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 along, 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 sound stage, 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, Mauro 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 white horses used in the film were brought in from Lipica, Slovenia, the original home of the snow-white "Lipizzaner" horse breed. Glenn H. Randall Sr. trained 78 horses for the film, starting months before photography began.
Charlton Heston was taught to drive a chariot by the stunt crew, who offered to teach the entire cast. Heston was the only one who 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 large "island" in the stadium was great for filming, since a backdrop of a stone wall is cheaper to film than a backdrop of thousands of extras. However, such an "island" in a real stadium prevents spectators from viewing the race properly at all angles and would not normally exist.
William Wyler was a renowned stickler for detail. Charlton Heston recalled one particular scene where Judah Ben-Hur simply walks across a room upon his return from slavery. Such a simple scene required 8 takes before the actor finally asked Wyler what was missing. The director informed him that he liked the first take where Heston had kicked a piece of pottery to give the scene its only sound. Heston on the other hand had assumed that Wyler didn't like the kicking and had therefore deliberately avoided doing it again.
MGM offered Universal-International $750,000 for the loan-out of their contractee Rock Hudson. Hudson seriously considered accepting the part until his agent explained to him that the film's gay subtext was too much of a risk to his career.
Gore Vidal was uncredited as a screenwriter, although producer Sam Zimbalist promised he and Christopher Fry, who worked on the script independently from Vidal, a screen credit. Karl Tunberg, who wrote the original screenplay that had been very much rewritten into a shooting script by Vidal and Fry, claimed the credit. Zimbalist died before the movie ended, and thus could not testify at the guild arbitration hearing. Tunberg won the credit, but failed to win the Oscar. The film had been nominated for 12 Oscars, and won a record 11 (since tied). The movie's sole loss was for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and usually is attributed to the fallout from the credit dispute, which Vidal made widely known.
Upon reading Karl Tunberg's original script, William Wyler had written in the margins "awful...horrible". Consequently, he brought in Gore Vidal - who was on contract with MGM at the time and hated being so - to rewrite the screenplay. Vidal also thought that Tunberg's script was dreadful and initially didn't even want to take on the project. He changed his mind when Wyler promised to get him out of the remaining two years of his contract. Christopher Fry then polished up Vidal's work on the screenplay and wrote a new ending. Neither Fry or Vidal received screen credit for their work on the film, something which infuriated Wyler so much that he leaked the story to the press.
According to Gore Vidal, as recounted in The Celluloid Closet one of the script elements he was brought in to re-write was the relationship between Messala and Ben-Hur. Director William Wyler was concerned that two men who had been close friends as youths would not simply hate one another as a result of disagreeing over politics. Thus, Vidal devised a thinly veiled subtext suggesting the Messala and Ben-Hur had been lovers as teenagers, and their fighting was a result of Ben-Hur spurning Messala. Wyler was initially hesitant to implement the subtext, but agreed on the conditions that no direct reference ever be made to the characters' sexuality in the script, that Vidal personally discuss the idea with Stephen Boyd, and not mention the subtext to Charlton Heston who, Wyler feared, would panic at the idea. After Vidal admitted to adding the homosexual subtext in public, Heston denied the claim, going so far as to suggest Vidal had little input into the final script, and his lack of screen credit was a result of his being fired for trying to add gay innuendo. Vidal rebutted by citing passages from Heston's 1978 autobiography, where the actor admitted that Vidal had authored much of the final shooting script.
The second of ten films shot in the MGM Camera 65 cinematographic process. It was intended to be the first, but production delays let to MGM using it first on Raintree County. Like the Todd-AO format (introduced in 1953), MGM Camera 65 used 65mm negative stock that was then printed to 70mm film for roadshow release prints, or optically printed down to 35mm for general release. Unlike Todd-AO, though, Camera 65 operated at a standard speed of 24 fps from the beginning, and utilised 1.25x anamorphic lenses to optically squeeze an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 into the 2.20:1 Todd-AO frame. These lenses were developed and manufactured by Panavision, a natural evolution on their work to improve the quality of anamorphic camera and projection lenses for the CinemaScope system. The extra 5mm of film between the 65mm negatives and 70mm prints was comprised of 2.5mm outside the perforations on either side of the film, allowing for up to four stripes of magnetic oxide carrying up to six discrete channels of sound - offering greatly superior sound quality in comparison to the mono optical tracks on 35mm prints at the time. When MGM sold its camera department to Panavision in 1961 the Camera 65 process was renamed Ultra Panavision 70 but remained technically identical. The complexity of anamorphic photography and post-production however meant the system was short-lived - especially due to the use of unique 1.25x anamorphic lenses rather than the 2x power used for CinemaScope - and the process was last used for _Khartoum_ in 1966. Most of the cameras were used on Super Panavision 70 productions - Panavision's exact copy of the non-anamorphic 24 fps Todd-AO process - before being replaced by the Panaflex 65 cameras used in Panavision System 65. Notably, due to the complexity and cost of projecting anamorphic 70mm prints, recent re-issue 70mm prints of Ben-Hur have been printed from optically-desqueezed negatives to allow their projection on normal 70mm equipment with only slight cropping of the sides of the picture.
