie-ins were lined up, including fashions inspired by the film, a chariot race toy set, a Ben-Hur candy bar, and children's costumes complete with swords, breastplates, helmets, and scooter chariots. Four different publishers put out paperback copies of the novel and Random House issued a hardback souvenir book to be sold in bookstores and theater lobbies.

The Japanese premiere of Ben-Hur marked the first time the Emperor and his wife left the palace for the purpose of attending a movie.

Film producer-director George Lucas said Ben-Hur was an inspiration to him early on as he strove to instill excitement into his action scenes and yet also focus on the personal stories of his characters. He noted in particular that the pod race in The Phantom Menace (1999) was a modern version of the chariot race.

The chariot race in Ben-Hur has been spoofed (e.g., an episode of The Simpsons) or referenced a number of times in other films and TV shows, particularly in the use of spiked wheels to win a race unfairly.

Director Ridley Scott and production designer Arthur Max said Ben-Hur is one of two pictures, along with The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), that they observed closely when preparing the film Gladiator (2000). Max called Ben-Hur "a master course in production design."

Production designer Arthur Max said that while scouring studios and film warehouses in Rome for materials for Gladiator, he and his crew found many old molds and forms for statues used in past films, some of which were likely in Ben-Hur. In fact, some of the statues seen in Gladiator were cast by the son and grandson of the original sculptor who made them for Ben-Hur.

During production, many celebrities flocked to Rome, eager to be a part of the buzz generated by the film, among them Bette Davis, Kirk Douglas, and Ed Sullivan, who featured it on his TV show in January 1959. The hottest photo op was, of course, the chariot race, and many Italian nobles jockeyed to be cast as extras. One such titled extra was Princess Carmen de Hohenlohe, who played a guest at a banquet in the Rome section of the picture.

Charlton Heston directed a screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1972) that borrowed some footage from Ben-Hur for the sea battle sequence.

Second-unit director Andrew Marton, who filmed the chariot race, said that stuntman Joe Canutt's spectacular feat of jumping Ben-Hur's chariot over another wrecked chariot would go down in stunt history equal to one performed by his father, Yakima Canutt, in which he jumped from horse to horse in Stagecoach (1939). The elder Canutt was the stunt coordinator for the chariot sequence and is often erroneously credited as the sole director of the race (an impression he helped to foster).

MGM issued three recordings of the soundtrack for Ben-Hur.

According to the Wall Street Journal prior to the film's release, MGM had licensed women's tiaras and combs with a Ben-Hur motif. Around this same time, one wag spoofed the preponderance of merchandising tie-ins and publicity gimmicks by claiming the studio was also licensing Ben-His and Ben-Hur towels.

Club Sportivo Ben Hur is the name of a sports and social club in Argentina, founded in 1940.

There are towns named Ben Hur in Virginia and Texas.

The Ben Hur was an automobile produced in Ohio in 1917-1918. Only about 40 cars were produced before the company folded.

The first scene between Judah and Messala, and Gore Vidal's description of how he conceived it as a love scene between the two men, is featured in the documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995) and discussed in the 1981 book of the same title by Vito Russo on which the documentary is based.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Ben-Hur (1959)

General Lew Wallace's source novel was the first work of fiction to be blessed by a Pope.

Wallace was born in 1827 in Brookville, Indiana. He studied law under his father, the state governor, and fought in the Mexican War. After the war, he finished his law studies and married Susan Arnold Elston, a writer whose novel Ginevra, or the Old Oak Chest was a famous tear-jerker of its day. In the Civil War he served as major-general at Shiloh and distinguished himself in the Battle of Monocacy. After the war, he wrote his first novel, a romance about the conquest of Mexico, followed by a stint as Governor of the Territory of New Mexico. In 1881, a year after publishing Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (dedicated to his wife), he was appointed Minister to Turkey by President James Garfield. Wallace died in 1905, and his image represents the state of Indiana in the Statuary Hall in the nation's Capitol.

Ben-Hur held the record for the most Academy Awards for a single film (11) until it was tied by Titanic (1997). With an equal number of awards going to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), it's now a three-way tie between these three movies.

Well before the release of Ben-Hur, MGM had created considerable buzz by mounting a full schedule of interviews a year and a half before it ever hit the screen, as Charlton Heston noted with some dismay in his production diary. The filming of the chariot race, in particular, provided a great deal of fodder for the studio's publicity machine.

Joseph Vogel, president of Loew's Inc. (MGM's parent company), told the Wall Street Journal the studio was "being besieged by theater owners from all over the world" clamoring for special showings of Ben-Hur. Many even offered to spend up to $50,000 in renovations just to be worthy of exhibiting the epic.

Vogel announced that ticket prices for Ben-Hur would be higher than usual, with weekend seats going as high as $3.

According to a November 30, 1959, article in Time magazine, the picture had run up the biggest advance sale ($500,000) in film history.

Sneak previews of Ben-Hur were held in Denver, Dallas, and San Diego.

