Ben-Hur (1959) Poster



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The only Hollywood film to make the Vatican approved film list in the category of religion.
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.
The chariot race has a 263-to-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every one foot kept), probably the highest for any 65mm sequence ever filmed.
Burt Lancaster, a self-described atheist, claimed he turned down the role of Judah Ben-Hur because he "didn't like the violent morals in the story" and because he did not want to promote Christianity.
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.
The desert sequences were all set to be filmed in Libya until the Muslim Libyan authorities realized that the film was promoting Christianity. The government ordered MGM out of the country, forcing the studio to shift filming to Spain, which has the only desert in Europe.
The production cost MGM a massive $15 million and was a gamble by the studio to save itself from bankruptcy. The gamble paid off, with the film earning $75 million.
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.
Sheik Ilderim's white horses 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.
Desiring as much authenticity as possible, real aristocrats were recruited to play patricians as guests at the party sequence. Among those utilized were Prince Emanuele Ruspoli, Count Marigliano del Monte, Duchess Nona Medici, and Prince Raimondo of Italy, Count Santiago Oneto of Spain, Prince and Princess Hohenlohe of Austria, Princess Irina Wassilchikoff of Russia, Baroness Lillian de Balzo of Hungary.
An infirmary was created especially for the filming of the dangerous chariot race scenes. However, in the end, very few injuries were actually sustained, most of them being sunburns.
[June 2008] Ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Epic".
William Wyler used to joke that it took a Jew to make the ultimate film about Jesus Christ.
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.
Paul Newman was offered the role of Judah Ben-Hur but turned it down because he'd already done one Biblical-era film, "The Silver Chalice," hated the experience and said it also taught him that he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic.
Shot over a period of nine months at Rome's Cinecitta studios. The outdoor set of the chariot race circus was the largest built for a film at the time.
Charlton Heston had learned how to handle a two-horse chariot when he was making The Ten Commandments (1956). When he arrived in Rome, he instantly began lessons in four-horse chariot racing with the film's stunt co-ordinator, Yakima Canutt.
Jesus Christ was played by American opera singer Claude Heater, who went uncredited in his only feature film role, because he never spoke. He was born in Oakland, California.
Director William Wyler decided that the Romans should have British accents, and that the four Americans in the cast would play the Judaeans. This was a technique later used in Masada (1981). There are, however, exceptions, such as Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther, and a British actor dubbing one of the Judaeans winching provisions down to the Valley of the Lepers.
It is the first movie remake to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The Departed (2006) became the second remake, 47 years later.
Martha Scott was 45 at the time of filming, only 10 years older than her screen son. She also played Charlton Heston's mother in The Ten Commandments (1956) three years before.
The chariot race was shot without sound. This was added in post-production when the decision was also made to not have any music throughout the sequence.
Three hundred sets, five years of research, and fourteen months of labor were required for the sets.
Stephen Boyd, and several other actors playing Romans, wore dark contact lenses, so their eyes appeared brown.
One of the very few (and very expensive) 65mm cameras in the world was wrecked during the filming of the chariot race.
Although William Wyler was Jewish, he particularly wanted to make a film that would appeal to all religious faiths.
When he was cast as Messala, Stephen Boyd grew a bushy beard for the role, only to be told that fashionable Roman men of the time didn't wear beards.
Charlton Heston was initially offered the role of Messala.
The process of amassing the more than a million props that were needed began in Rome two years before camera started rolling.
According to Gore Vidal's interview in The Celluloid Closet (1995), Ben-Hur and Messala were former lovers so Messala betrayed Ben-Hur because their relationship ended. According to Vidal, this information was hidden from Charlton Heston because it was felt that he could not handle it. After Vidal's interview, Heston vehemently denied that Ben-Hur was homosexual but Vidal reiterated his claim.
Ben-Hur (1959) is the first of the three movies which have won 11 Academy Awards' most popular award, Oscar (in 11 of 12 categories). Extra categories were available for the others. Second was Titanic (1997). Third was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) to have won 11 Oscars at Academy Awards for acting and other categories. Unlike the other two films, several of the categories won by Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) didn't exist in Ben-Hur (1959)'s day, making its eleven wins that much more impressive.
The 10 square block set that represents Jerusalem is a historically accurate one.
Stephen Boyd wore lifts in his shoes to make his height more on a par with Charlton Heston's.
