Cast & Crew
During the reign of the emperor Tiberius, the Roman officer Messala arrives in Jerusalem as the new Tribune, head of the Roman garrison. Having spent much of his boyhood in Jerusalem while his father was provincial governor of Judea, Messala became close friends with Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince from a rich and influential family. On the night of his return, Messala is visited by Judah, and the two men warmly reminisce about happy times of their boyhood. Messala tells Judah that the emperor wants the recent rebelliousness of Judea crushed and asks for his help. Judah is uneasy with the request but, as he is against violence, agrees to speak with other influential Jews. The next day, Messala visits Judah, his mother Miriam and sister Tirzah. Messala gives Tirzah a beautiful brooch, and Judah presents Messala with a horse he has raised, but the men argue over Messala's insistence that Judah tell him the names of Jewish leaders who will not denounce rebellion. Judah refuses, severing their friendship. That night, Simonides, the faithful steward of the house of Hur, returns from Antioch with good news of the family's increasing wealth. He asks for permission for his daughter Esther to marry a free man, and says that she wants to ask Judah personally for permission. Judah is attracted to Esther, whom he has not seen since childhood, and grants permission, saying her freedom will be his wedding gift, even though he knows that she is marrying only because her father wishes it. Later that night, when Judah and Esther are alone, they exchange a passionate kiss. Judah then takes Esther's slave ring and promises to wear it until he meets the woman he will marry. The next day, Gratus, the new governor, arrives to a cold reception by the people of Jerusalem. As Judah and Tirzah watch his procession from the roof of their house, Tirzah leans against some tiles and accidentally loosens them, causing them to fall just as Gratus is passing. After he is thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious, Roman soldiers storm the house. As they enter the courtyard, Judah tells Tirzah and Miriam to say nothing, then tries to reason with the soldiers, pleading that it was an accident. When Messala suddenly appears at the courtyard entrance, Judah appeals to him, but Messala coldly watches as Judah, Tirzah and Miriam are taken away. After their arrest, Messala goes to the roof and sees the loose tiles, confirming that Judah had been telling the truth, but says nothing. Soon guards go to Judah's cell to tell him that he is being sent to the seaport of Tyrus, which Judah knows means imprisonment as a galley slave. He overpowers the guards and escapes into the garrison, then steals a spear and breaks into Messala's quarters. After Messala orders his guards to leave them, Judah demands to know what has happened to Miriam and Tirzah. Messala tells him that Gratus will recover but they will be punished for their crime. Judah does not understand why Messala would let this happen, especially after Messala admits that he knows the truth. Judah begs for mercy, but Messala rebuffs him, saying that the people now will fear him, and warning if Judah kills him, Tirzah and Miriam will be crucified before his eyes. Defeated, Judah has no choice but to let the guards take him away as he asks God to grant him vengeance. Days later, as Judah and other chained prisoners, weakened by thirst and exhaustion, enter the town of Nazareth, townspeople offer them water, but the Roman guard stops a woman who tries to give some to Judah. In despair, Judah falls to the ground and implores God to help him. At that moment, a carpenter, who has seen his plight, approaches, gives him water and bathes his face and hands. The guard then tries to stop the carpenter but strangely acquiesces when he looks into the man's face. Judah also gazes in awe at the young Nazarene, not understanding why he has offered help. Three years later, Judah is rower 41 in a Roman galley. On the day that Roman Consul Quintus Arrius takes command of the vessel, Arrius goes below to survey the rowers. Sensing both strength and hatred in 41, Arrius deliberately taunts him by lashing him, and later observes his reaction when the men are submitted to a grueling test of endurance to increase their rowing speed. Later, Judah is ordered to Arrius' quarters, where the consul offers him the chance to leave the galley and become a charioteer or gladiator. Judah declines, saying that he has not died because God does not want it