The film premiered in November 1959, first in New York (to an audience of Manhattan society and Wall Street bigwigs), then Los Angeles. It became an instant hit. From a budget of $15 million (the costliest movie ever made at that time) it has grossed to date (by various estimates) anywhere from 40 to 90 million. By any count, it was the top box office attraction for 1960.

For extra publicity, Charlton Heston was filmed at the theater box office selling tickets to the New York opening.

At the time of its release, Ben-Hur was the third-longest film ever released (3 hours, 37 minutes, not including a 15-minute intermission), behind Gone with the Wind (1939) at 3 hours, 42 minutes, and The Ten Commandments (1956) at 3 hours, 39 minutes.

Mikls Rzsa said that of his three Academy Awards (including Spellbound, 1945, and A Double Life, 1947), the one he most cherished was for Ben-Hur.

"It's a great lesson for any filmmaker who is confronted with trying to tell a personal story with a huge historical scope. You just remember you've got to have a great landscape but that landscape means nothing if there's not a human face to go in there." cinematographer Ernest Dickerson in the documentary Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (2005)

"[This year] I made the picture that may or may not be the best I'll ever make, but it'll certainly either press me into the thin, airless reaches where the supernovas drift or demonstrate conclusively that my orbit is a different one. ... Whether the film I made turns out to be memorable or not, I know the year we spent making it will be...and Rome will mark us all forever." Charlton Heston's December 31, 1958, entry in his production journal

"I don't think it is more pretentious than the story dictates. If you have to have a chariot race, you have to have stands of people around it and you have to fill the stands with five or six thousand people not because you want to, but because you can't have empty stands. We would have much preferred to have a cross-country chariot race; it would have been much cheaper. We could have gone across the hills of Rome and down dirt roads and along beaches, and we could have saved a couple of million dollars." William Wyler, in a 1967 interview in Cinema magazine, reacting to criticism of the size of the production and presentation of the story

Although the Catholic Legion of Decency gave Ben-Hur its highest rating, not all religious organizations praised it. Jesuit writers panned it, noting in particular that all Romans were portrayed as stupid and ignoble and that the film had all the subtlety of a cheap Western quickie. The Christian Century suggested Protestants challenge its "promotion of lurid distortions of the Bible." Director William Wyler responded in a UPI wire story that it was not a biblical film but first-century fiction.

Director William Wyler was born in Germany in 1902. At the age of 18 he was offered a job in Hollywood by his mother's first cousin, Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle. He directed his first picture, a Western short, in 1925, and continued to work primarily in that genre for a few more years. Wyler's long career took in crime stories (Dead End, 1937), costume dramas (Jezebel, 1938), romantic comedies (Roman Holiday, 1953), musicals (Funny Girl, 1968), and adaptations of novels and stage plays, the type of film for which he is perhaps best known: Wuthering Heights (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), The Heiress (1949), The Children's Hour (1961). He was nominated for Academy Awards 12 times and won three, for Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1947), and Ben-Hur. Wyler died in 1981.

Producer Sam Zimbalist also oversaw production of the epic Quo Vadis (1951), which was also Academy Award-nominated for Best Picture. His other notable production credits included the Clark Gable vehicles Boom Town (1940) and Mogambo (1953) and the war drama Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Because he died during production, his wife accepted the Best Picture Academy Award for Ben-Hur on his behalf. He had been a film cutter on the 1925 version of Ben-Hur.

Andrew Marton, who filmed the chariot race, was upset when he saw the final prints of the film listing him as only one of three second-unit directors, the minimum credit required by his MGM contract, instead of noting his full contribution, which he said Wyler had told him was one of the greatest cinematic achievements. Marton said he was sure that if producer Sam Zimbalist had lived, he would have been credited on screen as director of the race. Marton had also been a second unit director on Wyler's Mrs. Miniver, handling the Dunkirk sequence.

Acclaimed cinematographer Robert Surtees (1906-1985) won his third Academy Award with Ben-Hur; the others were King Solomon's Mines (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). He was nominated 13 other times for such films as Oklahoma! (1956), The Graduate (1967), and The Last Picture Show (1971). Surtees was sometimes known as "The Prince of Darkness" for his masterful use of light and shadow, evident in some scenes of Ben-Hur.

Irish-born Stephen Boyd (Messala) made several pictures before Ben-Hur, but this was his biggest to that date, and with its success he was often typecast for costume epics. He was supposed to have played Antony opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963), a role that notoriously went to Richard Burton after numerous production delays forced Boyd out of the cast. He also appeared as Nimrod in The Bible (1966) and was in the Asian-set epic Genghis Khan (1965). He was Sophia Loren's leading man in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), a film whose failure he later blamed for the waning of his career. Boyd died of a heart attack while playing golf in 1977, a month before he would have turned 46.

Cathy O'Donnell, who played Judah's sister Tirzah, was married to director William Wyler's writer-producer-director brother Robert from 1948 until her death at the age of 46 in 1970 after a long struggle with cancer. She was also directed by William Wyler in The Best Years of Our Lives and Detective Story (1951). The latter film was co-written and produced by her husband.