During the 18-day auction of MGM props, costumes, and memorabilia that took place in May 1970 when new owner Kirk Kerkorian was liquidating the studio's assets, a Sacramento restaurateur paid $4,000 for a chariot used in the film. Three years later, during the energy crisis, he was arrested for driving the chariot on the highway.
Audrey Hepburn visited the set during the filming of the chariot race (she was in the midst of shooting The Nun's Story). This led to the false legend that she was an extra in the crowd scenes, as a favor to her former director, William Wyler.
The chariot race required 15,000 extras, on a set constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. Tour buses visited the set every hour. Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film.
According to his memoirs Stewart Granger was offered the role of Messala but claimed that he turned it down on the advice of his agent who recommended Granger not to play a supporting role to Charlton Heston.
This is believed to be one of only three MGM films where the studio's trademark Leo the Lion did not roar at the beginning of the opening credits, apparently because of the religious theme in the film. The others were The Next Voice You Hear... (another film with a religious theme) and Westward the Women. (The lion used in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey was the new illustrated logo first used in the credits for that film, not a real lion. But this logo was shortly discarded permanently, and so doesn't count.)
During filming, director William Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He had the man's stump covered in blood with a false bone protruding from it for the scene where the galley was rammed by another ship. Wyler made similar use of an extra who was missing a foot.
Wyler left all the details of the chariot race - every shot, crash and stunt - in the hands of his second-unit director Andrew Marton. When he saw the final version of Marton and lead stuntman Yakima Canutt's work, Wyler remarked that it was "one of the greatest cinematic achievements" he'd ever seen.
Originally William Wyler had planned only to film the first unit and leave the second unit duties to producer Sam Zimbalist. These plans were scuppered by Zimbalist's premature death. MGM persuaded Wyler to see the film through to completion by offering him a sizable amount of money.
The desert sequences were all set to be filmed in Libya until the Muslim Libyan authorities realized that the film was promoting Christianity. The unit was ordered out of the country, only to show up in Israel.
In the Roman galley scenes, Ben-Hur is referred to as "number 41." In the original General Lew Wallace novel, he is "number 60" (Book 3, Chapter 3, page 123, Harper Brothers 1922). In the Dell Movie Classic comic book, he is referred to as "number 40" (Dell Comics #1052-5911, 1959, pages 15 and 16). And in both Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and the 1958 Classics Illustrated comic book there is no reference to any number, either by scene decor, dialogue, or intertitle.
The first of only three films to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It also has the highest percentage of winning Academy Awards. In 1959 and 1960 there were only 12 categories. 11 of 12 = 92%.
MGM was unsatisfied with the script even as the film was shooting, and hired Ben Hecht to "polish" it. They flew him to Rome, set him up in a house and paid him approximately $15,000 for a week's work. It's not known if any of Hecht's dialogue made it into the final film.
Sergio Leone has an uncredited second unit director credit. In later years, he claimed that he directed the chariot race scenes, but that is a falsehood (Leone had a reputation for not always being truthful).
Several times during the film, Judah touches a box on the door frame of his home. This is a Mezuzah, a case containing a passage from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and and 11:13-21), which Jews traditionally affix to the door frames of their houses as a constant reminder of God's presence.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The chariot race segment was directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. Joe Canutt (Yak's son) doubled for Charlton Heston. During one of the crashes, in which Judah Ben-Hur's horses jump over a crashed chariot, the younger Canutt was thrown from his chariot onto the tongue of his chariot. He managed to climb back into his chariot and bring it back under control. The sequence looked so good that it was included in the film, with a close-up of Heston climbing back into the chariot. Canutt got a slight cut on his chin, but it was the only injury in the incredibly dangerous sequence. Stuntman Nosher Powell, who worked on the film, states in his biography, that Yakima Canutt went pale as a ghost when the chariot crashed. The crash was not planned, and everybody - including Yakima Canutt - believed that Joe Canutt had died.
The rumor that Stephen Boyd's double was killed during the chariot race is false. According to second-unit director Yakima Canutt, the "Messala" that was run over, a Roman soldier standing on the center island who was hit by a chariot and the driver of a spilled rig who jumped out of the way of one chariot but was immediately run over by another one were all articulated and weighted dummies (made with movable arm and leg joints), so when they were hit they "reacted" the way a normal human body would in that situation. A combination of adroit placement and expert editing made the dummies look like real people being run over.
Three lifelike dummies were placed at key points in the chariot race to give the appearance of men being run over by the chariots. The best of these was the stand-in dummy for Stephen Boyd's character that gets tangled up under the horses hooves and gets trampled to death. This resulted in a realistic death sequence that shocked the theater audiences of the time, and spawned an urban legend that this was a real death.
In the scene where Ben-Hur confronts a dying Messala after the chariot race, William Wyler insisted on multiple takes. He wanted Ben-Hur to show complete indifference to his dying former friend, something that Charlton Heston found hard to deliver.