so. Soon a fleet of Macedonian ships is sighted and the galley prepares for battle. Prior to the start of the fighting, Arrius orders a subordinate to chain and lock the rowers' shackles to their posts, but leave 41's unlocked. During the battle, when their galley is rammed, the rowers are trapped until Judah kills their guard, takes his keys and unlocks the others. He then goes on deck, where he throws a spear at an enemy soldier who has attacked Arrius and forced him into the water. Judah dives after Arrius and pulls him to safety on some floating debris that serves as a raft. When Arrius realizes that his ship is sinking, he tries to kill himself with his own knife, but Judah stops him. The next morning, the two men are alone in the sea, with no ships in sight. Arrius asks to know 41's name and wonders why he saved his life. Moments later, they see a ship in the distance and realize that it is Roman. When they are brought onboard, Arrius shocks the captain by giving Judah water before he himself drinks. He then learns that, although five galleys were lost in the battle, the Romans were victorious. Arrius then takes Judah's arm, and leads him off, past the rowers' hole. Some time later, Arrius is hailed in a procession through the streets of Rome, accompanied by Judah, who rides in his chariot. When the emperor awards Arrius with the baton of victory, he inquires about Judah and agrees to meet with Arrius to discuss his situation. The next day, the emperor gives Judah to Arrius, to be his slave. Months later, Judah has ridden Arrius' chariot to victory five times in the Roman arena, bringing him fame and admiration throughout Rome. At a celebration banquet, Arrius announces that he is adopting Judah as his heir, replacing the son who had died. When Arrius and Judah, who accepts his new name as Young Quintus Arrius, speak privately, Judah tells Arrius of his affection and gratitude, and accepts his signet ring, but reveals that he must return to Judea to find his mother and sister. On his way to Jerusalem, Judah stops at an oasis, where an old man, Balthasar of Alexandria, thinks that he may be the man whom he saw as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem. Balthasar soon realizes that Judah is not that man, but the two strike up a friendship. Balthasar introduces Judah to Sheik Ilderim, a wealthy Arab who cherishes his magnificent team of white chariot horses. Judah observes the team and admires them, but over dinner in Ilderim's tent, refuses his suggestion that he drive the team for him in the arena. Judah is intrigued, though, when Ilderim expresses his hope to humiliate the arrogant Messala by a victory over his chariot and adds that, in the arena, there is no law. When Judah arrives at his family's now-decaying home in Jerusalem, he is surprised to see Esther, who never married but returned to the house with Simonides after he, who was also imprisoned, was released. Simonides, who was crippled and blinded under torture, proudly tells Judah that his fortune is safely hidden. Later, Judah and Esther kiss and reveal their feelings for each other, but Esther worries that Judah is consumed with hate and tells him of a young Nazarene she has heard of who preaches of love. The next day, Messala receives the gift of an expensive knife from Quintus Arrius, the younger. Messala is shocked when the man is revealed to be Judah, who shows him the seal from Arrius' signet ring. Judah then tells Messala if Miriam and Tirzah are restored to him, he will forget what has happened, and says that he will return the next day. Shaken by Judah's appearance, Messala tells his underling Drusus to go to the prison and find out what has happened to the women. In the lowest level of the prison, Drusus discovers that the women, who had not been seen in years, are now lepers. Fearful of the disease, the guards order the women taken to the edge of the city and the contents of their cell burned. Late that night, Miriam and Tirzah, covering their deformities in rags, go to their home. Although they merely want to look at it, Esther hears them. The women refuse to let her approach, and when Esther reveals that Judah is not dead, but in Jerusalem, Miriam makes her promise to tell him that they have died in prison. When Esther later tells Judah what Miriam had asked, his bitterness and despair frighten her, and she implores him not to be consumed with hatred. Judah will not listen, though, and leaves, determined to find a means of revenge against Messala. [An intermission divides the story at this point.]
