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The film opens with a title card reading "Overture," which appears for several minutes while Miklos Rozsa's score is played. Following a title card bearing the M-G-M logo, another reads "Anno Domini" [Year of the Lord], followed by the film's main title. The next card reads "A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace." After these title cards, a brief prologue is presented, accompanied by an offscreen narration by Finlay Currie. The narration states that, throughout the Roman Empire, a census was being taken requiring everyone to return to the town of their birth.
As the historical narration describes the dominance of the Romans over a vast empire that included Judea, brief scenes of Joseph the Carpenter from Judea, who accompanies his pregnant wife Mary to Bethlehem, are presented. At night, three men, Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior, see a bright star in the sky and follow it to Bethlehem, where they present gifts to Mary's baby, who has been born in a stable, in fulfillment of Biblical prophesies about the birth of the Christ.
Following the prologue, the film's credits are presented over reproductions of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" panel from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After William Wyler's directing credit, a final title card reads "Anno Domini XXVI" [Year of the Lord 26]. The main action begins with shots of the now grown Christ walking in the hills, after which "Messala" arrives in Jerusalem. Approximately two hours and twenty minutes into the film, a title card reading "Intermission" appears onscreen while the score briefly is played on the soundtrack. After the intermission, the film resumes after an "Entr'Acte" title card appears onscreen for several minutes as the score is played on a soundtrack. The action then resumes for the final hour and twenty minutes of the story.
Although the film follows Wallace's internationally best-selling nineteenth century novel relatively closely, there are some differences between the 1959 film and the novel, and between M-G-M's 1925 and 1959 adaptations. Two significant changes between the novel and the earlier, silent film are that, while in the 1925 film, the race takes place in Antioch, in the 1959 film it takes place in Judea and, whereas in the novel, Messala lives, but is crippled for life after the race, in the 1925 film the character's death only is implied. In the 1959 film, however, Messala dies in his final confrontation with "Judah Ben-Hur" after the chariot race.
Another important difference between the 1959 film and the novel and earlier film is that, although audiences could infer that Judah would become a Christian at the end of the 1959 film, it is implied rather than being overtly stated. (For additional information on Wallace's career and the history of the novel, please consult the entry above for the 1925 Ben-Hur).
The 1959 film had a long and complex production history. The following information was assembled from contemporary news items, feature articles, reviews and the film's commemorative booklet, unless otherwise noted: Ben-Hur's development began as early as the summer of 1953, when M-G-M production chief Dore Schary, studio general manager E. J. Mannix, Nicholas Schenck, president of M-G-M's parent company and distribution arm, Loew's Inc., and producer Sam Zimbalist came together to discuss the idea. A October 5, 1953 front page story in Hollywood Reporter announced M-G-M's plans for the new adaptation of Wallace's novel to be their top production of 1954, which tentatively was to begin shooting in Italy in July 1954. M-G-M's 1925 adaptation was one of the most popular films of the 1920s, and had been the studio's biggest financial success for many years. According to various contemporary articles, executives hoped that the large-scale production would reverse the studio's then precarious financial situation.
According to news items in early 1954, Zimbalist, who had produced M-G-M's successful 1951 epic Quo Vadis , was heading the project, and Karl Tunberg was given the assignment to write the screenplay for what was budgeted as a $5,000,000 production to be shot in Rome. Various news items in 1953 and 1954 mention Marlon Brando, Vittorio Gassman, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Van Johnson and Edmund Purdom as prospective leads for the film, with Brando mentioned in several sources as the apparent favorite. Actresses mentioned in news items as being considered or tested at the time included Ava Gardner and Pier Angeli for "Esther," and Taina Elg for "Iras," a role that was in the 1925 Ben-Hur, but omitted from the later film.
Trade articles variously reported delays in the start of production, with some news items indicating that, for a time, the studio considered shooting the film in the U.S. instead of Rome. Throughout 1955, Sidney Franklin was to be the film's director, with Richard Burton a strong contender for the title role. At this time, actors Ray Danton, Ronald Lewis and Bill Travers were mentioned as having been tested for major roles in the film, probably for Messala.
