A milestone in epic spectacles
There’s nothing more suited for a movie-watching experience than giant, larger-than-life spectacles, and it rarely gets more spectacular than the 1959 epic, “Ben-Hur”. A lesson in extravagance done right, this film broke new ground in many aspects of moviemaking while financially saving a floundering studio, creating stars of its lead actors, quickly becoming filmdom's second highest-grossing film (next to “Gone with the Wind”), and winning a record eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture (matched only by 1997’s “Titanic” and 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”). This epic journey of a man seeking his family and vengeance during the time of Christ overflows with action and pageantry, but never loses sight of its humanity. Electrifying on every level, the American Film Institute (AFI) named it the 2nd Greatest Epic, 49th Most Thrilling, 56th Most Inspiring, and the 72nd Greatest American Film of All-Time. With colossal sets, eye-popping visuals, heart stopping action, a cast of thousands, and a running time of three hours and thirty-two minutes, “Ben-Hur” is an event, and it completely lives up to its monumental status as a classic.
“Ben-Hur” incorporates geographic, Roman, and biblical history into its make-believe story revolving around a fictional character named “Judah Ben-Hur”. He is a Jewish prince, the richest man in Jerusalem, and the head of one of the greatest families in Roman-occupied Judea. The tension between the Romans and Jews is pivotal to the story, as is the birth and influence of a Jew named “Jesus”. After a musical overture, the film opens with a brief prologue in which three Magi visit the newborn “Jesus” in Bethlehem, and although we never see his face or hear his voice, "Jesus'" presence and teachings mark the characters in the film, particularly “Ben-Hur”.
The bulk of the story begins in the year 26 AD. “Ben-Hur” lives with his sister “Tirzah” and their widowed mother “Miriam”. He falls in love with “Esther”, the daughter of the family’s slave “Simonides”, even though “Esther” is betrothed to someone else. As the story begins, “Ben-Hur’s” close boyhood friend “Messala” has returned to Jerusalem as the newly appointed commander of its Roman garrison. Fully intending to carry out the Roman emperor’s wishes to make Judea a more obedient and disciplined province, he asks “Ben-Hur” for help. Knowing it would mean becoming a traitor to his own people, “Ben-Hur” refuses, and the love between the two quickly turns to adversity. At the hand of “Messala”, events uproot the lives of “Ben-Hur”, his mother, and sister, and the bulk of this epic follows “Ben-Hur’s” enthralling search to find his mother and sister and wreak vengeance against the power-hungry “Messala”. Set in a supersized world that richly brings this period in history to life, “Ben-Hur” is one moving and massively absorbing adventure.
This tale about faith, devotion, and courage originated in the 1880 Lew Wallace novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”. In 1899 it was adapted into a Broadway play that was so successful it toured for twenty-one years in the US, Great Britain, and Australia. It first came to the screen in a 1907 silent short, “Ben-Hur”, followed by a 1925 landmark silent epic,“Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ”, which put the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) film studio on the path to becoming one of the most prestigious studios in the world. This 1959 third film version came as the film industry found itself in turmoil. The dismantling of the Hollywood Studios had begun with the 1948 ruling that they were violating anti-trust laws, and Hollywood was also faced with the onslaught of television which was stealing more than half their viewers. To lure audiences away from their living rooms, gimmicks including 3D, Cinemascope widescreen, and Stereophonic Sound began appearing, and by the late 1950s there was a boom in epic-sized films to rival the small TV screens. There was also a trend towards historical, religious, and biblical stories, as these narratives were “safe” from being labeled communist propaganda during the McCarthy Era (which I explain in my “High Noon” post). Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for some time, MGM was now at a crossroads, and they decided to go for broke with “Ben-Hur”. Two financial blockbusters in particular prompted them to do so: 1951's epic historical drama "Quo Vadis", which saved MGM from financial peril in 1951; and Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic, "The Ten Commandments" in 1956. Both were the highest grossing films of their respective years.