Soon Ilderim goes to Messala's home, offers a wager of a trunk filled with gold and silver and asks him and his companions for odds on an upcoming chariot race. When Messala hears that his opponent will be Judah, he accepts the wager at four to one, calling it the difference between a Roman and a Jew--or an Arab. On the day of the race, Pontius Pilate, an old friend of Arrius, who has become the new governor of Judea, oversees the race. Ilderim is optimistic, and happy that Judah has earned his horses' affection, but worries when he sees that Messala's chariot has spiked wheels and warns Judah. During the nine-lap race, Messala uses the blades on his wheels to destroy many chariots, and several of the other charioteers are killed or maimed. Messala tries to destroy Judah's chariot, but instead crashes his own and is dragged by his team. Judah wins the race and is crowned victorious by Pilate, who calls him the crowd's current god when the Judeans cheer loudly for him. After the race, Messala, who is in agony, will not allow the physician to amputate his mutilated legs until after Judah, whom he has summoned, arrives. Rather than seeking forgiveness, as Messala dies, he taunts Judah by revealing that Tirzah and Miriam are not dead but living in the valley of the lepers. In despair, Judah goes to the valley to find his mother and sister, ignoring the fear of contagion. As he searches, he is stunned to see Esther and Malluch, the mute who takes care of Simonides, bringing baskets of food down to the lepers' caves. Judah angrily confronts Esther for her deception and demands to see Miriam and Tirzah, but she pleads that they would be shattered if he saw what has become of them. When Miriam and Tirzah weakly call for Esther, Judah hides as Esther gives them food, and weeps when he hears his mother ask if he is well and happy. Although still unconvinced by Esther's pleas to remain hidden, Judah nonetheless leaves with her and Malluch. On their way back to the city, they see a crowd gathering on a mountain top. Balthasar, who is in the crowd, calls out to Judah, saying that the Nazarene who will speak is the one he sought, and that he is the son of God. Although Judah momentarily thinks of the Nazarene who had given him water, he scoffs at the remark and returns to the city alone. Judah is then summoned by Pilate, who greets him warmly as the son of his old friend, and delivers the message that he has been granted Roman citizenship. Though expressing his affection for Arrius, Judah rejects the citizenship and gives Arrius' ring to Pilate to return, saying that Rome turned Messala into what he became. When Judah returns home, Esther tells him of the words of love and forgiveness she heard from the Nazarene, but Judah will not listen. The next day, Esther returns to the valley of the lepers, followed at a distance by Judah. When Miriam approaches she reveals that Tirzah is dying. As Esther tells Miriam of the Nazarene's words and says that she wants to take them to him, Judah comes forward. Miriam tries to make Judah go away by showing him her deformed face, but Judah strokes her forehead and embraces her. He then carries Tirzah from the cave and, with Miriam and Esther, walks back to Jerusalem. The city is almost deserted when they arrive. People shun the lepers, but an old blind man tells them that people are gathered for the trial of the Nazarene. They then walk to the center of the city and observe Pilate washing his hands of the man, who is sentenced to death. Seeing the Nazarene's tortured body, the women weep, but Judah suddenly recognizes him. Judah then follows his journey to the crucifixion site, and when the Nazarene stumbles under the weight of his cross, offers him water. As the women sadly return to the valley of the lepers, Judah continues to follow the Nazarene. When Judah sees Balthasar, he relates what happened in Nazareth and wonders what the man has done to deserve this, but Balthasar says that he came into the world for this purpose. As the Nazarene dies, the skies darken and a storm rages. Outside the city, Miriam, Tirzah and Esther have taken cover. Tirzah says that she is no longer afraid, and Miriam sadly says, "His life is over." Suddenly, through lightning flashes, Esther sees that Miriam and Tirzah no longer bear the deformities of leprosy. That night, when Judah returns home, he embraces Esther and relates that, even near death, the Nazarene sought forgiveness for those who caused his suffering. Esther then shows him that Miriam and Esther have been cured and the four lovingly embrace.