In October 1955, a Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the production was being delayed for several months beyond the previously announced spring 1956 start date. According to a 1959 Los Angeles Examiner feature on the film, a 1957 postponement came about soon after upheavals at M-G-M and Loew's Inc. resulted in Schary and Schenck leaving the company. At that time, Franklin removed himself from the project.
According to news items, by February 1957, Wyler, who had been an assistant director and production manager on the 1925 film, was announced as the director, and Italian actor Cesare Danova was "being groomed for the title spot." As shown in a screen test included as added content on the 2004 DVD edition of the film, Danova did a two-scene color test as Judah, with Leslie Nielson as Messala. According to a March 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item, actress Carolyn Craig tested for a role in the film at this time, probably for "Esther."
According to Hollywood Reporter news items from June through November 1957, Hecht-Lancaster-Hill was in negotiations with Loew's Inc. to distribute four of its productions in exchange for Burt Lancaster, one of the three partners in H-L-H starring in Ben-Hur. By November 1957, Hollywood Reporter reported that, while the distribution deal between H-L-H and Loew's had fallen through, Lancaster was still favored as the lead in Ben-Hur.
Various contemporary sources noted that Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas also were under consideration for the lead in 1956 and 1957. In modern interviews, contributing writer Gore Vidal has stated that Zimbalist had asked him to approach Vidal's friend, Paul Newman, to play the lead, but Newman, who had been unhappy in a somewhat similar period role in the 1955 film The Silver Chalice , flatly refused.
In January 1958, it was announced in trade papers that Charlton Heston, who had appeared in Wyler's previous film The Big Country was cast in the lead of Ben-Hur. At that point, the production was set for a March 1958 start date. Other actors tested or considered for roles in early 1958 included Carroll Baker for Esther and Scott Brady for "Marcellus," another role not in the final film. Steve Cochran and Victor Mature were reportedly under consideration for Messala, along with Irish actor Stephen Boyd, who finally was selected for the role. Israeli actress Haya Harareet, who was selected to portray Esther just prior to the start of filming, made her American feature-film debut in Ben-Hur.
Actress Marie Ney, whose name was included in Hollywood Reporter production chart cast lists from the beginning of filming through August 22, 1958, was not in the released film. It is possible that Ney was replaced by Martha Scott in the role of "Miriam," as Scott's casting was announced in mid-July 1958 and her name replaced Ney on all charts from August 29, 1958 through the end of production. A mid-production Hollywood Reporter news item included Gia-Carlo Zarfati in the cast, but his appearance in the released film has not been verified. Italian actress Marina Berti, who portrayed "Flavia" in the film, and whose biographical sketch was included in the commemorative booklet, appears onscreen only briefly, sitting next to Heston at the Roman banquet, and has no lines. Berti previously had appeared in a major role in Quo Vadis and, according to contemporary sources, had had a larger role in Ben-Hur, until most of her part was edited out before press previews.
Actor Claude Heater, who portrayed "The Christ" was seen only from the back or in long shots. During the Sermon on the Mount sequence, although people are shown listening intently to the words being spoken, the audience does not hear a voice speaking them. In interviews, Wyler explained that he decided to do this so that audience would experience Christ's presence only from the reaction of the other actors.
As noted in the commemorative booklet and feature articles, a number of European aristocrats and noblemen appeared as extras in the Roman banquet sequence, and it became fashionable for film and television celebrities to visit and have their photographs taken on the set. On January 25, 1959, television host Ed Sullivan included footage of his trip to the Ben-Hur set on his popular Sunday night program The Ed Sullivan Show.
As noted in many contemporary sources, in addition to Tunberg, who had written the first script for the project more than five years before the start of principal photography, Christopher Fry and Vidal contributed to the screenplay during filming. Maxwell Anderson and S. N. Behrman are also mentioned as contributing writers in the film's commemorative booklet, but it is likely that they worked on the script prior to the start of the production. According to a April 23, 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, Vidal was flying to Rome to contribute to the screenplay, and other sources indicate that he worked for many months on the project.