Israeli actress Haya Harareet (Esther) was married to British director Jack Clayton (Room at the Top, 1959, The Great Gatsby, 1974) until his death in 1995.

Although only 11 years older than Charlton Heston, Martha Scott (Miriam) played his mother in this film and in The Ten Commandments. Wyler previously directed her in The Desperate Hours (1955). She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar® for Our Town (1940).

Karl Tunberg, who wrote the first draft of Ben-Hur and successfully insisted on sole credit (despite its being substantially reworked by several other writers), was president of the Screen Writers Guild from 1950 to 1951. He contributed scripts for many films and television shows in his 40-year career and was Oscar®-nominated for this picture and (with co-writer Darrell Ware) for Tall, Dark and Handsome (1941).

According to Louella Parsons's newspaper column from July 31, 1958, Claude Heater, who played Jesus, was a young American singer discovered performing in Rome by production manager Henry Hennigson, who thought he had a very "spiritual" face (and, incidentally, a magnificent voice). He was tested and given the part because Wyler and producer Sam Zimbalist thought he resembled the traditional conception of Christ. His face is never seen in the film, but this opinion is borne out by production stills.

The day player who, as a Roman soldier, was given the line "No water for him" as Ben-Hur is being marched off into slavery, inadvertently engraved himself on the memory of those involved in the production. An American actor living in Rome, he was discovered by Wyler and sent for by the director when he realized the bit player had not been brought from the city to the set as expected. Wyler sent a special car for him and, as Charlton Heston noted in his production journal, the delay cost the studio some $15,000. When he delivered his line, it came out "No water for heem!" That became a running gag, and for years after, Heston and Wyler greeted each other with the line. According to Heston, the man never made another picture but did open a very successful restaurant in the Trastevere section of Rome.

The MGM Camera 65 process used in shooting Ben-Hur (and first employed in 1955 on Raintree County, 1957) later became known as Panavision. The company today remains a leading designer, manufacturer and supplier of film and digital cameras, lenses, and accessories for motion pictures and television.

Although uncredited, future Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone and noted Italian writer-director Mario Soldati reportedly served as a second unit directors on Ben-Hur. MGM contract director Richard Thorpe (Three Little Words [1950], Ivanhoe [1952], Jailhouse Rock [1957]) provided some uncredited third unit direction, although on which scenes is not clear.

Frank Thring, the Australian actor who played Pontius Pilate, later played Herod in another Jesus flick, King of Kings (1961). He also played Herod in an acclaimed 1950s stage production of Oscar Wilde's Salome. His father, Frank Thring, Sr., invented the forerunner of the clapperboard still in use in film production today.

One night, during the run of the stage version in the early 20th century, there was a malfunction in the treadmill used for the chariot scene and a resulting confusion on the part of the horses that caused Messala, and not Ben-Hur, to win the race. But the cast carried on as if the hero had won after all.

Memorable Quotes from BEN-HUR

MESSALA (Stephen Boyd): By condemning without hesitation an old friend, I shall be feared.

QUINTUS (Jack Hawkins): Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.

QUINTUS: (to Ben-Hur) Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.

SHEIK ILDERIM (Hugh Griffith): One God, that I can understand; but one wife? That is not civilized.

SHEIK ILDERIM: You think you can treat my horses like animals?

JUDAH BEN-HUR (Charlton Heston): When the Romans were marching me to the galleys, thirst had nearly killed me. A man gave me water to drink, and I went on living. I should have done better if I'd poured it into the sand!

BALTHASAR (Finlay Currie): I see this terrible thing in your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur, but no matter what this man has done to you, you have no right to take his life. He will be punished inevitably.
JUDAH BEN-HUR: I don't believe in miracles.
BALTHASAR: Your whole life is a miracle! Why will you not accept God's judgment?

ESTHER (Haya Harareet): It was Judah Ben-Hur I loved. What has become of him? You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil! Hatred is turning you to stone. It is as though you had become Messala!

JUDAH BEN-HUR: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
ESTHER: Even then.
JUDAH BEN-HUR: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser Ben-Hur (1959)

The story began its life in 1880 as Ben-Hur, a Tale of the Christ, a tremendously popular novel by General Lew Wallace that achieved immediate and long-lasting success, eventually outselling every other book except the Bible.

By 1899, the book had sold 400,000 copies, and Wallace finally gave his permission to adapt it to the stage. His biggest concern about a dramatized version of the story was how Jesus would be portrayed. The show's producers satisfied the author by coming up with the idea to portray Christ only as an intense shaft of light. They also solved the problem of staging the chariot scene by putting the vehicles and horses on a treadmill in front of a revolving panorama. Still running in 1920, the show had been seen by 20 million people and grossed $10 million.

A 1907 film version was produced by the Kalem Company, which was sued by Wallace's family for using the material without permission. This version established what would become the basic cinematic structure of all future versions and utilized 16 distinct scenes or episodes taken directly from the novel.

