'Ben-Hur' - The 1959 Film
Created | Updated Aug 12, 2019
Loved him, hated Hur.
- American critic Mort Sahl's infamously brief and cutting review of the film Ben-Hur.
In 1925 MGM1 produced a spectacular silent film, Ben Hur, based on a fictional2 novel by General Lew Wallace. In 1959 the same movie studio released a remake that boasted the tagline 'The Entertainment Experience of a Lifetime!'. Directed by William Wylder, lasting three-and-a-half hours and subtitled A Tale of the Christ, it was to be the most expensive feature film shot up to that date.
Preparation for shooting stretched to six years and a further six months were required for on-location work in Anzio, Rome, Lazio and Nettuno, Italy. Over 300 sets were built covering an area of 340 square acres. The arena for the chariot race, built by 1,000 labourers over a period of a year, used 18 of these, making it the largest single screen set to date. More than 8,000 extras were packed into the arena stands and 40,000 tons of sand was shifted from nearby beaches to create the track. Sculptors created upwards of 200 statues and Rome's Cinecitta Studios provided over a million props. Horses were imported from Yugoslavia3 for the chariot race, for which three months' filming was reduced down to just 20 minutes on screen.
The famous galley ship, built to blueprints provided by an expert in Roman maritime history, proved too unstable when at sea to cope with even a small swell so it was securely tethered on a nearby pond and the motion provided by a system of pulleys and chains. The pond itself created more problems as it didn't have the clear blue quality of the ocean. After much experimentation and a disaster where the water formed a hard crust which required chipping off the boat, a dye was finally found. An unfortunate extra fell in during filming and had to retire from the film on full pay to allow time for the blue dye to fade from his skin. The oars had to be cut for onboard scenes (to allow room for the cameras) and needed spring clips to make them appear heavy.
Filming was undertaken in 'glorious color' using 65mm camera lenses to achieve sharp, deep focus. These cameras were extremely expensive and rare, and proved difficult to replace when one was wrecked during filming of the chariot race scene. With more crew and extras than had ever been employed before, the bill of 15 million dollars represented a great risk for the studio which, happily, paid off as the film grossed over 40 million. Further millions were made by the judicious use of marketing tie-ins such as 'Ben-His' and 'Ben-Hers' towels and toys.
After the role was rejected by Burt Lancaster4, Paul Newman5 and Rock Hudson, Charlton Heston was chosen to play the title role - he had enjoyed much success with an earlier bible epic, The Ten Commandments - and was felt to possess both the screen presence and physique to portray the part to the full. In support were Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd and Hugh Griffith, with the main female roles taken by Haya Harareet, Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell. For some reason all the Romans were chosen to have British accents while the Hebrews were Americans. The evocative score was written by Miklos Rozsa6.
The plot revolves around the betrayal of a Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), by the new Tribune of his province, his Roman friend Messala (Stephen Boyd). Despite their close, almost brotherly, ties, shortly after Judah welcomes Messala into his house they disagree over politics. Messala breaks their friendship when Judah refuses to betray the leaders of the Jewish resistance.
Rome is an affront to God. Rome is strangling my people and my country and 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.
Soon afterwards, during a parade, a tile is accidentally dislodged from the roof of Judah's house, almost killing the new Roman governor, Gratus. Messala seizes upon this mishap to advance his position in the government, accuses the family of dissent and imprisons Judah's mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell). First Judah pleads for their release but when Messala refuses and asks for his surrender, Judah angrily throws a spear into a wall, is arrested and consigned to the galleys.
During the enforced march to join the galley, the slaves chance upon the town of Nazareth. When the centurions refuse water to Judah he is saved from dehydration by 'the carpenter', Jesus of Nazareth, who defies the guards and gives him water. This uplifts Judah and gives him renewed strength. Over the next three years Judah endures the privations of a galley slave. After a particularly gruelling training session the captain, Arrius (Jack Hawkins), offers to send him to Rome to become a gladiator or charioteer. Judah refuses unless it means he is a free man too. However, during a fight with Macedonian pirate war ships, Judah saves Arrius's life, stops him committing suicide and they both travel to Rome.