The commemorative program and various modern sources indicate that Fry, a prominent British playwright and poet who had worked on dialogue for one or two earlier films, contributed significantly to the dialogue in Ben-Hur, often improving upon lines that were mundane or too modern for the period setting. For example, in Wyler's authorized biography and elsewhere, Fry is credited with changing the scene in which Judah dines with "Sheik Ilderim" so that, instead of asking "Did you enjoy your dinner?," in the completed film, Ilderim asks "Was the food to your liking?"
The film's final onscreen writing credits created controversy when, in October 1959, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) awarded Tunberg sole screenplay credit. This happened even after Tunberg reportedly stated that he did not mind sharing credit with Fry, who was on the set throughout the film's production and was credited by Wyler in the commemorative booklet and elsewhere as being more responsible than any other writer for the final screenplay. In a October 28, 1959 Daily Variety news article, Wyler was quoted as stating, "Fry rates credit second only to Gen. Lew Wallace."
In response to Wyler's public outcries against their ruling, the WGA took out trade paper ads on November 20, 1959 in which they issued a statement reading, in part, "the unanimous decision of the three judges was that the sole screenplay credit was awarded to Karl Tunberg....The record shows the following: 1. Karl Tunberg is the only writer who has ever written a complete screenplay on Ben-Hur. 2. Karl Tunberg continued to contribute materials throughout the actual filming, and this material is incorporated in the final picture. 3. Karl Tunberg alone did the necessary rewriting during the four months of retakes and added scenes. Mr. Christopher Fry himself was fully informed of the proceedings of the Guild. He has made it absolutely clear that he did not want to protest the decision of the Guild."
In the mid-1990s, the issue of writing credits for Ben-Hur again erupted in controversy when Heston and contributing writer Vidal, publicly exchanged angry letters that were published in various newspapers and magazines. The argument was prompted by the men's respective autobiographies and an interview Vidal gave in the 1996 documentary film The Celluloid Closet, in which he stated that, with Wyler's permission, he rewrote the scene in which Messala and Judah meet for the first time as adults to convey a subtle undertone of a boyhood passion between the two men that turned into a "lovers' quarrel." Vidal further claimed that Wyler disliked Heston and regarded him as a wooden actor and that Heston never was cognizant of the fact that the scene had an underlying homosexual tone.
For his part, Heston rebuffed Vidal's account, stating it "irritates the hell out of me," and accused Vidal of claiming too much credit for the Ben-Hur screenplay. Heston offered sections of a daily dairy that he wrote during the production to refute Vidal's interpretation, while Vidal later countered that Heston was presenting only part of the facts.
According to an July 18, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item, Cinerama proposed having their three-strip cameras shoot side-by-side with the cameras that M-G-M was to use in Italy, but Loew's Inc. officials rejected the idea. According to a August 15, 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, New York television producer David Susskind abandoned his plans for a two-hour television adaptation of the novel Ben-Hur after several days of meetings with M-G-M executives who felt that a television version would detract from their own feature film, which was then in mid-production in Rome.
Even before the start of principal photography, the production was touted in news items as the costliest film ever made, with pre-production budget estimates ranging from a low end of $5,000,000 in 1953 to $13,000,000 by July 1958. By the time that the film was released, as noted in many contemporary sources, the budget had reached $15,000,000, a record at the time, with some sources estimating the negative cost as high as $16,000,000.
Set construction, costume preparation, matte painting and other pre-production activities required a year in advance of any shooting. Pre-production activities took place in California, Britain and Italy primarily. Principal photography took almost a year at Rome's Cinecitt studios, which had been the site of filming for M-G-M's 1951 epic, Quo Vadis . According to a news item in early February 1958, Ben-Hur would utilize about eighty percent of the facilities at Cinecitt.