After several years of negotiations by a number of interested parties, the legal film rights were finally sold to the Goldwyn company. The production, which was set up on location in Italy, was plagued with many problems and astronomical cost overruns. When the company was eventually subsumed into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the new studio heads forced the production to return to the U.S. for completion in the studio (in many cases scenes had to be completely reshot) where they would have greater control over it, with a new director (Fred Niblo) and star (Ramon Novarro). By its opening in December 1925, however, it had run up costs of $4 million and took years to recoup the money invested in it.

MGM still owned the rights to Ben-Hur when lavish costume epics became popular again in the 1950s. Since the end of World War II, the studio had been rocked by financial losses and rancorous regime changes. In mid-decade, Joseph Vogel had emerged as the company's new president and immediately proposed several big projects to stem recent losses; Ben-Hur was one of them, although the idea had been raised earlier by both former studio head Dore Schary and producer Sam Zimbalist, who had had it in mind since he produced the Roman epic Quo Vadis (1951). The studio made sure no prints of its 1925 version were still in distribution before undertaking what would be one of their most expensive and complex productions. Zimbalist was assigned as producer, with the added burden of knowing that if he failed, the studio would likely go bankrupt.

Zimbalist approached acclaimed filmmaker William Wyler in 1957 to direct. Wyler at first thought he was joking. The German-born director had been working in Hollywood since the silent era, making his name primarily with literate, character-driven dramas such as Dodsworth (1936), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and The Heiress (1949). When the producer came to him, he was at work on his most recent production, The Big Country (1958), a Western-set drama starring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. He asked Zimbalist why he didn't want Cecil B. DeMille, or someone like him with an interest in and talent for spectacle. Zimbalist said he believed the spectacle would take care of itself and that he wanted Wyler to bring depth and intimacy to the more personal angle at the heart of the story. He convinced Wyler to at least read the script.

MGM apparently had many scripts of the story, but the one chosen was written by Karl Tunberg, whose only notable credits had been some Alice Faye musicals at Fox and, for MGM, the Regency Era costume drama Beau Brummell (1954), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Stewart Granger.

Wyler thought the script was too primitive and elementary; however, after seeing elaborate storyboards of the chariot race sequence, he became intrigued, offering to direct this portion of the story as an uncredited second unit director. He tried to convince Zimbalist that his early experience as a director of Westerns would be valuable to the task, but the producer thought it was a foolish idea and asked Wyler to read the novel.

Wyler became intrigued by the characters in the book and by the theme of the Jewish people fighting for their lives and freedom. In 1956, the young Israeli state had begun a pre-emptive strike against Egypt that was curtailed by condemnation from the U.S., lending extra resonance to the theme. He was also attracted to the notion that the enmity between the hero and villain had grown out of their close childhood friendship.

Because the production would be based at Rome's famous Cinecitta studios, taking the job meant uprooting his family to Italy for a year or more. The Wylers had enjoyed their time there during the shooting of his romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953), so they were eager to return. The deal he got from MGM made the move even more attractive: a $350,000 salary (plus expenses and share of the profits), a fully staffed villa, and a chauffeured limo constantly at their disposal.

A preproduction budget of $7 million was set, and Andrew Marton, who had co-directed MGM's big-budget adventure King Solomon's Mines (1950) and parts of the Cinerama travelogue Seven Wonders of the World (1956), was assigned the task of directing the chariot race.

At the time, writer Gore Vidal was under contract to Metro and brought in to work on Tunberg's script. He agreed, with the stipulation that they let him out of the last two years of his contract. Vidal says one of his major contributions to the script was to suggest to Wyler that they do the first scene between Messala and Judah as a lover's quarrel, having Boyd play the Roman with the emotional intensity of someone who would "blow a fuse" after being spurned. Vidal says Boyd and Wyler agreed but that the director warned they had to keep the tactic secret from Heston. In later years, Wyler denied such a conversation or approach ever occurred.

In his production diaries of Ben-Hur, Heston noted the rehearsal of Vidal's rewrite of the Judah-Messala scene, which he called "much better" than the version in the original script. However, in notes he added later to the published edition of the diaries, he insisted neither that scene nor any of Vidal's others had ever been shot, adding his opinion that extravagance and disdain were Vidal's natural qualities, particularly where claims of authorship of Ben-Hur were concerned.

Earlier versions of Tunberg's script had been tweaked by noted playwrights S.N. Behrman and Maxwell Anderson, but Wyler still felt it needed work, especially to lend a more classic tone to the dialogue. He and Zimbalist next hired British playwright Christopher Fry, who at last delivered what Wyler felt was needed, changing such lines as "Did you enjoy your dinner?" to "Was the food to your liking?" Fry did a substantial amount of work on the script, but neither his name nor Vidal's, Behrman's, or Anderson's appear on the credits. Tunberg, former president of the Writers Guild, successfully blocked them from getting any credit, a move that particularly upset Wylerand likely led to the screenplay being the only one out of 11 Academy Award nominations that did not go home a winner.

Fry reluctantly retained the female love interest from the original script. He thought the character should be dropped and focus should be fixed on the emotional love-hate relationship between Judah and Messala, an opinion with which Heston concurred.

