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.
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During the 18-day auction of MGM props, costumes and memorabilia that took place in May 1970 when new studio 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.
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A talent was a measure of weight, and could have meant either silver or gold, as each metal was measured in talents. In 2022 dollars, the sum wagered by Messala against the sheikh at 4-to-1 odds on 1,000 talents would be the modern-day equivalent of approximately $82.0 million of silver, or $8.0 billion of gold.
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The chariot race has a 263-to-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every one foot used), probably the highest for any 65mm sequence ever filmed.
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The only Hollywood film to make the Vatican-approved film list in the category of religion.
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Kirk Douglas was offered the role of Messala but turned it down, because he didn't want to play a "second-rate baddie". Douglas wanted to play Judah Ben-Hur, whose Jewishness appealed to him, but he was too old and Charlton Heston had already been cast. The experience motivated Douglas to develop his own epic, Spartacus (1960), which was partially designed to compete against Ben-Hur (1959).
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The desert sequences were all set to be filmed in Libya until authorities in the country--a Muslim nation--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.
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The ten-square-block set that represents Jerusalem is a historically accurate one.
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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.
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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.
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When film students are given a tour of the Panavision facility, they are shown the chariot race from this film in full 70mm Ultra Panavision (2.76:1).
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Martha Scott was 45 at the time of filming, only ten years older than her screen son, Charlton Heston. She also played Heston's mother in The Ten Commandments (1956) three years previously.
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William Wyler was so impressed with David Lean's work on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) that he asked Lean 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.
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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. It is also the first-ever film to win 10 Academy Awards in competitive categories, with Gone with the Wind (1939) having won 8 competitive Oscars and 2 special Oscars.
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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.
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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.
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Adjusted for inflation, this would be the 13th highest-grossing movie of all time.
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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.
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One of the very few and very expensive 65mm cameras in existence was wrecked during the filming of the chariot race.
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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.
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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.
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The chariot scene alone cost about four million dollars, or about a fourth of the entire budget, and took 10 weeks to shoot.
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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 coordinator, Yakima Canutt.
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William Wyler coined the famous joke that it took "a Jew to make a good film about Jesus."
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Ben-Hur (1959) is currently, as of 2017, the last Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
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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.
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The chariot race was shot MOS - without sound. This was added in post-production when the decision was also made to not have any music throughout the sequence.
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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.
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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, complexity, intricacy, emotional content and its being a distillation of his more than 20 years' experience scoring films.
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According to Charlton Heston, William Wyler was 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."
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The 300 sets built required five years of research and 14 months of labor.
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Stephen Boyd's contact lenses caused him terrible pain, forcing a rescheduling of scenes so he could rest his eyes.
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While this film was occupying most of the stages and back lot at Cinecitta, Federico Fellini was shooting La dolce vita (1960) on a small corner there.
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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.
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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 one dollar per foot.
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William Wyler kept up a 16-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week schedule for the nine months it took to shoot.
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Although William Wyler was Jewish, he was particularly keen to make a film that would appeal to all religious faiths. In any case, he viewed the novel's subtitle, "A Tale of the Christ", as almost incidental to the story. He never lost sight of the obvious fact that the story was about a man called Judah Ben-Hur. His insistence that it be that personal story is largely responsible for the film's enduring success.
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Stephen Boyd, and several other actors playing Romans, wore dark contact lenses, so their eyes appeared brown.
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106 of 110 found this interesting Interesting? |
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.
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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.
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Producer Sam Zimbalist offered William Wyler $1 million to direct this film. This was the highest director's fee ever paid up to that time.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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In June 2008 this film was ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Epic".
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Producer Sam Zimbalist, 54, collapsed and died of a heart attack 40 minutes after leaving the set complaining of chest pains.
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.
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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 producers of low-budget Italian "epics" from using the same materials.
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MGM commissioned over 40 scripts for the film over a period of six years.
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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 studio's new stylized--and short-lived--logo, first used in the credits for that film, not a real lion. In A Night in Casablanca (1946), since, technically, The Marx Brothers did The Roars, I Put It In.
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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.
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Stephen Boyd had difficulty driving the chariots. His hands and wrists blistered, and rest time had to be scheduled.