Although principal photography did not begin until May 18, 1958 [some sources list the start date as 19 or 21 May] news items indicate that the construction of photographic miniatures, principally for the sea battle scene and "Quintus Arrius'" entrance into Rome, began at Cinecitt in November 1957, and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees went to Italy in early 1958 for camera tests. A March 4, 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Surtees and 2d unit director Andrew Marton had begun filming background scenes that day in Libya, but according to a March 20, 1958 news item, the shooting permit for Libyan filming was revoked on religious grounds, as was a subsequent permit in Jerusalem for the same reason.
No footage shot in Libya or Jerusalem appears in the released film, and the city gates and interior streets of Jerusalem were recreated in massive sets constructed at Cinecitt. As noted in news items and the commemorative booklet, two weeks of location filming took place in Fogliano, near Anzio, the mountains near Arcinazzo and various other sites in Italy.
Filming required the use of six $100,000 cameras that shot in 65mm, called MGM Camera 65 in the credits. According to several contemporary reports, Panavision, Inc. developed ten new lenses specifically for the production, in order to provide the sharpest focus possible for the MGM Camera 65 process that was used in the production. The lenses were manufactured by Steinheil, an old German company, and developed for Panavision under the personal supervision of company president Robert E. Gottschalk.
The 65mm process, Panavision lenses and lighting techniques were described in detail by Surtees in a feature article in the October 1959 issue of American Cinematographer. According to Surtees, the lenses and 65mm film stockenabled him and the other cameramen who worked on the picture to shoot extremely wide shots, such as those in the chariot race sequence, that were also very sharp in the release prints. Surtees went on to relate that two or more of the six cameras were used for each of the action sequences.
Press reports and feature articles on the film relate impressive statistics on the production, which required tons of concrete and miles of metal and wood for the sets. Thousands of extras were required over the course of the production, each of whom had to be dressed in costumes made specifically for the production. The chariot race set alone, which covered over eighteen acres, was five stories high and took six months to build, was reportedly the largest set built to that time.
As reported in contemporary sources, the climactic chariot race sequence, which ran for just under ten minutes in the released film, required months of planning and ten weeks to shoot. Over eighty horses were brought over to Italy from Yugoslavia and Sicily for the race and trained by veteran Hollywood animal handler Glenn Randall. According to the commemorative booklet, eighteen chariots were built for the production, with nine used for practice and training. The remaining nine teams were used in the filmed race, which consisted of seven laps shot in the arena for the nine-lap race of the story. Sources variously report the use of 6,000 or 7,000 extras to fill the stadium as cheering Judeans, with various mattes used to flesh out the walls and backgrounds of the arena.
The chariots were all constructed by Danesi Brothers, an old and established coach-making company in Rome. Contemporary sources and modern interviews with crew members confirm that both Heston and Boyd trained extensively with the teams, and that, by the time the race was shot, Heston was particularly adept at driving a chariot, making close-in shots much easier than they would have been if a stunt double was needed throughout.
Much has been written, both around the time of production and later, of the making of the spectacular chariot race. In the film's commemorative booklet, both Marton and Yakima Canutt, who are listed onscreen as "2d unit directors," are credited with directing the chariot race sequence. However, in modern sources, including Wyler's authorized biography, much of the credit for direction of the race has been given to Canutt, who was one of the motion picture industry's pioneering stuntmen and stunt coordinators.
The 1993 documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, which was made to accompany a DVD 35th anniversary restoration of the film and was also included as added content on the 2004 DVD edition, contains extensive behind-the-scenes footage of the chariot race. A shot of a marker used for one scene of the sequence listed Marton's name as director. Following the film's release, Marton wrote an article for the January 1960 issue of Films in Review, which was reprinted in the February 1960 issue of American Cinematographer, in which he described the filming of the race and expressed his great disappointment over his shared 2d unit director credit. In the article, Marton expressed his feeling that, if producer Zimbalist, who died during production, had lived, his screen credit would have read: "Chariot race directed by Andrew Marton."
