Ben-Hur (1959) - Illustrated Reference
Ben-Hur was directed by William Wyler and premiered on the 18th November 1959. It stars Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Hugh Griffith, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie and Frank Thring. Screenplay by Karl Tunberg. Music by Miklos Rozsa. 222mins.
When Judah Ben-Hur refuses to betray his people to his Roman friend Messala he is falsely accused of an attack on the governor of Judea and is sent to the galleys, his mother and sister imprisoned. He returns to Judea several years later seeking revenge.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a best-selling novel written by Lew Wallace (1827-1905), a former general of the Union during the American Civil War. It was first published in 1880. The novel was enormously popular and it was only until the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind in 1936 that sales of Ben-Hur were surpassed.
The first movie adaptation was a 15 minute silent movie in 1907, the film focused primarily on the chariot race which was filmed on a beach in New Jersey.
The 1925 MGM silent cost $3.9m, more than any other film to that date, it was a major success grossing $9m worldwide. Some scenes were shot in two-strip Technicolor and the chariot race is still impressive 86 years later! There is even a dash of nudity in the film. It was directed by Fred Niblo and starred Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala.
Director William Wyler (1902-1981) was an assistant director on the 1925 Ben-Hur, he would go on to direct some of Hollywood’s greatest films including Wuthering Heights (1939), Mrs.Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953) and The Big Country (1958).
William Wyler was Oscar nominated 12 times for Best Director, winning three Oscars. In 1957 he was approached by MGM producer Sam Zimbalist to direct a big new widescreen version of Lew Wallace’s novel, a dream project of his. But sadly Zimbalist would not live to see the finished film, he died of a heart attack during production. He was 54.
The original script was written by Karl Tunberg but William Wyler wasn’t at all happy with it and brought in Gore Vidal to rewrite it and Christopher Frye to give it some polish. Neither received any recognition for their efforts and only Karl Tunberg was credited on screen, Wyler was furious and leaked the news out. The credit dispute might account for the film’s only losing category at the Oscars, for Best Screenplay.
Centurion: There's a Jew outside. He wants to see the Tribune Messala.
Messala: I assume he has a name.
Centurion: He says he's a prince, Prince Judah Ben-Hur.
Messala: [angry] Then treat him like one!
Messala: Tell him I'll join him.
Messala: CENTURION! This was his country before it was ours. Don't forget that.
Centurion: Yes, Tribune.
Charlton Heston (1923-2008) / Judah Ben-Hur. A prince of Judea, Judah gets sent to the galleys by his boyhood friend turned enemy, Messala. Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson and Paul Newman were considered for the role of Ben-Hur.
Born in Illinois, USA, Charlton Heston was the popular star of historical epics like The Ten Commandments (1956), El Cid (1961), 55 Days at Peking (1963), The War Lord (1965), The Agony and the Ecstacy (1965) and Khartoum (1966). He won a Best Actor Oscar for Ben-Hur.
Non-historical films Heston appeared in include – The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), The Big Country (1958), Touch of Evil (1958), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973) , Earthquake (1974) and Midway (1976).
Stephen Boyd (1931-1977) / Messala. A tribune of Rome, he turns against Judah when his friend refuses to name the troublemakers who hate Rome. Charlton Heston, Robert Ryan and Leslie Nielsen were considered for the role of Messala.
Born in Northern Ireland, Stephen Boyd won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Messala in Ben-Hur. He has also appeared in films such as Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), The Oscar (1966) and Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Quintus Arrius: Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.
Jack Hawkins (1910-1973) / Quintus Arrius. A Consul of Rome, his life is saved by Judah. Arrius adopts Judah and makes him heir to his property.
Born in London, England, Jack Hawkins was one of the great English actors, his films include – The Cruel Sea (1953), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The League of Gentlemen (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Zulu (1964).
Haya Harareet (1931-) / Esther. Daughter of Simonides, slaves to the House of Hur. Judah and Esther fall in love.
Born in Haifa, Palestine, Haya was married to British director Jack (The Innocents) Clayton. After Ben-Hur she starred with Stewart Granger in The Secret Partner (1961).
Martha Scott (1912-2003) / Miriam. Mother of Judah Ben-Hur. She is imprisoned with her daughter Tirzah when Judah is punished. They are forgotten in the deep prison dungeons and turn into lepers.
Born in Missouri, USA, Martha Scott was nominated for Best Actress for the film Our Town (1940). She had also played Charlton Heston’s mother in Cecil B. De Mille’s epic The Ten Commandments (1956). She was only 11 years older than Heston.