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Six of the newly developed Camera 65 units, each valued at $100,000 (over $750,000 in 2016 dollars), were loaded onto two ships in Los Angeles and transferred to Italy.
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One of the models of the Roman ships was on display at the amusement park Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri. It was outside and exposed to the elements for many years.
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As Quintus is driving his chariot in his victory procession, he is accompanied by the slave, Ben-Hur. In Roman tradition, a slave would stand in the chariot behind the victor, often holding a laurel above his head, while whispering to the victor that all glory is fleeting.
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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. In any event, Lancaster, who was 45 when the film eventually went before the cameras, was too old for the part.
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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 Croatia.
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The film was originally intended to be made in 1956 with Marlon Brando in the lead role.
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The process of amassing the more than one million props that were needed began in Rome two years before cameras started rolling.
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Charlton Heston was initially offered the role of Messala.
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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.
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The city of Jerusalem set took up 10 square blocks. Altogether, the production used about 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, more than a million pounds of plaster, and 250 miles of metal tubing.
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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."
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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 were imported from Mexico for the track.
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According to Sir Christopher Frayling's biography of Sergio Leone, Leone apparently recalls William Wyler arriving on set early one morning with Charlton Heston, attired in cowboy garb and doing some re-shoots for The Big Country (1958) on the vast Cinecita back lot in Rome.
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Messala's hesitation to accept Sheik Ilderim's wager on the race would not be out of character. Although it's impossible to equate the modern value of gold with that of ancient Rome, it is known that a talent of gold or silver was equal to approximately 100 lbs in weight. A 1,000 talents, at 4 to 1 odds would have been a staggering sum.
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Stuntman Cliff Lyons worked as a stuntman/chariot driver in both this film and the original Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).
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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).
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A common practice with low-budget films is to have the same sky backdrop-painting behind all scenes using the giant process tanks studios provided for seascapes using models. Ben-Hur had different murals for every sea scene; a huge cost and time-consuming effect.
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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.
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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.
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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 MGM studio orchestra in Culver City, California.
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It is the first movie remake to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The Departed (2006) became the second remake, 47 years later. It can be argued that a talking picture made from the same story as an earlier silent film is not a true remake, since the storytelling techniques each employ are so radically different.
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"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."
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William Wyler decided to take Charlton Heston to play Ben-Hur when they both made The Big Country, one year earlier. Heston was not told then, only Wyler knew and kept it for himself.
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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. Wyler then brought in playwright Maxwell Anderson to do a draft. Playwright Christopher Fry was then engaged by Wyler to polish a screenplay that, by that time, was largely Anderson's work, built on the skeleton of Tunberg's earlier drafts. Neither Fry nor Vidal (whose contribution was almost negligible) received screen credit for their work on the film, which infuriated Wyler so much that he leaked the story to the press.
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In 1880, Lew Wallace, author of the novel on which this film is based, told his wife that they might receive as much as one hundred dollars in royalties per year for his novel, After years of refusing to sell theatrical rights, Wallace finally acquiesced.
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Wyler was so taken with the actor Remington Olmsted, who plays the Decurian soldier who denies Ben-Hur water on the slave drive, that when he discovered the actor had been casually replaced during the shoot, he demanded Olmstead been found and returned at whatever cost. It wasn't too hard. Claude Heater, who played Christ, was a regular at Olmstead's restaurant in Rome while on location. Wyler's instincts proved worthy of the effort.
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Such was the expense of the film that nervous MGM executives flew out to Rome on a weekly basis to check on the production's progress.
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According to Andrew Marton, who directed the chariot race, the track was constructed of steamrolled ground rock debris covered with 10 inches of ground pumice 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 pumice layer, which Marton and Yakima Canutt had initially opposed, proved to be the most workable element.
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Sculptors cast more than 200 pieces of statuary to supplement the thousands of props used from Cinecitta's warehouse.
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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 Marton had to use a 140mm lens, requiring he and his crew to move closer to the dangerous action of the race.
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At one point MGM planned this as a vehicle for three of its most popular contract stars--Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger.