Contemporary information, the documentary and modern interviews suggest that, while Marton was responsible for the overall staging and shooting of the sequence, Canutt was responsible for coordinating the actors, stuntmen, horses and chariots for the race itself. A contemporary billing sheet for the film indicates that Mario Soldati, who also worked as a 2d unit director on the chariot race, was originally to be listed onscreen below Marton and Canutt but that his name was withdrawn prior to the release of the film. According to a February 1960 Los Angeles Times article, Soldati voluntarily declined screen credit.
One of the most famous shots within the race sequence occurs when the chariot that Judah is driving runs over debris from a chariot that has just crashed. As this happens, Judah's chariot briefly goes airborne, causing him to hold onto the chariot's handles as his body is catapulted aloft. He then lands between the horses and the chariot, but quickly climbs back into the chariot and resumes the race. In various 1959 articles and news items on the race, and in DVD interviews with Joe Canutt, son of Yakima and Heston's stunt double for the sequence, it was revealed that the spectacular shot was an accident.
Unlike the final shots of the stunt that are in the picture, in which Heston is seen between the horses and the chariot as he lands, during the actual stunt, Joe Canutt was thrown from the chariot. His father and many of the crew feared that he had been killed or seriously injured, but he emerged with only minor cuts. In a famous anecdote that Heston often repeated over the years, he explained that, at one point during filming, when he complained that other charioteers were crowding him, Canutt answered, "Don't worry Chuck, you win the race."
According to an article in Los Angeles Times in June 1958, two crew members were injured, and a $100,000 camera was destroyed, during the filming of another sequence in the race when Stephen Boyd's chariot went out of control and crashed through a wooden barrier as it rounded the corners of the track. Assistant cameraman Eddie Phillips incurred a broken shoulder and an unnamed Italian assistant received a broken wrist, but these and Joe Canutt's minor injuries were the only ones reported during filming of the physically demanding chariot race sequence.
Another notable sequence in Ben-Hur was the sea battle between the Roman and Macedonian ships (called galleys). The sequence was shot under the supervision of 3rd unit director Richard Thorpe on a large man-made lake at Cinecitt, according to the documentary on the DVD release and other sources. Two full-sized galleys were placed in the lake for close shots, with dozens of other galleys built for long shots during the battle. According to information on the DVD, the galleys were mounted onto underwater tracks so they could be moved fluidly during the sequence.
The length and intensity of the large-scale production took its toll on the filmmakers, according to many sources. In September 1958, a Hollywood Reporter news item reported that M-G-M executive J. J. Cohn was sent to Rome to replace Henry Henigson as physical production manager. Henigson, who had had a heart attack a few months previously, had asked to leave the production. Producer Zimbalist, who had helmed the production since 1953, died in Rome on November 4, 1958. According to obituaries, Zimbalist collapsed of a heart attack on the set of Ben-Hur and died at his Roman apartment a few hours later. According to Zimbalist's obituary in Variety, Cohn took over his production duties for the final months of filming and post-production.
A November 13, 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that veteran M-G-M film editor Margaret Booth was ordered to Rome to assist Wyler and editors Ralph E. Winters and John D. Dunning in cutting the picture. Principal photography and retakes were completed on January 30, 1959. Rozsa's lavish score, which contemporary sources state was the longest score ever produced for a film, was conducted by him in twelve recording sessions over a seventy-hour period. The score was recorded by the 100-piece M-G-M Symphony Orchestra on six channel stereophonic sound tracks and released in three separate albums. According to the documentary on the film, unlike most scores, which were cut to meet the requirements of individual scenes, several scenes in Ben-Hur were cut to fit the score. The final edit of the completed picture was delivered to the Technicolor lab in early October 1959, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, and previews were held shortly thereafter at various North American cities.