Production of “Ben-Hur” was nothing short of epic itself. Consultants ranging from the Vatican to Jewish history were hired, and it took five years of research to get things as accurate as possible. Shot almost exclusively in Italy, 300 sets were built covering 340 acres on the backlot of Rome’s Cinecittà studios (which MGM rented), and more than 1,000,000 props and 100,000 costumes were made in over a year. Over 10,000 extras were hired, not to mention a bevy of horses, camels, sheep and other animals. The film was photographed with the recently developed 65mm Panavision cameras and lenses, in Eastman Color, in over eight months of filming. As the cost of the film rose to just over $15 million, it set a record as the most expensive film ever made (surpassed by “Cleopatra” in 1963). At the helm of this production was producer Sam Zimbalist, who had produced MGM’s “Quo Vadis”. He suggested MGM shoot “Ben-Hur” in Italy (as they had with “Quo Vadis”), and utilize that film’s sets, props and costumes (which they did). Karl Tunberg wrote the original screenplay over five years before principal photography began. Writers Christopher Fry and Gore Vidal were hired to make script changes during filming, and Maxwell Anderson and S. N. Behrman were also contributing writers. Only Tunbeg received screenwriting credit (which caused a bit of a controversy). After a couple of directors came and went, William Wyler was appointed director on “Ben-Hur”. It was a great choice.
Already an Oscar-winning, highly respected film director, William Wyler previously conquered just about all film genres except for epics, so he took the job as an intriguing challenge. Wyler was tops at keeping the focus on real and alive characters, and that strength proved a major factor as to why "Ben-Hur" remains such an engaging and moving masterpiece. This is very much a character-driven epic. The personal relationships drive this film regardless of how exhilarating the action. Scenes between “Ben-Hur” and “Esther” talking about his mother, “Ben-Hur” and “Messala” negotiating their reunion, or even “Ben-Hur’s” silent interactions with “Jesus”, are all as equally affecting as the extravagant sea battle or chariot race, and the characters are never swallowed by the massive sets or screen size. Evidence of Wyler’s technical expertise is clearly evident with his inspired use of widescreen, exquisitely filling the elongated horizontal frame with interesting details left, right and center. Known also for extracting outstanding performances from his actors, two from "Ben Hur" were awarded Academy Awards for their performances, and Wyler himself earned a third and final Best Director Academy Award for his extraordinary work on this film. It was the eleventh of his twelve Best Director Oscar nominations, and to this day he holds the record for the most Best Director Academy Award nominations. In 1966 he was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of work. One of the creative gods of cinema, it is not surprising that “Ben-Hur” is the fifth film directed by William Wyler to be featured on this blog of classics. The previous four are “The Heiress”, “Funny Girl”, “Roman Holiday”, and “Mrs. Miniver”. Check them out for more on this incredible director.
Wyler previously filmed “Roman Holiday” in Italy – a much more jolly experience. With the fate of MGM resting on this massive production’s success, Wyler worked in Italy six days a week (fixing script issues on the seventh) for eight straight months. It proved exhausting. The strain of it all faired worse on producer Zimbalist, as it is widely believed that the stress of making “Ben-Hur” caused his fatal heart attack on the set during filming. Tragically, Zimbalist didn’t live to see the film’s gargantuan success, or that he was correct in convincing MGM it would save them. He posthumously won his only Academy Award for "Ben-Hur" (for Best Picture). Other films he produced include "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "Boom Town", "Mogambo", "The Catered Affair", and "King Solomon's Mines” (which along with "Quo Vadia", earned him a previous Best Picture Oscar nomination). Sam Zimbalist was only 54 when he died on November 4, 1958.
The most famous scene this film is its staggering chariot race. It is nonstop excitement from the moment “Pontius Pilate” drops a white cloth to start the race, to its finale approximately eight and half minutes later. Wonderment builds even before that white cloth falls, as the nine chariots (each led by a team of four horses) enter the arena and walk their first lap to a fanfare of trumpets and a cheering crowd of thousands. The race itself consists of shots of wheels spinning, horses galloping, looks between “Ben-Hur” and “Messala”, audience reactions, point of view shots, static shots, shots in which the camera moves with the chariots, long shots, close-ups, and much more – each building anticipation and tension. Considered a milestone in filmmaking, this scene captured all the speed, danger, and excitement of a chariot race through editing. It is an astonishing feat of moviemaking, regarded as one of the best action sequences in cinematic history. Even with all the action, Wyler never loses sight that the race is a personal one between “Ben-Hur” and “Messala”, which elevates it into heart-stopping conflict and emotion. The film’s two editors, John D. Dunning and Ralph E. Winters, each won Best Editing Academy Awards for this film.