By the time pre-production on Ben-Hur began in earnest, Charlton Heston was announced as the lead and Irish actor Stephen Boyd was cast as Messala. According to many sources, other actors had been considered for the role of Judah, among them Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, and Burt Lancaster, a self-professed atheist who reportedly turned it down because he didn't like the religious aspects of the story.

Gore Vidal said Paul Newman was also in the running for the lead, but after his disastrous film debut in a costume epic, The Silver Chalice (1954), he vowed never to do another movie in a toga.

Gore Vidal said there was an open call for the main roles, and test footage of various actors, including Italian actor Cesare Danova as Judah and Leslie Nielsen as Messala, can be seen in the documentary, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (1993). In his production diaries, Heston also mentions trying to help Chuck Connors get the role of Messala.

The finished script had 45 principal parts (although MGM publicity department hype was touting 360 speaking parts). A combination of British and American actors were cast, in accord with Wyler's decision to have all the Romans played by Brits and all the Jews played by Americans. There were two exceptions. Israeli actress Haya Harareet was cast as Judah's love interest, Esther and British actress Marie Ney was cast as his mother, but she was replaced after shooting some initial scenes by American performer Martha Scott.

According to his Ben-Hur production diaries, Heston's deal was $250,000 for 30 weeks work, to be prorated if production ran over, plus travel and expenses.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Ben-Hur (1959)

More than 300 sets were built on location at the Cinecitta studies in Rome for Ben-Hur. They were constructed following 15,000 sketches and covered more than 340 acres. The city of Jerusalem set took up 10 square blocks. Altogether, the production used about 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, more than a million pounds of plaster, and 250 miles of metal tubing. Ben-Hur's house was constructed of wood frame covered with stucco painted to look like stone. Sculptors cast more than 200 pieces of statuary to supplement the thousands of props used from Cinecitta's warehouse.

The chariot arena was built by more than 1,000 workers beginning in January 1958, according to some reports. It was 2,000 feet long by 65 feet wide and covered 18 acres, the largest single set in motion picture history to that time. Reputedly, 40,000 tons of white sand was imported from Mexico for the track.

Famed stuntman Yakima Canutt was brought in to coordinate all the chariot race stunt work and train the drivers. Heston was among the first to begin training, arriving on location a few months ahead of scheduled shooting. He was also there to do costume fittings.

Heston mastered the driving of the four-horse team more quickly than anyone else in the chariot scene, probably because of his experience with the smaller two-horse chariots he drove in The Ten Commandments (1956). Nevertheless, he was concerned about his ability to pull off the race with all the other teams on the track. Canutt assured him, "You just stay in the chariot; I guarantee you'll win the damn race."

Stephen Boyd had a much more difficult time driving the chariots. His hands and wrists blistered, and rest time had to be scheduled.

Although only about 36 horses would ever be seen on screen during the race, 82 animals (to cover for accidents and rest periods) were brought in from Yugoslavia.

Because the main set for the chariot race was still being built, an identical track was constructed next to it to train horses and drivers and lay out camera shots.

Principal photography on Ben-Hur began May 20, 1958, with a scene between Heston and Hugh Griffith as the horse trader Sheik Ilderim.

On May 24, the first spectacular scene for Ben-Hur was shotthe entrance of the chariots into the arena, with 8,000 extras on hand.

The chariot scene alone cost about $4 million, or about a fourth of the entire budget, and took 10 weeks to shoot.

According to Andrew Marton, who directed the chariot race, the track was constructed of steamrolled ground rock debris covered with 10 inches of ground lava and finished with eight inches of crushed yellow rock to make the surface hard enough to hold the weight of the chariots and horses while still having enough give not to make the horses lame (which Marton said was achieved by a top of sand). After one day of shooting, the upper layer of rock was removed because it had slowed the pace of the race considerably. The lava layer, which Marton and Canutt had initially opposed, proved to be the most workable element.

Marton had three 65mm cameras at his disposal for shooting the race. The larger format film proved to be an issue. The standard close-up lens for 35mm photography was 100mm; it became, in the wide-screen process, a 200mm lens, which could not be focused closer than 50 feet. So he had to use a 140mm lens, requiring him and his crew to move closer to the dangerous action of the race.

After a few days of shooting, Marton discovered the most effective way to shoot in the arena would be to have the cameras right in the midst of the race, necessitating a camera car that moved with the chariots. He also noted that the best shots on the curves were done using a specially built camera chariot with rubber tires.

The heat of Rome proved to be a serious drawback for the action scenes in Ben-Hur. Horses could only make about eight runs a day at most. Because of this, most of the shots in the race were done on the first take.

Marton said Boyd and Heston really did all their own driving, although for the scene where Judah's chariot flips over a crashed one, Canutt's son Joe was brought in. Driving toward the wreck at great speed, the younger Canutt could not hear his father screaming "Too fast! Too Fast!" The chariot easily sailed over the wreckage but bounced hard when it came down, flipping Joe over the front and between the two horses. Luckily, he had instinctively grabbed the cross-bar on the chariot to keep from falling out and under the horses' hooves, but he was still dragged for some feet. He was rushed to emergency care but suffered only a cut on his chin requiring four stitches. Marton called it the most spectacular stunt he had ever seen.