While stories about Ben-Hur appeared throughout 1958 and 1959, the publicity campaign for the picture, which was one of the largest in history, began in the summer of 1959. According to news items, M-G-M's exploitation budget for the film was at least $2,000,000, and possibly as high as $3,000,000. A Variety article in August 1959 stated that $1,750,000 was budgeted solely for print ads, and that $200,000 would be spent to promote the New York City premiere of the 70mm release. This article and others described the various licensing agreements that M-G-M entered into for toys, novelty items, jewelry and a new "Ben-Hur" candy bar to be introduced by Schrafft's candy company. Agreements were also made with several large publishing houses, including Bantam, Dell, Pocket Books and Signet among others, to create and sell books tied to the film.
M-G-M commissioned Dr. Joseph Mersand, president of the National Council of English Teachers, to prepare a special study guide on the film that was distributed to schools. A glossy, hardcover commemorative booklet, published by Random House under the title The Story of the Making of Ben-Hur, sold for one dollar at road show engagements and selected bookstores. The booklet included a set of six prints reproduced from paintings by American artist Ben Stahl, who was commissioned by M-G-M to recreate scenes from the picture. The original paintings were exhibited at a New York City art gallery and, as noted in the booklet, its reproductions were "arranged so that they May be removed for framing." According to an April 1959 Variety news item, an initial run of 2,000,000 copies of the booklet was printed.
Ben-Hur's World premiere was held in New York City on November 18, 1959, with a Los Angeles premiere to benefit the USC Medical School Scholarship fund held on November 24, 1959. The Chamber of Commerce of Culver City, where the M-G-M studios were located, declared 24 November "Ben-Hur Day" in the film's honor, according to news items. New York City ticket prices for the film were a high three dollars for weekday performances, which were on a reserved seat basis for many months.
When it opened, Ben-Hur received lavish praise from critics, whose comments ranged from "The best of Hollywood's super-spectacles...[Wyler] has set a standard of excellence by which coming generations of screen spectacles can expect to be measured [Time]," to "A remarkably intelligent and engrossing human drama...it is a magnificent thing to look at, and it is extremely well-played [New York Times]," "Spectacular without being a spectacle...Not only is it not simple-minded, it is downright literate [Saturday Review (of Literature)]," and "Spectacle piles upon spectacle...but there are also genuine warmth and fervor and finely acted intimate scenes that keep the picture as a whole from being classed as merely another super-spec [Los Angeles Times]."
Some critics, even those who highly praised the film, also pointed out that its 212 minutes running time was tiring, and, as New York Times critic Bosley Crowther added, "three hours and thirty-two minutes...is simply too much of a good thing." As noted in a news item in Variety on November 11, 1959, Heston and Wyler publicly objected to negative comments about the film printed in the Protestant newspaper The Christian Century, which stated that Protestants should challenge "the promotion of lurid distortions of the Bible." According to a December 30, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Ben-Hur was banned in Jordan because of Harareet's nationality and because Jordanian officials traditionally banned films perceived to be pro-Israeli.
Ben-Hur received the following Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Cinematography (color, Surtees), Best Art Direction (color, William A. Horning, Edward Carfagno, art directors, Hugh Hunt, set decorator), Best Film Editing (Winters and Dunning), Best Costume Design (color, Elizabeth Haffenden), Best Score (dramatic or comedy, Rozsa); Best Sound (Franklin Milton) and Best Special Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie, Robert MacDonald for visual effects and Milo Lory for audible effects). Gillespie also had supervised the special effects for the 1925 Ben-Hur. The picture received one additional nomination, to Tunberg for Best Adapted Screenplay, but he lost to Neil Paterson for Room at the Top. Some modern sources have suggested that the reason why Tunberg did not win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay-the only category for which the film received a nomination but not an award-was due in measure to the protest against the WGA ruling.
Ben-Hur's eleven Academy Awards broke the record for the highest number of Oscars received for an individual film. It was a record that stood until Titanic (1997) garnered the same number of awards in 1998. In 2004, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King also earned eleven Academy Awards and was the only one of the three record-holders to receive awards in all categories for which it was nominated. In addition, Ben-Hur was on many Top Ten Film lists for the year and received numerous other awards and accolades, including a Best Director award for Wyler from the Directors Guild of America.