Reginald Lal Singh
John Le Mesurier
Victor De La Fosse
Edward J. Auregui
Raimondo Van Riel
Les Ballets Africans
Count Mario Rivoltella
Prince Emanuele Ruspoli
Prince Raimondo Ruspoli
Count Santiago Oneto
Princess Irina Wassilchikoff
Count Marigliano Monte
Baroness Lillian De Balzo
Duchess Nona Medici
S. N. Behrman
J. J. Cohn
J. J. Cohn
Danesi Brothers, Rome
John D. Dunning
A. Arnold Gillespie
Charles K. Hagedon
Robert R. Hoag
William A. Horning
Sol C. Siegel
Robert L. Surtees
Joseph R. Vogel
Harold E. Wellman
Ralph E. Winters
Best Music, Original or Comedy Series
Best Supporting Actor
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Essentials - Ben-Hur
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: Miklós Rózsa
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
The Essentials - Ben-Hur
Pop Culture 101 - Ben-Hur
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, Miklós Rózsa 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
Pop Culture 101 - Ben-Hur
Trivia - Ben-Hur - Trivia & Fun Facts About BEN-HUR
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.
Miklós Rózsa 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 , Ivanhoe , Jailhouse Rock ) 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
Trivia - Ben-Hur - Trivia & Fun Facts About BEN-HUR
The Big Idea - Ben-Hur
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
The Big Idea - Ben-Hur
Behind the Camera - Ben-Hur
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 Miklós Rózsa (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
Behind the Camera - Ben-Hur
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
Critics' Corner - Ben-Hur
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 Miklós Rózsa 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 script...is 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 . 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
Critics' Corner - Ben-Hur
Ben-Hur (1959) - DVD - Ben-Hur
Released on the advent of Wyler's 100th birthday (he died in 1981) the release is something of a milestone with its beautifully remastered picture and extraordinary special features. Wyler's other classic films include: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953), Jezebel (1938), The Heiress (1949), and Wuthering Heights (1939), many of which can also be found on DVD. Planning a centennial celebration is producer Amy Lehr, Wyler's Granddaughter, who notes that, Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards in all - a record that made history. It's a must-see film".
Presented here on one dual-sided disc, in a stunning transfer with glorious color and remastered digital 5.1 surround sound, Ben-Hur is ready for a new generation of to discover. This special edition DVD includes a commentary by Charlton Heston, a documentary on the film entitled, Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, rare screen test footage of potential and final cast members Leslie Nielson, Cesare Danova and Haya Harareet, the original Overture and Entr'acte music, an on-the-set photo gallery, and other special features.
Ben-Hur (1959) - DVD - Ben-Hur
Martha Scott, 1914-2003
Martha Ellen Scott was born in Jamesport, Missouri on September 24, 1914, and raised in Kansas City, where a high school teacher encouraged her interest in acting. She majored in drama at the University of Michigan and after graduation, she joined The Globe Theatre Troupe, a stock company that performed truncated Shakespeare at the Chicago World's Fair in between 1933-34. She went to New York soon after and found work in radio and stock before playing making her breakthrough as Emily Webb in Our Town. When the play opened on Broadway in February 1938, Scott received glowing reviews in the pivotal role of Emily, the wistful girl-next-door in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, who marries her high school sweetheart, dies in pregnancy and gets to relive a single day back on Earth. Her stage success brought her to Hollywood, where she continued her role in Sam Wood's film adaptation of Out Town (1940). Scott received an Academy Award nomination for best actress and was immediately hailed as the year's new female discovery.
She gave nicely understated performances in her next few films: as Jane Peyton Howard in Frank Lloyd's historical The Howards of Virginia (1940), opposite Cary Grant; the dedicated school teacher in Tay Garnett's Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941) in which she aged convincingly from 17 to 85; and as a devoted wife to preacher Frederic March in Irving Rapper's warm family drama One Foot in Heaven (1941). Sadly, Scott's maturity and sensitivity ran against the glamour-girl persona that was popular in the '40s (best embodied by stars like Lana Turner and Veronica Lake) and her film appearances were few and far between for the remainder of the decade.