The shot where Messala's body is dragged behind and under his own chariot was tried first with a dummy, but it looked bad. Boyd was protected with some steel pads and did it himself.

During a shot of chariots swinging around the large curve, two of the vehicles smashed into the cameras, which were fortunately protected by a wooden barricade. Nevertheless, production was held up for small repairs and testing on the cameras. No cast, crew or horses were badly injured in the mishap.

Marton later said that, to his knowledge, never before in one motion picture were there so many short cuts in a sequence of only 11 minutes duration, many of which were reduced to only a foot or more of film.

Wyler kept up a 16-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week schedule for the nine months it took to shoot Ben-Hur.

Heston said Wyler was not reluctant to change his mind about an approach to a scene or character, resulting in frequently conflicting direction. He also noted in his diary: "I doubt [Wyler] likes actors very much. He doesn't empathize with themthey irritate him on the set. He gets very impatient, but invariably they come off well. The only answer I have is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it." Heston made a big blunder early on by composing a lengthy "Selznick-type memo" outlining his ideas about his character in the first scene with Messala. He later noted that it took him considerable time to get back in Wyler's good graces after doing that and may have had something to do with the rough time the director gave him during production. He also wrote that Wyler once told him he wished he (Wyler) could be a nice guy on the set but that "you can't make a good picture that way."

Heston noted favorably that Wyler, who had no experience with such a large-scale movie, was "no more awed by a $10-million-plus production than he is by a $3-million one."

Fry remained on the set throughout the production of Ben-Hur ("to the profit of the picture and the eventual chagrin of Vidal," Heston wrote), making script changes where necessary. And changes were still needed in the tone of the dialogue to avoid what Wyler thought would sound like everyday American vernacular rather than the classic literary tone he wanted. For instance, when Cathy O'Donnell, as Judah's sister Tirzah, uttered the line "Dinner is ready," Martha Scott, as mother Miriam, remarked, "That sounds like Andy Hardy."

Wyler decided he wanted blue-eyed Stephen Boyd to have a contrasting look to the equally blue-eyed Heston. So he was fitted with dark-colored contact lenses. Over the course of shooting, they began to hurt him terribly, forcing a rescheduling of scenes so he could rest his eyes.

One of the problems Wyler and director of photography Robert Surtees encountered was composing shots for the wide-screen process. They had to figure out how to avoid empty screen space, wanting neither to film two actors in a vast screen void nor fill the frame with pointless, distracting elements.

Lighting scenes for the camera that had to be used for the larger format (then called Metro 65, later known as the Panavision process) also proved complicated. Light couldn't be brought in too close to the action since the camera was very sensitive to it, so scaffolding had to be built to place the lights farther away. Nevertheless, the combination of "blazing sun, blazing reflectors, equally blazing 10-K spots," according to Heston, made acting very difficult.

The 65mm cameras were also extremely heavy; it took four men with steel bars to move them, so Wyler ended up using a crane most of the time.

By summer, costs had already ballooned to $10 million, nearly 50% higher than the original budget. Joseph Vogel, president of Loew's, MGM's parent company, came over from New York to say that there was growing concern among the board and stockholders over the picture. He asked Wyler if there was anything he could do to help; the director politely answered "No, thank you," and continued shooting. Vogel left for a five-week European business trip. When he returned to the set, Wyler had returned to pick up the scene he had been shooting on Vogel's last day before his trip, now improved by some new wording from Fry. The nervous company boss wondered if they had been filming the same scene the entire time.

The pace and scope of the production, combined with miserable summer heat, began taking a toll on everyone, although it was never so bad that, as MGM publicity claimed, a 20-bed hospital staffed with two doctors and two nurses was on hand. Veteran General Manager Henry Henigson was forced to take a vacation on Capri, but he returned after four days, too involved with the production to stay away.

The most tragic casualty of the production, however, was 54-year-old producer Sam Zimbalist, who collapsed and died of a heart attack 40 minutes after leaving the set complaining of chest pains.

Less than two weeks after Zimbalist's death, word reached the set that 44-year-old Tyrone Power had suffered a fatal heart attack on location in Spain while filming a dueling scene for the biblical epic Solomon and Sheba (1959). The news shook 35-year-old Heston, who opted to carry Cathy O'Donnell's 90-pound stand-in during a scene they shot that day, rather than the actress herself. (Power was replaced in his movie by Yul Brynner.)

It was estimated that 500 journalists visited the Ben-Hur set during production.

The last shot of the epic movie was filmed on January 7, 1959. It was of Ben-Hur watching Christ's body being taken down from the cross.

By the end of photography, approximately a million and a quarter feet of the expensive 65mm Eastmancolor film had been exposed, and processed at a cost of roughly $1 per foot.

After shooting, the studio ordered the dismantling of all the sets (at a cost of $150,000), partially to sell off whatever could be salvaged and partly to prevent Italian epic producers from using the same materials.

