Ben-Hur (1959 film)

Ben-Hur (1959 film)

name = Ben-Hur (or Benhur)

image_size = 215px
caption = film poster by Reynold Brown
writer = Karl Tunberg
Gore Vidal "(uncredited)"
Christopher Fry "(uncredited)"
starring = Charlton Heston
Jack Hawkins
Haya Harareet
Stephen Boyd
Hugh Griffith
director = William Wyler
producer = Sam Zimbalist
William Wyler
music = Miklós Rózsa
cinematography = Robert L. Surtees
editing = John D. Dunning
Ralph E. Winters
distributor = Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Warner Bros (2005 DVD)
released = 18 November fy|1959 "(NYC)
16 December "(UK)"
runtime = 212 mins.
country = United States
language = English
budget = $15,000,000
gross =
imdb_id = 0052618 |

"Ben-Hur (or Benhur)" is a 1959 movie directed by William Wyler, and is the third film version of Lew Wallace's novel ' (1880). It premiered at Loews Theater in New York City on November 18, 1959. The film went on to win a record of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a feat equaled only by "Titanic" (1997) and ' (2003).


The film's prologue shows the traditional story of the birth of Jesus Christ. 26 years later, Judah Ben-Hur is a rich merchant of noble blood in Jerusalem. Preceding the arrival of a new governor, Ben-Hur's childhood friend Messala, a Tribune, arrives as military commanding officer of the Roman garrison. At first Judah and Messala are happy to meet after years apart, but their differing political views separate them; Messala believes in the glory of Rome and worldly imperial power, while Ben-Hur is devoted to his faith and the Jewish people. Messala asks Ben-Hur to caution his countrymen about protests, uprisings, or criticism of the Roman government. Judah complies, but refuses to disclose dissidents' names, and the two part in anger.

Judah's family has two slaves, who are treated more as respected servants; an older man, Simonides, and his daughter Esther, who is preparing for an arranged marriage. Judah gives her freedom as a wedding present, and the two realize they are attracted to one another.

During the welcoming parade for the new Roman governor, a roofing tile falls down from Ben-Hur's house and startles the governor's horse, throwing him off and nearly killing him. Although Messala knows that it was an accident, he condemns Judah to the galleys and throws Miriam and Tirzah, Judah's mother and sister, into prison in order to intimidate the restive Jewish populace by punishing a powerful local family and personal friend. Ben-Hur swears to return and take revenge. En route to the sea, he is denied water when his slave gang arrives at Nazareth. He collapses, having lost the will to live, when an as-yet unknown Jesus Christ gives him water and a motivation to survive. After three years as a galley slave, the ship to which Ben-Hur is assigned becomes the flagship of Quintus Arrius, sent by the Emperor to destroy a fleet of Macedonian pirates. Ben-Hur's new commander notices his resolve and will to survive, although he declines the offer to transfer to Arrius' gladiatorial or charioteer team, declaring that God will aid him.

The pirates attack the Roman galley and Arrius' galley is sunk, but Ben-Hur saves the life of Arrius after he did not chain Judah to his oar. They are soon rescued by the victorious Roman fleet. Arrius is credited with the victory, and in gratitude petitions Tiberius Caesar to drop all charges against Judah, eventually adopting Judah as his son. Having regained his freedom and wealth, Judah learns Roman ways, including becoming a victorious charioteer.

Returning to Judea, Judah finds that Esther did not go through with her arranged marriage and is still in love with him. He demands that Messala free his mother and sister. When the soldiers enter the cell, they discover that Miriam and Tirzah have contracted leprosy, and turn them out of the city. Esther discovers this reality when she finds the two women after nightfall, and they beseech her to allow them to be remembered as they were. Esther tells Judah that his mother and sister have died in prison.

The Arab sheik Ilderim, who has befriended him, owns four magnificent white Arabian horses, and wishes them to be well-trained for chariot racing. Seeing that Judah knows the fine points, Ilderim introduces him to his "children" and requests that he drive his quadriga chariot in the upcoming race before the new governor, Pontius Pilate. Ben-Hur accepts upon learning that Messala, considered the finest charioteer in Judea, is going to be in the race too. Judah wins the violent and grueling chariot race, defeating Messala. Messala is mortally wounded in the race, but bitterly tells Judah where he can find his mother and sister: in the "Valley of the Lepers". Although he has accomplished his goal of revenge on Messala, Judah's soul remains tormented.