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6 distinguished writers , including Christopher Fry worked on the script which ran to 230 pages. Based on the book by General Lew Wallace, who wrote it while he was the governor of New Mexico, it became a play on Broadway with William S. Hart (later to gain fame as a cowboy star) as Messala, and had 2 chariots racing on treadmills. 7 years later the number of chariots increased to 8 and the play ran in one theater for 17 years. It was first filmed in 1907 with the chariot race performed by members of the Brooklyn Fire Department.
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Although the original 35mm release was in Technicolor (there is no such thing as a 70mm Technicolor print, as Technicolor was never equipped to make them; all the original release's 70mm prints were in MetroColor), all of the 1974 release's prints were in MetroColor. More significant was that the 1974 release was cut from the original running time of 212 minutes to 170, and the film shorn of its musical overture and entr'acte (it was presented without intermission). Most egregiously, the sequence of some scenes was re-ordered, an almost unheard-of bowdlerization of a successful film, especially one that had won an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards.
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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.
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When the Roman Legion makes a triumphant march through Rome, the band plays the exact same tune that the Legion marched to in Quo Vadis.
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The film's budget ballooned to $10 million, nearly fifty percent higher than the original budget. Joseph Vogel president of MGM's parent company Loew's Inc., came over from New York to say that there was growing concern among the board of directors 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 was reshooting the scene he had been working on when Vogel had left for his trip five weeks previously, now improved by some new dialogue from Christopher Fry. The nervous company boss wondered if they had been filming the same scene the entire time.
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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.
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It was estimated that 500 journalists visited the set during production.
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According to William Wyler's wife, Margaret Tallichet, as soon as photography was done and he and his cast left Rome, he started to experience migraine headaches, which lasted until the film opened in November 1959.
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Charlton Heston's Oscar winning performance in this film is his only Academy Award nomination, though he also won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
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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.
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Director William Wyler had served as an assistant director wrangling extras in crowds under action specialist B. Reeves Eason (aka "Breezy"), who directed the chariot race in MGM's mammoth silent version of the story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).
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The first and only Best Picture Oscar winner to also win Best Special Effects.
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Held the record for most Oscars won (11) for 38 years, until "Titanic" matched it in 1998.
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More than 300 sets were built on location at the Cinecitta studios in Rome. They were constructed following 15,000 sketches and covered more than 340 acres.
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 returned after four days, too involved with the production to stay away.
Ben-Hur generated another $20 million from merchandising, including books, toys, candy, perfume, neckties, jewelry, gowns, chariot-shaped tricycles, and "Ben-Her" and "Ben-His" bathroom towels.
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 dollars for a week's work. It's not known if any of Hecht's dialogue made it into the final film.
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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, Charlton Heston simply covered his eyes.
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Sheikh Ilderim's four horses' names are Aldebaran, Altair, Antares and Rigel. Their mother's name is Mira. All are Arabic names for major stars in the sky. Both Hugh Griffith (Sheikh Ilderim) and Charlton Heston mispronounce "Rigel": each pronounces it as "REE-ghel," with a hard "g" as if it were from the Latin, whereas the correct Arabic pronunciation is "REEJL," employing a hard "j" sound. As an Arab, Sheikh Ilderim should have known better.
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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)
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William Wyler missed just two days of the lengthy shoot, due to influenza.
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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. Wherein Vidal added a gay subtext between Ben-Hur and Messala, all of the other "Ben-Hur" screenwriters - Karl Tunberg, Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, and Christopher Fry - added two conflicts between the two characters, which revolved around (1) one's devotion to his country and one's devotion to God; and (2) how one person can be redeemed after replacing his/her humanity with hatred and vengeance. Upon receiving the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1959, Heston had only one "Ben-Hur" screenwriter to thank in his acceptance speech: Christopher Fry.
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Producer Sam Zimbalist died two months before production completed. William Wyler handled the remaining production duties.
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The Roman decurion's line "No water for him!" became the on-set catchphrase for the remainder of the shoot. Whenever anyone made a mistake, one or several actors or crew members would shout, "No water for him!"
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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. Granger was 45 when the film began to shoot, ten years older than Heston, and too old for the part.
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Director William Wyler began his career at Universal Pictures directing one two-reel western per week, each budgeted at 2,000 dollars - the same amount it cost MGM for every hour spent on shooting this film.