Because of the film's great popularity, an experimental screening for the deaf was presented at the Hollywood Egyptian Theatre, where the film had its Los Angeles premiere and played for many months. At the screening, as noted in a May 1961 Los Angeles Examiner article, two sign language interpreters, Mrs. Laura Fletcher and Mrs. Elizabeth Gesner, wore "phosphorescent nylon gloves and luminescent lip makeup. An intra-red light blacked out all but their arms, hands and lips," so that the audience could enjoy the film via sign language.
Box office revenues for the film were even more spectacular than anticipated. According to a January 1960 Daily Variety news item, the film expected to reach the break-even point in just under a year, and was on track to be not only the biggest grossing film of all time, but also the fastest. The article noted that this was particularly significant as the film was still playing in relatively few theaters. By the end of 1961, according to a Daily Variety news item on December 26, 1961, rentals for the film had reached $46,996,984 worldwide, with a domestic total of $31,881,251.
By August 1968, according to news items, the global rentals for Ben-Hur had reached $66,000,000, second only to The Sound of Music (1965, see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70). The film was re-released on a road show basis in 1969, to coincide with the Easter holidays that year. According to a Box Office article, the 70mm re-release was to have its premiere on February 25, 1969 in Miami, FL. According to a August 27, 1970 Daily Variety news item, when the film's television rights were sold that year, CBS paid a then-record sum of $3,000,000 for four showings in three years. As noted in a Los Angeles Times article in 1971, when the film first aired, it was broadcast with sixty commercials, which was also a record for the time.
Another re-release of the film, which was further restored, took place on September 14, 1990, when it opened at the Hollywood Pacific Cinerama Dome, with a special appearance by Heston. The film was shown for three weeks at that theater, with additional exhibition at other cities. According to a August 29, 1990 Los Angeles Times item concerning the film, Turner Entertainment Co., which then owned the rights to films in the M-G-M library, the budget for the film in 1959, would translate into $100,000,000 in 1990 dollars.
In 1998, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an earlier federal judge's ruling dismissing a lawsuit brought against Time Warner, Inc.'s Turner Broadcasting unit by Wyler's heirs. The item went on to state that the suit had to do with revising Wyler's original contract to direct the picture whereby he would receive $350,000 plus 3% of the gross receipts in excess of $20,000,000, payable in $50,000 annual increments. Wyler's heirs had sued to unblock the backlogged money from Wyler's percentage, which then amounted to about $1,500,000. The final disposition of that suit has not been determined.
Modern sources include actors Lando Buzzanca, Giuliano Gemma and Edwin Richfield in the cast, and add Dave Friedman, Ken Adam, Mentor Huebner, Van Allen James, Mauro Zambuto, Cliff Shirpser, Matthew Yuricich and Eugene Zador to the crew. Modern sources also credit Mickey Gilbert, Nosher Powell and Glenn Randall, Jr. as stuntmen. Several modern sources state that future Italian Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone worked on the film. Sources variously credit him with being a 2d unit director, assistant to Wyler or production assistant at Cinecitt.
In addition to the 1925 M-G-M Ben-Hur, which was directed by Fred Niblo and starred Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, Wallace's novel had been adapted to the screen in 1907 by the Kalem Co. That one-reel, silent short was directed by Sidney Olcott and Frank O. Rose (see entry above). Heston recreated his role by providing the voice of Judah Ben-Hur for the 2003 animated children's television special and DVD of Ben-Hur A Tale of Christ.
Although the film's critical appraisal has diminished somewhat since the early 1960s, in 1998 it was included as number 72 on AFI's list of the 100 greatest American films. In December 2002, as part of AMPAS' celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Academy Awards, a special screening of Ben-Hur was presented at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. Heston appeared at the screening, one of his last public appearances following his 2001 announcement that he was suffering from Alzheimer's.