Other than matte paintings for the sky, no special effects were used for the chariot race. An actual arena was built measuring 2000 feet in length, stretching across 18 acres, with a central Spina containing four thirty-foot statues, and audience stands that rose five stories high. It was the largest set ever built for a film at the time. Seventy-eight horses, eighteen chariots, 40,000 tons of sand imported from Mexico, and fifteen thousand extras were used. Actors Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd both trained to drive chariots, while the other seven were driven by stuntmen. The entire sequence was first filmed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, with stuntmen standing-in for Heston and Boyd. After showing their footage to Wyler, Wyler returned with Heston and Boyd to film all shots featuring the two stars and any additional shots he felt he needed. This sequence alone took three months to film. You’ll notice that Heston takes off his helmet just before the race. That was to show the audience that he was actually driving the chariot (except for the most dangerous stunts). Boyd kept his helmet on because his stuntman didn’t resemble him closely enough. There were false rumors that someone was killed during the race, but no serious injuries occurred while filming the race or making the film.
Charlton Heston is perfect as “Judah Ben-Hur”, the film’s protagonist. “Ben-Hur” goes through a multitude of experiences and circumstances, and Heston manages to make him sympathetic and completely believable – no matter if “Ben-Hur” is the richest Jew in Judea or a lowly galley slave aboard a Roman ship. Though often theatrical, Heston lets loose very moving and genuine emotions, such as when he is overcome upon first seeing “Messala”, or as he recognizes “Jesus” before his crucifixion. Heston is so perfect in the role that many viewers wonder if “Judah Ben-Hur” was an actual historical figure (he wasn’t). “Ben-Hur” catapulted Heston into a top movie star, and his performance earned him a Best Actor Academy Award (his only competitive win or nomination). Heston's timeless quality in stature, mannerisms, and voice were perfectly suited to the role, and he became best known for playing stoic, somewhat stiff, bigger-than-life figures. He was rare in that he could maintain a strong, courageous male screen presence wearing a loincloth or a toga.
A self-described “lonely, hick kid from the woods”, Charlton Heston was born and raised in remote Michigan, with an isolated, idyllic boyhood, reading, fishing, hunting, and playing make-believe. He was close with both parents, who divorced when he was nine, scarring him for the rest of his life. He moved with his mother and stepfather to the suburbs of Chicago, and joined a theater program while at the New Trier High School while working as an actor on Chicago radio. Heston earned a drama scholarship to Northwestern University and appeared for the first time on film starring in the amateur 1941 version of "Peer Gynt", made by David Bradley. While at Northwestern, Heston met fellow actor Lydia Marie Clarke, and the two married in 1944. While serving in the US Air Force he appeared in classified instructional films, and after the war he and Lydia moved to New York City, both making it to Broadway (Heston's debut was as "Proculeius" in the 1947 production of "Anthony and Cleopatra"). In 1949 he began appearing on TV, including as leads in the classics "Macbeth", "Wuthering Heights", and "Wings of the Dove". He returned to Northwestern to appear in a second film by Bradley, as "Anthony" in "Julius Caesar". A starring role in 1950’s "Dark City” was his first Hollywood film, which was not a success. While continuing work on television and Broadway, he passed film director Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount studios (the two had previously been introduced) and waved, and something about him made DeMille think he would be right to play the circus manager in his upcoming film, "The Greatest Show on Earth". Heston received third billing in this all-star, Best Picture Oscar winner, and it made him a hot property.
Film roles poured in after that, such as "Ruby Gentry", "The Naked Jungle", "Secret of the Incas”, and "The Private War of Major Benson", leading up to his first iconic role, as "Moses" in DeMille’s monstrously successful 1956 biblical epic, "The Ten Commandments”, which earned Heston his first of three Golden Globe nominations. With that film's success, more prestigious films followed, including Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" and a supporting role in Wyler's "The Big Country”, both in 1958. When “Ben-Hur” came about, a multitude of actors had been considered and/or approached for the title role (including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Vittorio Gassman, Paul Newman, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster), but after having worked with him in “The Big Country”, Wyler chose Heston. Now an A-list movie star, Heston worked continually for the next four decades, earning a reputation for playing historical figures and heroic losers such as El Cid Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar in"El Cid", Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy", John the Baptist in "The Greatest Story Ever Told", Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon in "Khartoum", Cardinal Richelieu in "The Three Musketeers", and Mark Antony in both "Julius Caesar" (1970) and "Antony and Cleopatra" (1972). He was also the narrator in the 1997 Walt Disney animated feature, “Hercules". In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Heston appeared in a slew of sci-fi and disaster films, including "Soylent Green", "The Omega Man", "Earthquake", "Airport 1975”, "Two-Minute Warning", and most famously in the first three "Planet of the Apes" films. He appeared in over 140 films and TV shows, earning three Emmy Award and Golden Globe nominations, won a Golden Globe in 1962 as the World Film Favorite, was awarded their Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1967, and a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Academy Award in 1977 for his outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes.