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In nearly all the main sources the story of the scriptwriting 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 producer Sam Zimbalist, 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). However, there is another viewpoint based on extensive reading of the sources. Zimbalist had the idea of remaking "Ben-Hur" in the mid-'50s. This remake (the same story had been made twice before as a silent film) was a 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 suggested Sidney Franklin to direct, but Zimbalist insisted on Wyler. Wyler disliked Tunberg's 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), Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman and Christopher Fry. When rough cuts 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 (1959), was engaged to rewrite Wyler's changed material and compose some added scenes, all of which went into the final version. 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. However, 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 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.
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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.
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By the end of photography, approximately 1.25 million feet of the expensive 65mm Eastmancolor film had been exposed, and processed at a cost of roughly one dollar per foot.
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Director William Wyler took on the project because he wanted to do a Cecil B. DeMille type of picture.
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Ben-Hur's house was constructed of wood frame covered with stucco painted to look like stone.
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The arena of the chariot race covered 19 acres and at the time was the biggest set ever built for a film. The two straights were each 500 yards long and the 4 statues in the centre were 30 foot high. The arena took 750 men a tear to build. There were 2 Roman galleys each 175 foot long and seaworthy.
10,000 Italians were employed for the filming, the sculptor shop employed 200 skilled artists to turn out statues, pottery and friezes.
The top-grossing US film of 1959.
It shares the top spot of most Oscar wins for a movie. The other movies are Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, all with 11 Oscars.
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According to text in the film's souvenir program, the film used over one million props.
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The 65mm cameras were extremely heavy. It took four men with steel bars to move them, so William Wyler ended up using a crane most of the time.
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Final film of Cathy O'Donnell. NOTE: She was married to Robert Wyler, director William Wyler's brother. She would thereafter work only in television.
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The film's credits appear with the Sistine Chapel ceiling's center panel, "The Creation of Adam", as background. Charlton Heston would later play Michelangelo, painter of the Sistine ceiling, in the film The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).
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The first film to sweep all the technical awards at the Oscars: Best Director, Editing, Cinematography, Sound Recording, Score, Art Direction, Costume Design and Special Effects.
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Robert Ryan was considered for the role of Messala, with Burt Lancaster as Ben-Hur. However, he was 49 when production began, making him too old for the part.
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Final film of George Relph, a veteran of London's Old Vic Theatre Company. He died five months after the film's release.
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Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
The wardrobe in a vast warehouse contained 11,000 costumes including some 1,000 suits of armour. Silk for one of Ben-Hur's costumes came from Thailand.
Frank Thring had the odd distinction of playing both Pontius Pilate in this film, and Herod Antipas in King of Kings (1961), his next film.
Charlton Heston wrote in his 1995 autobiography "In the Arena" that he probably would not have been cast as Moses or Ben-Hur in the modern age because he was not Jewish.
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MGM offered Universal 750,000 dollars 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.
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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 [error], 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.
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Vittorio Gassman, Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, Van Johnson and Edmund Purdom were considered for the lead role.
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Marlon Brando was considered for the role of Judah Ben-Hur.
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Rock Hudson was furious with Universal for not loaning him out for "Ben-Hur ". However, he did sign for them again after his contract expired, this time insisting that he could also make movies for rival studios.
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For the initial 35mm release, in order to meet the terms of the exhibition contract, exhibitors had to increase ticket prices for this special "event" presentation. Some exhibitors raised their ticket prices to more than double their standard admission prices. Some exhibitors also charged differing prices based on the day or where the seats were located in their theaters. Despite the expensive ticket prices, audiences flocked to the theaters. The domestic and international grosses reportedly came to more than ten times the film's staggering production costs.
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Charlton Heston noted favorably that William Wyler, who had no experience with such a large-scale movie, was "no more awed by a ten-million-dollar-plus production than he is by a three-million-dollar one."
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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.
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Passed by the British Board of Film Censors on 30 October 1959 with an "A" certificate, then premiered at the Empire, Leicester Square, on 16 December 1959 where it ran for 76 weeks. Whilst he Empire was closed for re-development the film transferred to the Royalty where it ran for a further 49 weeks, finally ending its West End run on 6 May 1962. MGM deliberately kept other cities waiting with Birmingham's 35-week run not commencing until 1 September 1960, Manchester's 37-week run from 28 November 1960, and even later Liverpool's 26-week run from 28 May 1961. The provincial road show at inflated prices carried on until mid-1963, but some towns refused to show Ben-Hur until prices returned to normal. MGM finally granted the film a general release at normal prices on 8 December 1963. Re-issued in 1969, London's Casino Cinerama showed the film from 26 December 1969 for 19 weeks.