Vogel asked Wyler to stay on through post-production to supervise the cutting, scoring, and release of Ben-Hur, and offered him an additional $100,000.

Oscar®-winning composer Mikls Rzsa (Spellbound, 1945, A Double Life, 1947) labored to create a 110-minute score (excluding the overture), using such devices as fourths, fifths, and inversions to create an archaic, heroic atmosphere, and weaving folk motifs and marches into the narrative.

Wyler's wife said that as soon as photography was done and he and his cast left Rome, he started getting migraines, which lasted until Ben-Hur opened in November 1959.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Ben-Hur (1959)

Awards and Honors

Ben-Hur was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and winner of 11 (the most awards for a single film up to that point): Best Picture, Director, Actor (Charlton Heston), Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Cinematography (Color), Costume Design (Color), Special Effects, Editing, Music, Sound. The controversy over the writing credit helped prevent Karl Tunberg from winning the adapted screenplay award.

It won Best Film from any Source at the British Academy Awards

Best Foreign Production in the David Di Donatello Awards, the Italian film industry's highest honor.

Other honors for Ben-Hur include:
- Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement Award for William Wyler
- Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture Drama, Director, and Supporting Actor (Stephen Boyd); nomination for Best Actor (Heston)
- A Grammy nomination to Mikls Rzsa for Best Soundtrack Album
- National Board of Review Best Supporting Actor Award (Griffith) and Special Citation to Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt for direction of the chariot race
- New York Film Critics Award for Best Film

- Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Written American Drama to Karl Tunberg, the only name the Guild would allow on the credits
- Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing from the Motion Picture Sound Editors USA

In 2004, Ben-Hur was chosen by the National Film Preservation Board to be one of the movies preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

The film ranked #72 in the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the 100 greatest movies; in the updated (2007) list, it was dropped to #100.

The Critics' Corner: BEN-HUR

"Within the expansive format of the so-called 'blockbuster' spectacle film, which generally provokes a sublimation of sensibility to action and pageantry, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and William Wyler have managed to engineer a remarkably intelligent and engrossing human drama.... Without for one moment neglecting the tempting opportunities for thundering scenes of massive movement and mob excitement that are abundantly contained in the famous novel of Gen. Lew Wallace, upon which this picture is based, Mr. Wyler and his money-free producers have smartly and effectively laid stress on the powerful and meaningful personal conflicts that are strong in this old heroic tale."
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, November 19, 1959

"Out of this sea of celluloid, a masterful director, William Wyler, has fished a whale of a picture, the biggest and the best of Hollywood's super-spectacles. ... The film has its failures. The movie hero is pretty much an overgrown boy scout who never experiences the moral struggles that beset the hero of the book. Then, too, the story sometimes lags-not, oddly enough, because it is too long but because it is too short. For the final script, M-G-M eliminated an entire subplot that gives the middle of the story its shape and suspense. But the religious theme is handled with rare restraint and good taste. ... The well ordered, and its lines sometimes sing with good rhetoric and quiet poetry. The actors, for the most part, play in the grand manner, but with controlled firmness. ... [Wyler's] wit, intelligence and formal instinct are almost everywhere in evidence, and he has set a standard of excellence by which coming generations of screen spectacles can expect to be measured."
Time, November 30, 1959

"It is supremely ironic that a director who later claimed that Ben-Hur 'was never intended to be anything more or less than an adventure story with no artistic pretensions at all' should have given the cinema the richest, and perhaps noblest, historical epic of all."
Derek Elley, The Epic Film: Myth and History (Routledge, 1984)

"Although a bit like a four-hour Sunday school lesson, Ben-Hur is not without its compensations, above all, of course, the chariot race.... The rest is made interesting by the most sexually ambivalent characters sporting togas this side of Satyricon [1969]. When not fondling phallic substitutes, Heston and Boyd gaze admiringly into each other's eyes, but when they fall outwell, hell hath no fury like a closet queen scorned. ... The movie could be trying to say that for some people religion is an escape from their sexuality, but it seems unlikely."
Scott Meek, Time Out Film Guide (Penguin, 2000)

"The 1959 film is less a tale of the Christ than a spectacle cleverly navigating the political minefields of the day. Its themes include the threatened extinction of the Jews, the value of passive resistance, the evils of informing, and Jewish-Arab solidarity. Hollywood liberalism meets Christian conservatism without rustling anyone's feathers, an achievement more awesome than racing chariots, battling pirates, and vanishing leprosy."
Gary Giddins, New York Sun, September 27, 2005

Dwight Macdonald in Esquire was one of the very few mainstream critics to pan the film, saying it was like watching a freight train go by and complaining that the story had switched the responsibility for Christ's death from the Jews to the Romans, a remark that earned him about 100 letters of protest and which he retracted, with some qualification, a few years later in his review of King of Kings (1961).