Her fortunes brightened in the '50s, when she found roles in major productions, such as a suburban wife trapped in her home by fugitives, led by Humphrey Bogart, in William Wyler's taut The Desperate Hours (1955) and played Charlton Heston's mother in the Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and again for William Wyler in Ben-Hur (1959). Scott found steady work for the next 30 years in matronly roles, most notably on television, where she played Bob Newhart's mother on The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) and the mother of Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas (1978-1991). Her second husband, pianist and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mel Powell, died in 1998. Survivors include a son and two daughters.
by Michael T. Toole
Martha Scott, 1914-2003
If you were not a bride I would kiss you goodbye.- Judah Ben-Hur
If I were not a bride, there would be no goodbyes to be said.- Esther
Are they still alive?- Drusus
The jailer in that wing will know.- Jailer1
Oh, they're alive. The food keeps disappearing.- Jailer2
Judah Ben Hur! You've come back to us like a returning faith! I want to laugh again, Judah.- Simonides
We will laugh.- Judah Ben-Hur
Laugh, amidst the dust and cobwebs...- Simonides
Balthasar is a good man. But until all men are like him, we must keep our swords bright!- Ilderim
And our intentions true! So I must leave you.- Judah Ben-Hur
One last thought... there is no law in the arena. Many are killed. I hope to see you again, Judah Ben-Hur.- Ilderim
A grown man knows the world he lives in. For the moment, that world is Rome.- Pontius Pilate
MGM wanted an authentic-looking Roman boat for the live battle scenes. To design the boats, they hired a person who had spent his whole career studying Roman naval architecture. When he presented his designs to the MGM engineers, Mauro Zambuto (set engineer) exclaimed, "But this is top heavy! It will sink!" They built the boat anyway and launched it in the ocean, and at first it seemed to float. Then however, a little wave came a long, a wake from another boat, splashed against the highly unstable boat, and tipped it over. MGM then put the boat in a large pond with a huge painted sky backdrop. To steady the boat, they ran cables from the bottom of the boat to anchors on the bottom of the pond.
Another problem concerned the color of the water in the pond holding the boat; it was too brown and murky. They hired a chemist to develop a dye to color the water Azure Mediterranean blue. The chemist dumped a huge sack of some powder into the pond, which, instead of turning the water blue, formed a hard crust on the surface of the water, which had to be chiselled off the boat at great expense. They finally found some dye that would make the water blue. During one of the battle scenes, an extra who fell into the water and spent a bit too much time there turned blue, and was kept on the MGM payroll until it wore off.
When it came time to film inside the boat, it was discovered that the large 65mm cameras wouldn't fit. The boat had to be taken out of the pond, cut in half lengthwise, and placed in an Italian sound stage. The oars wouldn't fit in the soundstage, so they had to cut them off just beyond the hull. This resulted in an extremely light oars which, when rowed by the actors, didn't look believable, since you could move them with one hand. To solve the problem, Zambuto sent an army of production assistants to all of the hardware stores in Rome to buy the kind of spring-and-hydraulic piston mechanisms that are normally attached to doors to force them closed but to keep them from slamming. Placing these devices on the oars and the hull gave enough resistance to make the rowing scenes look realistic.
Although there were presumably white horses in Italy, the four white horses used in the film were flown in from Czechoslovakia aboard an airliner with seats removed from the first class section.
Heston was taught to ride a chariot by the stunt crew, who offered to teach the entire cast - Heston was the only one that took them up on the offer. At the beginning of the chariot race, Heston shook the reins and nothing happened; the horses remained motionless. Finally someone way up on top of the set yelled "Giddy-up!" The horses then roared into action, and Heston was flung backward off of the chariot.
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 Cinecittà 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 Cinecittà.
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 Cinecittà 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 Cinecittà. 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 Cinecittà, 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 Cinecittà.
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.
Voted Best Supporting Actor (Griffith) and One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1959 National Board of Review.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1959 New York Times Film Critics.
Winner of a Special Citation for Andrew Morton and Yakima Canutt by the 1959 National Board of Review for their direction of the chariot sequence.
Released in United States Winter December 1959
Re-released in United States September 14, 1990
Released in United States on Video March 13, 2001
Released in United States 2011
The film's eleven Oscars is tied with director James Cameron's "Titanic" (USA/1997) for most wins in Academy Award history.
Released in USA on video.
Selected in 2004 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States Winter December 1959
Re-released in United States September 14, 1990 (Los Angeles)
Released in United States on Video March 13, 2001
Released in United States 2011 (Masterworks)
Voted Best Picture of the Year by the 1959 New York Film Critics Association.