In a nice bit of realism, indicative of a big budget film, the raft that Judah and Arias leave behind when saved at sea is seen gradually drifting away within the picture frame during the first scene on the rescue ship.
Charlton Heston and James Stewart, who had been nominated for Best Actor for Anatomy of a Murder, arrived in the lobby at the same time on Oscar Night and posed together for photographers. As they both turned to go to their seats, Stewart took Heston's arm and said, "I hope you win, Chuck. I really mean that." Heston commented in his autobiography, "He meant it, too. I don't know another actor who would have said such a thing. He's an extraordinary man."
Next to the female lead in "El Cid" (1961) Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver also lost the Esther part in "Ben-Hur" due to her contractual obligations to German/ Austrian production "Gustav Adolfs Page" (1960).
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The 6 cameras used on the film cost, at the time, some £200,000.
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Both Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston would later go on to work with director Richard Fleischer in a science fiction film. Boyd in Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Heston in Soylent Green (1973).
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There was no wrap party after the shooting of Ben-Hur.
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Sidney Franklin had initially been courted to direct the film.
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Yakima Canutt and Andy Marton shoot the chariot race but Wyler edited it.
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When Heston exasperated stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, about the chariot race, Canutt famously told him, "Just stay in the chariot, Chuck, you'll win the damned race."
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The only Best Picture Oscar nominee that year to be also nominated for Best Art Direction (Color), and Best Costume Design (Color), and Best Special Effects.
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Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.
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Only Best Picture Oscar winner with a hyphen in its title.
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Over 50,000 people were involved in the making of the film, including 365 speaking parts in the main cast.
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Charlton Heston mused years later that, if "Ben-Hur" director William Wyler and El Cid (1961) director Anthony Mann had exchanged directing assignments, the former film would not have been much less than it ended up being, whereas the latter might have been the greatest epic film ever made. Heston was half-right: Wyler might have made "El Cid" into an epic, even better than "Ben-Hur", but Mann was not Wyler's equal and could not have brought to this film the same level of detail to the screenwriting process, visionary direction, and actors' performances that Wyler did.
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When Judah and Quintus are rescued from their raft, Quintus offers the first drink of water to Judah, then drinks from the same cup himself without washing it off first. For a consul of Rome to do this for a condemned galley slave would be considered an unheard of honor.
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Roger Ebert wrote, "One of the film's problems was that there was no plausible explanation for the hatred between the characters played by Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. Vidal's suggestion: They were lovers when they were teenagers, but now Ben-Hur (Heston) denies that time, and Boyd is resentful. Wyler agreed that would provide the motivation for a key scene, but decided to tell only Boyd, not Heston, who "wouldn't be able to handle it." The film shows the scene, which plays with an amusing subtext."
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The costuming of the Roman soldiers in this film has never been surpassed, and establishes the iconic look based on archaeological research. The reason why red was so prevalent in Roman armies: the crests on their helmets, their cloaks, tunics, straps, bunting, etc., is in homage to Mars, the god of war.
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Included among the American Film Institute's 2001 list of the top 100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies.
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In 1924 Francis X Bushman appeared in a version which went into film libraries as a classic.
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In this film, Charlton Heston's assigned oar rower number was "41" on the slave ship. In the 2016 re-make, Jack Huston's assigned oar rower number was "61". In the 2010 T.V miniseries, Joseph Morgan's assigned oar rower number was "40".
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Judah tells Messala that Rome is strangling the whole world, and when it falls there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before. He was right, only it took another 250 years for Rome to begin to crumble, and another 200 years for it to ultimately fall.
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In the scene where Massala tells Simonides and Esther that Judah has been sentenced and condemned to the galleys, the wooden crossbeams where he and Judah had pledged their undying friendship with spears is directly behind his head.