A controversial and prominent political activist, Heston was originally a liberal Democrat endorsing Democrat candidates, was a major supporter of Civil Rights, picketed a segregated Oklahoma City lunch counter in 1961, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, and supported gun control. Fearing liberal excesses in the early 1970s, he became a conservative Republican, supporting and campaigning for Republican presidential candidates beginning with Richard Nixon, and became president of the National Rifle Association from 1998 until 2003. A man who took acting very seriously, he also served as President of the Screen Actors Guild from 1965 until 1971. Described by friends as generous, humble, and a devoted family man, he would bring his wife and two children with him when possible to filming locations (as he did in Rome during “Ben-Hur”). He and Lydia were married for 64 years, until his death. As he became a star, she turned from acting to photography. Charlton Heston died in 2008 at the age of 84.
Jack Hawkins stars as “Quintus Arrius”, a high-ranking Roman official. One look at Hawkins in "Ben-Hur" and you can see why this talented actor became known for portraying imposing military types or stern authority figures to perfection. "Arrius" is unyieldingly tough when we first see him aboard the ship, yet Hawkins adds an inquisitive nature, making this man intriguingly human. So much so, that when "Arrius" later shows some tenderness it doesn’t seem out of character. Hawkins was one of the most popular British actors of the 1950s, earning four Best British Actor BAFTA Award nominations between 1952 and 1956. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1958. By the time of "Ben-Hur", Hawkins was internationally famous, primarily from his appearance as the third lead in the 1957 Best Picture Oscar winner, "The Bridge on the River Kwai". After "Ben-Hur", he appeared in a third Best Picture Oscar winner, 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia". You can read more about the life and career of Jack Hawkins in my post on "The Bridge on the River Kwai".
Stephen Boyd is marvelous as “Messala”, the former close boyhood friend of “Ben-Hur”. Handsome, charismatic, and brutal, Boyd handles this complex character with incredible ease. Key to the film is the bond between “Messala” and “Ben-Hur”, and Boyd masterfully shows “Messala’s” change from tenderness to anger in the scene where he asks "Ben-Hur" for help: ”This is my great opportunity 'Judah', and yours too. If I can bring order into Judea I can have any post I want, and you'll rise with me, I promise”. Boyd portrays the somewhat mercurial “Messala”, with such sincere conviction, he becomes one heck of a compelling villain. Since Heston’s eyes were blue and Boyd’s were hazel-blue, Wyler had Boyd wear brown contact lenses. They were not transparent, having a hole in the center out of which he could see with restricted vision. In addition to hampered sight, the lenses scratched and irritated Boyd’s eyes, and as a result he occasionally needed time off to recover. Though Boyd was 6 feet tall, Heston was 6'3", and Boyd wore lifts to match Heston’s height.
Screenwriter Gore Vidal was on set in Rome to help improve the script and felt it lacked a strong reason explaining the bitter falling-out between “Messala” and “Ben-Hur”. He created a backstory that the two had previously been lovers, and “Messala” returned to Jerusalem with the hopes of rekindling their relationship. That addition certainly raises the stakes when “Messala” asks “Ben-Hur” to choose between him or his own people, and intensifies “Ben-Hur’s” hurt and anger at how “Messala” could betray him. According to Vidal's autobiography, “Palimpsest: A Memoir”, when he ran this by Wyler (who okay’d it), Wyler told him, "You talk to Boyd. But don't you say a word to Chuck [Heston] or he'll fall apart”, so Heston was never told about the gay backstory. When Heston learned of it in 1996, he wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times stating, “Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me”. If you watch for it, the gay subtext is more than clear throughout the film, and “Messala” even appears to find a replacement boyfriend. Boyd plays the gay subtext quite expertly, particularly for a 1959 Hollywood film. He was awarded a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for his portrayal.