"Big-budget epic is quite watchable, but a bit syrupy once Messala is no longer around. The chariot-race sequence and the sea battle still hold up nicely, but there is nothing else exciting in the picture."
- Danny Peary, Guide For the Film Fanatic

"Lew Wallace's hectic potboiler-classic has everything - even leprosy. M-G-M laid on the cash and William Wyler directed, with several busy assistants...Has anyone ever been able to detect the contributions to the script of Gore Vidal, Christopher Fry, and S. N. Behrman? Could they?"
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies

"Ben-Hur climaxed a wave of religious epics in the 1950s, and I suppose the trend speaks to a real devoutness in the nation. If only those films' directors had anything like vision or faith in their minds. It remains one of the great ironies of film history that Hollywood was making this kind of heavenly-choir bombast at exactly the time when Robert Bresson was directing some of the most genuinely spiritual films ever made...The rare passages of excitement, like the chariot race, are delivered by unit directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. If only they had been given the whole project."
- David Thomson, Have You Seen...?

"One of the great movie spectacles, and a tour de force for its star, Charlton Heston. In remaking the 1927 silent classic, quality-conscious director William Wyler shines the old chestnut up."
- TV Guide

"The most tasteful and visually exciting film spectacle yet produced by an American company."
- Albert Johnson, Film Quarterly

"Spectacular without being a spectacle...not only is it not simple-minded, it is downright literate."
- Saturday Review

"A major motion picture phenomenon."
- Films in Review

compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser Ben-Hur (1959)

According to official Oscar® historian Robert Osborne, the April 4, 1960 telecast of the Academy Award ceremony was the last time during the first 60 years that the motion picture industry sponsored the annual proceedings. It is not difficult to see why. The financial burden of putting on the show had become too heavy, and due to MGM's dual big wins with Gigi (1958) and Ben-Hur (1959), it had become increasingly difficult to convince studios to pay for an expensive telecast that largely showcased a rival studio's pictures.

But despite MGM's exalted position in Hollywood, the studio's decision to bring Lew Wallace's sprawling epic novel Ben-Hur to the screen was risky. The inspiration to make a new version of Ben-Hur was influenced by Cecil B. DeMille's remake of his own The Ten Commandments, a huge box office bonanza for Paramount in 1956. The MGM brass figured a remake of their 1925 sword and sandal epic (Ramon Novarro played the title role) would most likely reap similar profits. But at the time, the once-mighty studio was teetering on financial ruin. The competition with television and the effects of the 1948 consent decrees, those that divested the studios of their theater chains, had its greatest impact on mega-studios like MGM. So the decision to pour $15 million into a project that had been filmed once already in 1925 had a few Hollywood insiders smelling blood-red ink. Still, Ben-Hur, what director William Wyler termed "Hollywood's first intimate spectacle," turned out to be an enormous financial and critical success, grossing $37 million domestically and $80 million worldwide in its initial run. It broke box office records everywhere, sustaining Leo the Lion's famous roar above the bankruptcy wolves for another decade or so.

Once it came time for the Academy Awards, Ben-Hur led the pack with twelve nominations. It eventually won eleven Oscars from its twelve nominations, losing the screenplay category only because of a credit dispute among its authors, Karl Tunberg and Christopher Fry. Tunberg got sole screenwriting credit, even though Fry, who was on the set with director William Wyler throughout the production, worked extensively on the script as well. Gore Vidal also contributed to the screenplay but was also denied credit by the Writers Guild. Ben-Hur still holds the title of a single movie with the most Oscars, although another epic, Titanic (1997), tied the record nearly 40 years later.

When Charlton Heston appeared on the list of nominees for Best Actor, many in Hollywood were surprised because they didn't think his performance matched the caliber of Jack Lemmon's in Some Like It Hot or Laurence Harvey's in Room at the Top or even James Stewart's in Anatomy of a Murder. Lemmon's chances, in particular, were probably hampered by the fact that Some Like It Hot failed to score a Best Picture nomination and comedies are usually overlooked as serious contenders. Despite that minor controversy, columnists predicted that Heston would enjoy an easy chariot ride to the winner's podium on Oscar night, since everyone expected a landslide victory for Ben-Hur.

Indeed, Heston did win for the night, and he even managed to surprise some head honchos when he included in his acceptance speech gratitude towards the film's uncredited writer, Christopher Fry. It was the Writers Guild, specifically, that was angry with Heston for mentioning Fry, after all the trouble that the Guild went through over determining screenplay credit. But Heston insisted that Fry had been on the set regularly, helping him with his characterization. Upon meeting with the press after his acceptance speech, a reporter asked Heston backstage which scene in Ben-Hur he enjoyed filming the most, apparently alluding to the chariot race that had everyone in Hollywood talking for months. The winner quickly responded, "I didn't enjoy any of it. It was hard work." Heston did like winning though and commented to his fellow winner and director, William Wyler, "I guess this is old hat to you." Wyler, a three-time winner, retorted, "Chuck, it never gets old hat."

Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Karl Tunberg
Production Design: Edward C. Carfagno
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Costume Design: Elizabeth Haffenden
Film Editing: Ralph Winters
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben Hur), Stephen Boyd (Mesala), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim)
C-223m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.

by Scott McGee

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