Cathy O’Donnell (1923-1970) / Tirzah. The sister of Judah Ben-Hur.
Born in Alabama, USA, Cathy O’Donnell was married to William Wyler’s brother Robert. Her films include The Best Year of Our Lives (1946), They Live by Night (1949) and Detective Story (1951).
Sheik Ilderim: Aaargh. Stop him! You think you can treat my horses like animals? Get off idiot!
Hugh Griffith (1912-1980) / Sheik Ilderim. The Sheik is racing his horses at the chariot race in Jerusalem, he wants Judah to be their driver.
Born in Angelsey, Wales, Hugh Griffith won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Sheik Ilderim in Ben-Hur. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the film Tom Jones (1963). He can also be spotted in the musical Oliver! (1968).
Sam Jaffe (1891-1984) / Simonides. A slave to the House of Hur, his daughter Esther is in love with Judah.
Born in New York, USA, A veteran character actor, Sam Jaffe has appeared in many films and TV shows. His films include – Lost Horizon (1937), Gunga Din (1939) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). He received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Judah: I must deal with Messala in my own way.
Balthasar: And your way is to kill him. I see this terrible thing in your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur, but no matter what this man has done to you, you have no right to take his life. He will be punished inevitably.
Judah: I don't believe in miracles.
Balthasar: But all life is a miracle! Why will you not accept God's judgement? You do not believe in miracles yet God once spoke to me out of the darkness and a star led me to a village called Bethlehem where I found a newborn child in a manger. And God lived in this child.
Finlay Currie (1878-1968) / Balthasar. One of the three wise men giving gifts to baby Jesus in Bethlehem, years later he arrives in Judea searching for the man Jesus and befriends Judah.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, with over a hundred movie credits Finlay Currie has been appearing in British films since the early 30’s.
One of Currie's most famous roles was as Abel Magwitch in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), other films include Quo Vadis (1951), Ivanhoe (1952), Solomon and Sheba (1959) and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
Frank Thring (1926-1994) / Pontius Pilate. A friend of Arrius and Roman governor of Judea.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Frank Thring has also appeared in The Vikings (1958), King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Messala: Look to the West, Judah! Don't be a fool, look to Rome!
Judah: I would rather be a fool than a traitor... or a killer!
Messala: I am a soldier!
Judah: Yes! Who kills for Rome! And Rome is evil!
Messala: I warn you...
Judah: No! I warn you! Rome is an affront to God! Rome is strangling my people and my country, the whole Earth! But not forever. I tell you the day Rome falls there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before!
Messala: Judah, either you help me or you oppose me. You have no other choice. You're either for me or against me.
Judah: If that is the choice... then I am against you.
Ben-Hur utilized over 1,000,000 props, 300 sets were built and over a million feet of 65mm Eastman Colour film was processed. Production on the film started in May 1958 and finished March 1959.
The arena for the chariot race was the largest set ever built for a film at that time, it took three months to build it at Cinecitta Studios just outside Rome, Italy. The race itself took 5 weeks to film and 15,000 extras were used and 18 chariots built.
Charlton Heston wanted to learn how to drive a chariot to make the race look more realistic, the stunt team showed him how. But on his first lone attempt the horses refused to budge, he pulled at the reins called at the horses, nothing. Than one of the stunt guys yelled “giddy up!” the horses suddenly bolted racing off and Heston went flying out of the chariot.
The scene in the chariot race where Ben-Hur’s horses leap over some wrecked chariots was attempted by Joe Canutt the son of legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. Joe doubled for Heston during the race and in that stunt he was thrown completely over the chariot but he managed to climb back on, his only injury was a few bruises and a cut on the chin. The unexpected fall looked so good they included it in the film and added a close shot of Heston climbing back into the chariot.
There have been rumours that a stuntman died in a scene where a speeding chariot slams right into a fallen charioteer, but it was in fact a realistic looking dummy with specially made joins for the arms and legs which made the scene look uncomfortably real.
The 12 minute long chariot race was directed by Andrew Marton, the second unit director and the stunt director was Yakima Canutt. William Wyler was extremely pleased with their work it was the highlight of the entire film. Critics and film buffs dubbed it the most exciting action sequence ever filmed.
There are nine charioteers in the race representing – Alexandria, Messina, Carthage, Cyprus, Rome, Corinth, Athens, Phrygia and Judea.