Of the 3 Academy Awards that Miklós Rózsa won, he cherished the one he won for Ben-Hur (1959) the most, because of the score's size, intricacy, emotional content, and its being a distillation of his more than twenty years' experience scoring films.
15,000 extras were used in the chariot race scene.
Gore Vidal was uncredited as a screenwriter, although producer Sam Zimbalist promised he and Christopher Fry, who worked on the script independently from Vidal and was on-set with William Wyler all during shooting, 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.
Director William Wyler took on the project because he wanted to do a Cecil B. DeMille type picture.
By the time filming had finished, MGM's London laboratories had processed over 1,250,000 feet of 65mm Eastman Color film, at the cost of $1 a foot.
For some sequences in the chariot race, some of the chariots had three horses instead of four. This enabled the camera car to move in closer.
When the screenplay credit went to arbitration, the WGA accorded sole credit to screenwriter Karl Tunberg, despite Gore Vidal's rewrite and Christopher Fry's nearly year-long presence on set re-writing the script..
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.
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 Tunberg and 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.
Initially there were queries over whether William Wyler was the right director for the job, as he'd never tackled a film of this scale before. One of the doubters was Wyler himself.
Miklós Rózsa wrote the musical score over a period of nearly a year. He was resident in Rome with the production while he composed, and recorded his music with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at MGM's Borehamwood studios outside London.
In the original novel, Ben-Hur's mother does not have a name; she is referred to as Mother of Hur. For the film, she was called Miriam.
Leslie Nielsen made a screen test for the part of Messala, part of which can be seen in the documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (1993).
Audrey Hepburn visited the set during the filming of the chariot race (she was in the midst of shooting The Nun's Story (1959)). This led to the false legend that she was an extra in the crowd scenes, as a favor to William Wyler, who gave Hepburn her first starring role in Roman Holiday (1953), for which she won the Oscar. Hepburn, one of Wyler's favorite actresses and people, would make two more films for him, The Children's Hour (1961) and How to Steal a Million (1966)
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.
During filming, director William Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He had the make-up department construct a prosthetic that included a protruding false bone to cover the man's stump for the scene where the galley was rammed by a pirate ship. Wyler made similar use of an extra who was missing a foot.
Such was the expense of the film, nervous studio executives flew out to Rome on a weekly basis to check on the progress of the production.
William Wyler selected all the camera angles for the chariot race, but left all the details of its actual shooting in the hands of his second-unit directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. When he saw Marton and Canutt's work, Wyler remarked that it was "one of the greatest cinematic achievements" he'd ever seen. Wyler then supervised the editing of the sequence.
One of only four 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... (1950) (another film with a religious theme), Westward the Women (1951) and North by Northwest (1959), in which composer Bernard Herrmann's growling music took the place of the lion's roar. (The lion used in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) 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.)
The second of two films shot in the MGM Camera 65 process (eight more would be shot after the process was re-named Ultra Panavision). It was intended to be the first, but production delays led to MGM using it first on Raintree County (1957). 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 utilized 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 (1966) 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 un-squeezed negatives to allow their projection on normal 70mm equipment with only slight cropping of the sides of the picture.
Producer Sam Zimbalist died two months before production ended. Then, William Wyler handled the remaining production duties, along with his directing this masterpiece epic.
Producer Sam Zimbalist offered William Wyler $1,000,000 to direct this film. This was the highest director's fee ever paid up to that time.
This was to be the last film for Cathy O'Donnell who was then married to Robert Wyler, the director's (William Wyler) brother. She would thereafter work only in television.
Originally William Wyler had planned only to film the first unit and leave the second unit duties to producer Sam Zimbalist. These plans had to be scrapped after Zimbalist's premature death. MGM persuaded Wyler to see the film through to completion by offering him a greater financial stake in the film.
In the Roman ship galley scenes, Judah 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 (1925) and the 1958 Classics Illustrated comic book there is no reference to any number, either by scene decor, dialogue, or intertitle.
Sergio Leone has an uncredited second unit director credit. In later years, he claimed that he directed the chariot race scenes, but that is an apparently self-serving exaggeration (Leone had a reputation for stretching the truth).
Charlton Heston had about a month to learn how to drive a chariot properly. Stephen Boyd - who was cast much later in the production - only had two weeks to do so.
While Ben-Hur (1959) was occupying most of the stages and back lot at Cinecitta, Federico Fellini was shooting La Dolce Vita (1960) on a small corner of the back lot.