Emperor Tiberius gives Judah to Arrius as a slave. Eventually Judah becomes an expert at chariot racing, gains the love of Arrius and is adopted as his son, thus becoming a free man. On a trip back to his homeland he chances upon Balthazar (Finlay Currie), one of the 'three wise men' who followed the star of Bethlehem, who introduces him to an Arabian horse trainer, Sheikh Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). At this time he turns down the offer of a chance to race the sheikh's fine horses. Returning to Jerusalem he is overjoyed to be reunited with Esther (Haya Harareet), his childhood sweetheart. She counsels him against revenge saying:
I've seen too much what hate can do. My father is burned up with it. But I've heard of a young brother who says that forgiveness is greater and love more powerful than hatred. I believe it.
Swayed by her tearful entreaties Judah decides to confront Messala rather than kill him. He sends him a gift 'from the son of a Roman consul, champion of the great circus in Rome'. Messala is over-awed by the fabulous dagger but confused as to why a complete stranger would offer such an expensive item to him. It is then that Judah reveals his true identity and demands to know what has happened to his mother and sister - in exchange he will foreswear vengeance and forgive his old friend. Messala complies and Miriam and Tirzah are found, still imprisoned but suffering from leprosy. They are released to seek shelter at a nearby leper colony and chance upon Esther in a garden. They swear her to secrecy over their plight and she tells Judah that they died in prison.
Knowing that his search is now finished, Judah decides to compete in the chariot race for Ilderim and is gratified to hear that Messala will also be taking part. Thus is the scene set for one of the most famous and exciting races in film history. The symbolism of good and evil is personified in the horses - black for Messala, white for Judah. Judah wins and Messala is mortally wounded. He sends for Judah and, on his deathbed, maliciously tells him that his family are alive but living as lepers:
Look for them in the Valley of the Lepers, if you can recognise them. (grabbing Judah's clothing) It goes on. It goes on, Judah. The race, the race is not over.
Judah rushes with Esther to the colony but is overcome with grief and cannot bear to speak to his relatives. Sickened by the cruelty of Rome he returns to Jerusalem, encounters Balthazar again and is present at the 'sermon on the mount'. He still holds vengeance in his heart, however, and turns away.
In the closing scenes of the film, Judah is persuaded by Esther to help take his mother and sister to see Jesus. He is too late, however, as Jesus is already condemned and en route to the cross. Remembering the day that Jesus had given him water, Judah returns the favour. He and his companions watch the crucifixion but find it hard to bear and seek shelter in a cave. The skies turn dark and a fearsome storm breaks out. Touched by the ensuing rain Miriam and Tirzah are cured of their leprosy and Judah of his hate:
Almost at the moment he died, I heard him say it, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'... Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.
He has finally realised that forgiveness, not blind vengeance, has changed him and the ultimate fate of his people. The closing shot is of the three empty crosses and a shepherd leading his flock in the foreground.
Ben-Hur was one of the most honoured, award-winning films of all time. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston - his sole career Oscar), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Colour Cinematography, Best Colour Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Colour Costume Design, Best Special Effects, and Best Screenplay. It was the first film to win eleven Oscars - it lost only in the Screenplay category. Later promotional material capitalised on its success by including the phrase 'The World's Most Honored Motion Picture'.
There are many myths and urban legends surrounding the film - some true and some pure fantasy. Most are centred on continuity problems such as the number of chariots at any given time and others concern the observation of 'modern' accoutrements appearing in some scenes. One of the most obvious continuity goofs appears in the opening scene which includes a shot of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This magnificent work of art was painted by Michelangelo between the years 1508 and 1512 - almost 1500 years after the setting of the film. Despite these occasional lapses in attention to detail this remains one of the most popular, exciting and successful films of all time. It has even found a place in modern phraseology as witnessed by the saying 'bigger than Ben-Hur'.