American opera singer Claude Heater plays Jesus in the film, no, he doesn’t sing and you don’t hear him speak either or show his face.
In one of the films most memorable and powerful scenes Ben-Hur, now a prisoner, is dying of thirst and Jesus gives him water, a Roman yells at him “I said no water for him!” Jesus stands and faces the Roman. The Roman guard stares at this defiant young man and is left dumbstruck, he slowly backs away still looking at Jesus. A great scene.
Sharp-eyed viewers might be able to spot Judah Ben-Hur much earlier on in the film. Just after the film begins in the first first minute or two there is an outtake from a scene much later on showing Judah walking among crowds of people in Judea after he returns from Rome.
Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995) composed a magnificent score for the film, 110 minutes of music. Rozsa was one of Hollywood’s greatest composers, films he scored include – The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Double Indemnity (1944), Spellbound (1945), Quo Vadis (1951), Ivanhoe (1952), King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961) ,The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Time After Time (1979). He was nominated for 16 Oscars, winning three.
Ben-Hur was the most expensive movie ever made at the time costing $15m, a big gamble considering MGM was not doing too well at the time. But luckily the film was a huge success grossing $70m in the US alone.
According to Box Office Mojo adjusting for inflation Ben-Hur has grossed about $779m since it’s 1959 release making it the 13th highest grossing film ever in the US and Canada.
Ben-Hur was nominated for 12 Oscars winning 11, the most Oscar awards for a movie at that time. The record has since been equalled by Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
Ben-Hur’s Oscar Awards were for – Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Music (Miklos Rozsa), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Editing and Best Special Effects.
It also won Best Film at the Golden Globes, New York City Critics Circle Awards and the British Academy Awards.
Ben-Hur was ranked #72 on the American Film Institutes 1998 100 Greatest films list, #49 on the AFI’s 100 Thrilling films list, #56 on the AFI’s 100 Most Inspiring films list and #2 on AFI’s 10 Epic films list.
It was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2004.
William Wyler's Ben-Hur is one of the greatest films ever made and this writer's favourite movie. Thank you for reading.
The Critics Wrote –
"Ben-Hur", which opened at Loew's State last night, is by far the most stirring and respectable of the Bible-fiction pictures ever made. Three hours and thirty-two minutes of it, not counting intermission, is simply too much of a good thing. The stimulated soul may be willing but the tormented flesh is weak." (Bosley crowther, New York Times)
"Ben-Hur" is a majestic achievement, representing a superb blending of the motion picture arts by master craftsmen. The big difference between "Ben-Hur" and other spectacles, biblical or otherwise, is its sincere concern for human beings.
They're not just pawns reciting flowery dialog to fill gaps between the action and spectacle scenes. They arouse genuine emotional feeling in the audience. The famous chariot race, directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt, represents some 40 minutes of the most hair-raising excitement that film audiences have ever witnessed." (Variety)
"Watching it was like waiting at a railroad crossing while an interminable freight train lumbers past, often stopping completely for a while." (Dwight MacDonald, Esquire)
“Stands as the superspectacular and most tasteful and intelligent Biblical-fiction film in Hollywood’s history.” (Judith Crist)
"Beside the august simplicity of the Gospels on which it draws Ben-Hur dwindles to an oleograph. Nevertheless if we must have films of this kind, this is the one to have.
After all, the spectacular scenes remain: the sea-fight, the Triumph, a magnificent storm and, of course, the chariot-race - a scene superbly shot, superbly edited, superb in every way. I have never seen anything of its sort to touch it for excitement." (Dilys Powell)
"The rare passages of excitement, like the chariot race, are delivered by unit directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. If only they had been given the whole project." (David Thomson)
"It is supremely ironic that a director who later claimed that Ben-Hur 'was never intended to be anything more or less than an adventure story with no artistic pretensions at all' should have given the cinema the richest, and perhaps noblest, historical epic of all." (Derek Elley, The Epic Film)
"Extraordinary, of greater dimensions than any film of our time." (Hollywood Reporter)
"When I arrived for the filming of Ben Hur, all the sets had been built, including Charlton Heston.” (Gore Vidal)
"Loved Ben, hated Hur." (Anon)
More by this Author
A look back at one of David Lean's greatest films, with facts, quotes, posters and rare photos.
A look back at a monumental Hollywood classic, Gone with the Wind, with facts, quotes, posters and packed with rare photos.
A tribute to Frank Frazetta, one of the greatest artists of heroic fantasy..