The film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and it is at this point that Jesus' presence is substantially increased. Esther witnesses the Sermon on the Mount and is moved by Christ's words. She tells Ben-Hur about it, but he remains bitter and will not be consoled. Learning that Tirzah is dying, they take her and Ben-Hur's mother to see Jesus, but they cannot get near him, as his trial has begun. Recognizing Jesus from his encounter with him as he was being taken to the galleys, Judah attempts to give him water during his march to Calvary, echoing Jesus' kindness to him, but is shoved away by the guards. Judah witnesses the Crucifixion. Immediately after Christ's death, Miriam and Tirzah are healed by a miracle (Christ's blood from the Crucifixion washes into the cave where the women are hiding and touches them), as are Judah's heart and soul. He returns to his home and tells Esther that as he heard Jesus talk of forgiveness while on the cross, "I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." The film, which began with the Magi visiting the infant Jesus, ends with the empty crosses of Calvary in the background and a shepherd and his flock (a prominent Judeo-Christian symbol) in the foreground.


* Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur
* Stephen Boyd as Messala, Judah's boyhood companion
* Martha Scott as Miriam, Judah's mother
* Cathy O'Donnell as Tirzah, Judah's sister
* Haya Harareet as Esther, Judah's love interest
* Sam Jaffe as Simonides, Esther's father
* Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Judah's Roman patron
* Terence Longdon as Drusus, Messala's assistant
* Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim
* Finlay Currie as Balthasar, the mage / Pre-credits narrator
* Frank Thring as Pontius PilateClaude Heater (uncredited) as Jesus, whose presence is evident with his face concealed


*Shofar Calls (Star of bethlehem disappeared) - man
*Love Theme - MGM Studio and Orchestra (No Singing)
*Fernitily Dance - Indians, MGM Studio and Orchestra
*Arrius Party - MGM Studio and Orchestra
*Hallalujah (Finale) - MGM Studio and Orchestra Chorus



"Ben-Hur" was an extremely expensive production, requiring 300 sets scattered over 340 acres (1.4 km²). The $15 million production was a gamble made by MGM to save itself from bankruptcy; the gamble paid off when it earned a total of $75 million.

Aspect ratio

The movie was filmed in a process known as "MGM Camera 65", 65mm negative stock from which was made a 70mm anamorphic print with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, one of the widest prints ever made, having a width of almost three times its height. An anamorphic lens which produced a 1.25X compression was used along with a 65mm negative (whose normal aspect ratio was 2.20:1) to produce this extremely wide aspect ratio. This allowed for spectacular panoramic shots in addition to six-channel audio. In practice, however, "Camera 65" prints were shown in an aspect ratio of 2.5:1 on most screens, so that theaters were not required to install new, wider screens or use less than the full height of screens already installed.


Many other men were offered the role of Ben-Hur before Charlton Heston. Burt Lancaster claimed he turned down the role of Ben-Hur because he "didn't like the violent morals in the story". Paul Newman turned it down because he said he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic. Rock Hudson was also offered the role.

Out of respect, and consistent with Lew Wallace's stated preference, the face of Jesus is never shown. He was played by opera singer Claude Heater, who received no credit for his only film role.

The galley sequence

The original design for the boat Ben-Hur is enslaved upon was so heavy that it couldn't float. The scene therefore had to be filmed in a studio, but another problem remained: the cameras didn't fit inside, so the boat was cut in half and made able to be wider or shorter on demand. The next problem was the oars were too long, so those were cut too; however, this made it look unrealistic, because the oars were too easy to row; so weights were added to the ends.

During filming, director Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He had the man's stump covered in blood, with a false bone protruding from it, to add realism to the scene when the galley is rammed. Wyler made similar use of another extra who was missing a foot.

The galley sequence includes the successive commands from Arrius, “Battle speed, Hortator... Attack speed... Ramming speed!” The word ' is no longer in use, and is notably absent from most modern dictionaries. It was a Latin word that on a ship meant “chief of the rowers”, or “he who has command over the rowers” [] , and likely has roots in the Latin verb ' (“to exhort, encourage”). The command "Ramming speed, Hortator!", which is widely remembered and parodied, never occurs.

The galley sequence is purely fictional, as the Roman navy, in contrast to its early modern counterparts, did not employ convicts as galley slaves. [cite book |last=Casson|first=Lionel |title=Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World |year=1971 |publisher=Princeton University Press |location=Princeton |pages=325-326]

The chariot race

The chariot race in "Ben-Hur" was directed by Andrew Marton, a Hollywood director who often acted as second unit director on other people's films. Even by current standards, it is considered to be one of the most spectacular action sequences ever filmed. Filmed at Cinecittà Studios outside Rome long before the advent of computer-generated effects, it took over three months to complete, using 8000 extras on the largest film set ever built, some 18 acres (73,000m²).Fact|date=April 2008 Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film. Tour buses visited the set every hour.