The film's credits appear with the Sistine Chapel ceiling as background. Charlton Heston would later play Michelangelo, the painter of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, in the film The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).
Robert Ryan was considered for the role of Messala, with Burt Lancaster as Ben-Hur.
Director William Wyler had previous experience with Ben-Hur. He served as an assistant director wrangling extras in crowds under action specialist B. Reeves Eason (aka Breezy Eason), who directed the chariot race in MGM's mammoth silent version of the story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).
Stuntman Cliff Lyons worked as a stuntman/chariot driver in both Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and the remake Ben-Hur (1959).
Nervous at the expense and trying to cover all its bases, MGM executives dissatisfied with the script hired Ben Hecht to "polish" it during shooting. 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.
Although the original release was in Technicolor, the 1974 release was in MetroColor.
In 1880 Lew Wallace told his wife that they might receive as much as $100 in royalties per year for his novel, After years of refusing to sell theatrical rights, Wallace finally acquiesced.
Wyler began his career directing one Western per week budgeted at $2000 each, the same amount it cost Metro for every hour spent on shooting "Ben-Hur."
Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando were considered for the role of Judah Ben-Hur.
One thing William Wyler was completely unable to do was get his leading man to cry on-screen. During Judah Ben-Hur's crying scenes that Charlton Heston covers his eyes. Perhaps Charlton Heston's tear glands were unable to operate successfully.
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 1960 there were only 12 categories. 11/12 & 11 of 12 = 91 & 2/3%.
Judah Ben-Hur killed two Roman prison guards, trying to escape from prison. He choked Roman ship commander, Hortator, to death after the ship was rammed. Shortly after rescuing the imprisoned galley slaves, he climbed to the top of the ship and slew a Macedonian, that knocked Roman soldier and temporary ship commander, Quintus Arrius off the ship, into the sea with a lance and blinded another Macedonian, to protect Quintus Arrius. Then, Judah Ben-Hur quickly dove into the sea and rescued Quintus Arrius.
According to text in the film's souvenir program, the film used over 1,000,000 props, though this is likely a studio publicist's exaggeration.
Cesare Danova screentested to play Ben-Hur.
MGM commissioned over 40 scripts for the film over a period of six years.
Six of the newly developed Camera 65 units, each valued at $100,000 were loaded onto two ships in Califonia and transferred to Italy.
Last film of May McAvoy, who also appeared in the 1925 silent version.
In Christian tradition, Balthasar of the Three Wise Men is the black or dark-skinned one. In this movie, however, he is depicted as white and played by Scottish actor Finlay Currie, while Melchior, traditionally white, is dark-skinned in the film, and played by an uncredited Reginald Lal Singh.
At 2 hours, 1 minute, and 23 seconds, Charlton Heston's performance in this movie is the longest to ever win an Academy Award for Best Actor, and the second longest to win in any category.
With a final cost of 15 million dollars, Ben-Hur was the most expensive film ever made up to that time.
Shiek Ilderim's 4 horses names are Aldebaran, Altair, Antares & Rigel. Their mother's name is Mera.
Judah Ben-Hur was called "41" 7 times total. First 5 were by Quintus Arrius, portrayed by Jack Hawkins, 6th by slave 42, acted by John Glenn. The 7th & last was Quintus Arrius, on the fragment of broken ship, after Judah Ben-Hur's rescue & Quintus Arrius woke up like a galley slave.
William Wyler missed just 2 days of the lengthy shoot due to influenza.
Charlton Heston mused years later if "Ben-Hur" and Anthony Mann's El Cid (1961) would not have been improved if the directors were reversed.
Sidney Franklin had initially been courted to direct the film.
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May McAvoy:  Esther from the original Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) is the only member of the original MGM film to appear in Ben-Hur (1959) as well. She's an extra in a crowd scene.


The trivia items below may give away important plot points.

The chariot race segment was co-directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt (with veteran director Andrew Marton). Joe Canutt (Yak's son) doubled for Charlton Heston. During one of the crashes, in which Judah Ben-Hur's horses jump over a wrecked chariot, the younger Canutt was thrown from his chariot onto the tongue of his chariot because he failed to heed Yakima Canutt's instructions as to how to grip the railing as the chariot hit the top of the hidden ramp leading up to the debris. 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.
When 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.

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