Esther tells Judah that the wise old days of Solomon were "long ago". They were in fact almost 1000 years earlier.
In the original novel, when Judah Ben-Hur is adopted by Quintus Arrius, his legal name becomes "Sextus Arrius." This was likely omitted in the film to avoid confusion with another minor character named Sextus, who appears early in the film as a servant to Messala.
In his 1995 autobiography "In the Arena" Charlton Heston admitted he probably would not have been cast as Moses or Judah Ben-Hur in the modern era, because he was not Jewish.
Paul Newman turned down the role of Judah Ben-Hur because he didn't want to have to wear a tunic.
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In preparation for his role in Ben Hur Stephen Boyd was told to grow a beard then by the time it was a good length it was discovered that young Roman tribunes didn't wear beards so it had to come off. It was then decided that he should have brown eyes instead of blue which meant that he had to wear contact lenses. He also had to have lifts put in his shoes so that he was equal in height to Charlton Heston's 6ft 2 ins.
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In preparation for his role in Ben Hur he was told to grow a beard then by the time it was a good length it was discovered that young Roman tribunes didn't wear beards so it had to come off. It was then decided that he should have brown eyes instead of blue which meant that he had to wear contact lenses. He also had to have lifts put in his shoes so that he was equal in height to Charlton Heston's 6ft 2 ins.
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Richard Hale, who appears as Gaspar, the middle Wiseman, would be cast a year later as Boo Radley's father, Nathan, in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
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Martha Scott and Charlton Heston star opposite each other as a Hebrew mother and son both in The Ten Commandments (1956) and in Ben-Hur (1959).
Liselotte Pulver was the first choice to play Esther and was already cast. When a German producer insisted that she had to fulfill her contract with him beforehand, she had to be recast and her role went to Haya Harareet. Pulver later admitted that the loss of this high-profile role was her biggest professional regret.
Included among the 25 films on the American Film Institute's 2005 list of AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.
Much has been made in later years about the possible homosexual undertone between Ben-Hur and Massala. Whether it exists or not is up to interpretation, but it is well known among historians that homosexuality in ancient Greek armies was not only common, but encouraged under the theory that men would fight harder beside their compatriots if they were also their companions. It would not be a huge leap to consider it to be common among the Roman armies as well.
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Has the distinction of being the film with the most academy award wins (11) of all time. A record it held for 37 years, until it was tied by "Titanic" in 1997.
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It's never explained why, after he's been told that his mother and sister have died, Judah decides to meet Massala in the arena instead of going after him by more direct means. Of course, if he had opted for the latter there would have been no spectacular chariot race.
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According to his autobiography, Heston wasn't the first choice as the studio considered actors "...ranging from interesting (Burt Lancaster) to dead wrong (Rock Hudson) as studios usually do."
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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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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.
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The Roman soldier standing on the spina, or center island of the circus, was a dummy. It never seems to occur to those who claim it was a real extra that the camera's movement would not have focused so precisely on the "man" had it not been planned in advance. Both this "soldier" and the "driver" of an overturned chariot who jumped out of the way of one chariot only to be run over by another 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 between the stunt driver and a kneeling dummy gave the seamless impression that the man had actually been run over.
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The shot where Messala's body is dragged behind his own chariot was tried first with a dummy, but it was unconvincing. It was decided to have the chariot pull Stephen Boyd along the ground at high speed, so a steel pan molded to his body was fabricated to protect him. In spite of this precaution, Boyd suffered skin burns and some permanent scarring.
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Judah Ben-Hur struggles with five men during the course of the film: he fights two Roman guards while trying to escape from prison; chokes a Roman galley officer after the ship is rammed; spears a Macedonian pirate an instant before the pirate can kill Roman admiral Quintus Arrius; and sets fire to the beard of another pirate blocking his path to rescue Arrius, who'd been knocked into the sea in full armor, under whose weight he surely would have drowned without Ben-Hur's intervention. Aside from the pirate skewered by Ben-Hur's spear (a skill set up near the beginning of the film in the scene in which the brief renewal of Ben-Hur and Messala's friendship is symbolized by their spear-throwing contest in Jerusalem's Fortress of Antonia), it's difficult to ascertain whether the others Ben-Hur attacks suffered mortal injuries or not.
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