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.
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.
This is the first of three films to have won 11 Academy Awards, including the Best Picture Oscar. The second was Titanic (1997) and the third was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Several of the categories won by "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" didn't exist in "Ben-Hur"'s day, making its 11 wins that much more impressive.
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 eight 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.
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.
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 (1954), and hated the experience. He also said it taught him that he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic.
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.
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 Emanuele Ruspoli, Count Marigliano del Monte, Duchess Nona Medici and Prince Raimondo of Italy, Count Santiago Oneto of Spain, Princess Nina Hohenlohe of Austria and her husband the Prince, Princess Irina Wassilchikoff of Russia and Baroness Lillian de Balzo of Hungary.
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.
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 didn't want him to play a supporting role to Charlton Heston.
Upon reading Karl Tunberg's original script, William Wyler had written in the margins "awful . . . horrible". Consequently, he brought in Gore Vidal--who was under contract to MGM at the time and hated it--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's and Vidal's work on the screenplay and wrote a new ending. Neither Fry nor Vidal received screen credit for their work on the film, which infuriated Wyler so much that he leaked the story to the press.
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) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). 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.
Sergio Leone was an uncredited second-unit director. 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).
Of the three Academy Awards that Miklós Rózsa won, he cherished the one he won for this film the most, because of the score's size, intricacy, emotional content and its being a distillation of his more than 20 years' experience scoring films.
William Wyler was so impressed with David Lean's work on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) that he asked him to direct the famous chariot race sequence. Lean would have received full screen credit for the job - "Chariot Race directed by David Lean." He declined the offer, knowing that Wyler was a truly talented director and could certainly pull it off himself.
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 in which 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 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 discarded shortly afterward, so doesn't count).
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.
According to Gore Vidal's interview in The Celluloid Closet (1995), Ben-Hur and Messala were former lovers and Messala betrayed Ben-Hur because their relationship ended. According to Vidal, he discussed this with Stephen Boyd (Messala) ahead of shooting, but 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 had any homosexual subtext or that Vidal had any real involvement with writing the script. Vidal responded by quoting extracts from Heston's 1978 autobiography "An Actor's Life", in which Heston admitted that Vidal had written much of the finished screenplay.
Kirk Douglas was offered the role of Messala. He turned it down, because he didn't want to play a "second-rate baddie". He wanted to play Ben-Hur, but Charlton Heston had already been cast. Douglas later made Spartacus (1960) in response.
According to Charlton Heston,William 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 them--they 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."
In 1880 Lew Wallace--author of the novel on which this film is based--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.
After a few days of shooting, Andrew 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.
In nearly all the main sources the story of the script writing for this movie is told from one of two viewpoints: that of director William Wyler and star Charlton Heston, or that of novelist Gore Vidal. The views of Sam Zimbalist, producer, who died in mid-production, before the controversy over the screenplay erupted, have been filtered through the views of Wyler, Heston and Vidal in most of the published sources (no memoirs of Zimbalist himself have been published). But here is another viewpoint based on extensive reading of the sources. Zimbalist had the idea of remaking Ben-Hur in the mid-1950s. This remake (the same story been made twice before as a silent film) was gamble to rescue MGM from near bankruptcy. Zimbalist engaged screenwriter Karl Tunberg to write the script for the new Ben-Hur after Tunberg's success with MGM's historical epic Beau Brummell (1954). Tunberg wanted Sidney Franklin to direct Ben-Hur, but Zimbalist insisted on Wyler. Tunberg reluctantly agreed in the end, partly because he was already engaged to work on another project, Count Your Blessings (1959). Wyler disliked Tunberg's Ben-Hur script and brought in other writers during the shooting, including Vidal (who later claimed a large contribution - but this recollection was not supported by the memoirs of Heston or Wyler) and Christopher Fry. When rough cuts of Ben-Hur were viewed by MGM executives in late 1958, all agreed that many of the scenes were unsatisfactory. At this point Tunberg, despite being primarily involved in Count Your Blessings, was engaged to rewrite Wyler's changed material and to compose some added scenes, all of which went into the final version of Ben-Hur. Many of these changes amounted to restoring what had been in place before Wyler's interventions in the script while on the set. This final script was actually the basis of the film released in theaters. But Wyler still demanded that Fry get credit for the work he had done on the set. The Screen Writer's Guild conducted a formal arbitration, using no oral testimonies, but only experienced writers as judges, each studying all the drafts of the script in the ignorance of the others. These judges ruled unanimously that the final script was essentially Tunberg's work. Their process and rationale for this decision was published in the Hollywood Reporter, on Friday, November 20, 1959 (p. 5). A careful reading of the Guild's published statement will corroborate the events mentioned above. Wyler, infuriated by this rebuff, used his great influence in Hollywood (helped by also Heston) to conduct a publicity campaign against Tunberg. The campaign had its effect - "Best Screenplay" was the only category in which Ben-Hur was nominated for an Academy Award, but did not receive it.
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 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.
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.
MGM offered Universal $750,000 for the loan-out of its contract star 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.
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).
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 its 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). 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 unsqueezed negatives to allow their projection on normal 70mm equipment with only slight cropping of the sides of the picture.
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.
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.
One of the problems William 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.
The film's budget 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 William 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.
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.
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.
Famed stuntman Yakima Canutt was brought in to coordinate all the chariot race stunt work and train the drivers. Charlton 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.
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 Yakima Canutt had initially opposed, proved to be the most workable element.
The heat of Rome proved to be a serious drawback for the action scenes. 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.
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.
Charlton Heston made a big blunder early on by composing a lengthy 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 William 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."
Andrew 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.
"Hortator" is not a name but a title. It is a Latin noun meaning "inciter" or "one who arouses" and is the root of our English word "exhort" and all of its forms (like "exhortation" for a speech that arouses people to action). Thus the man beating the drum is addressed not by name but by title, as one might say "ensign."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The chariot race segment was co-directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt (with veteran second-unit 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 its tongue because he failed to heed Yak'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 Yak went pale as a ghost when the chariot crashed. The crash was not planned, and everybody--including Yak--believed that Joe had died.
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.
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.
Judah Ben-Hur personally killed five men during the course of the film. First he slew two Roman guards while he was trying to escape from prison. He choked the Roman ship commander Hortator to death after the ship was rammed. Shortly after freeing the imprisoned galley slaves, he climbed to the deck of the ship and speared a Macedonian pirate, which knocked Roman soldier and temporary ship commander Quintus Arrius off the ship into the sea. He then set fire to the face of another pirate to protect Quintus, then dove into the sea to rescue him.
Judah Ben-Hur was called "41" seven times total. The first five were by Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), the sixth was by slave 42 (John Glenn), the seventh was by Quintus Arrius as he and Ben-Hur floated on the debris from the sunken ship.