Northern Irish born Stephen Boyd began in theater as a teenager, eventually touring Canada and the US as part of a theater company (including as "Stanley Kowalski" in a production of "Streetcar Named Desire"). At twenty, he moved to London with the hopes of making it on the London stage. The odd jobs he took to survive included being an usher during the British Academy Awards at the Leicester Square Theatre. Actor Sir Michael Redgrave noticed the handsome usher, and arranged an introduction to the director of the Windsor Repertory Group. Shortly after, Boyd’s stage career began to thrive. In 1953, he began appearing on British TV, and in 1954, his first film, "Let's Make Up". More TV and films followed, and he gained attention as an Irish spy in the 1956 British thriller, "The Man Who Never Was” (earning him a Most Promising Newcomer to Film BAFTA Award nomination). This lead to a contract with 20th Century Fox. Boyd continued working outside the US in such films as "Abandon Ship!", "Island in the Sun", and notably Roger Vadim's 1958 French-Italian film, "The Night Heaven Fell", starring Brigitte Bardot. His first Hollywood production (though filmed in Mexico) was "The Bravados", starring Gregory Peck, also in 1958. Many actors were considered for "Messala" (including Steve Cochran, Victor Mature and Kirk Douglas), but Wyler was impressed by "The Man Who Never Was", gave him a screen-test, and then the part. "Ben-Hur" made Boyd an international star, and he continued working steadily in such films as "Billy Rose's Jumbo” (earning a second Best Actor Golden Globe nomination), "The Fall of the Roman Empire", "Genghis Khan", "The Oscar", and "Fantastic Voyage". Fame started to diminish in the late 1960's, and he began working more in Europe. He accrued over sixty film and TV credits, and his other films include “Shalako", "The Best of Everything", and "Slaves". His final appearance was in a 1977 TV episode of "Hawaii Five-O". He had three brief marriages (two legal, and one “gypsy” type wedding). There are rumors that he might have been gay (primarily because of his closeness with the bisexual Michael Redgrave, and remarks by his friend and co-star Raquel Welch), though I can’t find any hard evidence. Stephen Boyd died of a massive heart attack in 1977 at the age of 45.
Hugh Griffith plays "Sheik Ilderim", the man who owns the chariot and horses driven by "Ben-Hur" in the great race. Griffith brings most of the comedy to this saga, and does so with charm (once you get past the fact that he is a caucasian Welch actor playing an Arab in brown-face). In its day, one of the most famous scenes from the film was when "Sheik Ilderim" awaits "Ben-Hur's" reaction to dinner, which brings a chuckle or two. For his standout performance, Griffith was awarded a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
Hugh Griffith won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and had a few small parts in films and TV in 1939 and 1940. After serving six years in the British Army, he began an illustrious stage career in 1946, both in the UK and the US, which includes highly acclaimed performances in several Shakespeare plays, and a Best Actor Tony Award nomination for the 1958 play, "Look Homeward, Angel". He returned to TV and films in 1947, and soon became a character actor known for playing eccentric and rowdy types in British and American films. For the award-winning 1963 film, “Tom Jones”, Griffith earned a Best British Actor BAFTA, a second Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination, and a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe Award. He earned two additional Golden Globe nominations (both the same year) for the 1968 films "Oliver!" and "The Fixer". Of his just over 100 film and TV credits, other films include "How to Steal a Million", "Kind Hearts and Coronets", "Exodus", "Mutiny on the Bounty", and Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Canterbury Tales". He was married once for over thirty years until his death. Hugh Griffith died in 1980 at the age of 67.
A brief mention of character actor Sam Jaffe, who plays “Simonides”, merchant slave of the “Ben-Hur” family, and father of “Esther”. A prolific character actor who appears in many classics, you can read a bit more about him in my post on “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.
“Ben-Hur” raised the bar in sweeping epics by bringing an unvarnished approach to storytelling and a new level of realism in its attention to details (such as historically researched sets and costumes). It was a film the likes of which audiences had never seen, and it’s no surprise it swept the Oscars. In addition to winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, "Ben-Hur" also won Oscars for Best Cinematography (Robert Surtees), Best Costume Design (Elizabeth Haffenden), Best Sound (Franklin Milton), Best Special Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie, R.A. MacDonald, and Milo B. Lory), and Best Score (Miklós Rózsa). Rózsa's majestic music stunningly underscores the emotions and storyline, heightening the visuals to grandiose proportions, and AFI named it the 21st Greatest Film Score of All Time. The only one of the film’s nomination not to take home a statue was Best Adapted Screenplay (Karl Tunberg).
This week’s awe-inspiring classic is lavish, yet very personal in its story of one man finding faith. It is the apex of epic films. Get ready to be on the edge of your seat for one really great film. Enjoy “Ben-Hur”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications every time a new film is recommended. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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