The section in the middle of the circus, the "spina," is a known feature of circi, although its size may be exaggerated to aid filmmaking. The golden dolphin lap counter was a feature of the Circus Maximus in Rome.

filename=Ben-hur by Miklós Rózsa.ogg
title=Theme of Ben-Hur
description=composed by Miklós Rózsa
Charlton Heston spent four weeks learning how to drive a chariot. He was taught by the stunt crew, who offered to teach the entire cast, but Heston and Boyd were the only ones who took them up on the offer (Boyd had to learn in just two weeks, due to his late casting). At the beginning of the chariot race, Heston shook the reins and nothing happened; the horses remained motionless. Finally someone way up on top of the set yelled, "Giddy-up!" The horses then roared into action, and Heston was flung backward off the chariot.Fact|date=April 2008

To give the scene more impact and realism, three lifelike dummies were placed at key points in the race to give the appearance of men being run over by chariots. Most notable is the stand-in dummy for Stephen Boyd's Messala that gets tangled up under the horses, getting battered by their hooves. This resulted in one of the most grisly death scenes in motion pictures at this time and shocked audiences.

There are several urban legends surrounding the chariot sequence, one of which states that a stuntman died during filming. Stuntman Nosher Powell claims in his autobiography, "We had a stunt man killed in the third week, and it happened right in front of me. You saw it, too, because the cameras kept turning and it's in the movie". [Nosher Powell (2001). " [ Nosher!] ": p.254] There is no conclusive evidence to back up Powell's claim and it has been adamantly denied by director William Wyler, who states that neither man nor horse was injured in the famous scene. The movie's stunt director, Yakima Canutt, stated that no serious injuries or deaths occurred during filming. [Canutt, Yakima and Drake, Oliver "Stunt Man: The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt, Chapter 1: The Race to Beat"(1979)]

Another urban legend states that a red Ferrari can be seen during the chariot race; the book "Movie Mistakes" claims this is a myth. [John Sandys (2002, 2005). "Movie Mistakes Take 4": p.5] (Heston, in the DVD commentary track, mentions a third urban legend that is not true: That he wore a wristwatch. He points out that he was wearing leather bracers right up to the elbow.)

However, one of the best-remembered moments in the race came from a near-fatal accident. When Ben-Hur's chariot jumps another chariot which has crashed in its path, the charioteer is seen to be almost thrown from his mount and only just manages to hang on and climb back in to continue the race. In reality, while the jump was planned, the character being flipped into the air was not, and stuntman Joe Canutt, son of stunt director Yakima Canutt, was considered fortunate to escape with only a minor chin injury. Nonetheless, when director Wyler intercut the long shot of Canutt's leap with a close-up of Heston clambering back into his chariot, a memorable scene resulted. [Canutt, Yakima and Drake, Oliver "Stunt Man: The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt" (1979) p. 16-19]

Differences between novel and film

There are several differences between the original novel and the film. The changes made serve to make the film's storyline more immediately dramatic.

* The most striking difference is that in the novel, Ben-Hur does not actually kill Messala, but causes him to be seriously injured in the chariot race. In revenge for this, Messala plots to have Ben-Hur murdered, but his plans go awry. It is revealed at the end of the novel that Iras (who is Messala's mistress and does not appear in the 1959 film) had murdered Messala in a fit of anger about five years after the chariot race.
* Another striking difference is that Ben-Hur becomes a convert to Christianity much sooner in the novel, not after the Crucifixion, and he does not display the harsh bitterness that he does in the William Wyler film. Similarly, the healing of Ben-Hur's mother and sister takes place earlier in the book, not immediately after the death of Christ.
* In the novel, the character of Quintus Arrius was acquainted with Ben-Hur's father, but in the movie there was no such prior association between the Arrius and Ben-Hur families. In the novel, Arrius dies and passes his property and title on to Ben-Hur prior to Ben-Hur's return home.
* The novel ends about five years after the chariot race, with the Ben-Hur family living in Rome. Learning that Sheik Ilderim (who does not die in any of the film versions of the novel) had bequeathed him a large amount of money, and learning of the persecution of Christians in Rome, Ben-Hur helps establish the Catacomb of San Calixto so that the Christian community will have a place to worship freely. The movie however ends almost immediately after the Crucifixion of Christ and the healing of Ben-Hur's mother and sister.

Awards and honors

The film won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, a number matched only by "Titanic" in 1997 and "" in 2003. It won:

*Best Motion Picture;
*Best Director for William Wyler;
*Best Leading Actor for Charlton Heston;
*Best Supporting Actor for Hugh Griffith;
*Best Set Decoration, Color for Edward C. Carfagno, William A. Horning, and Hugh Hunt;
*Best Cinematography, Color;
*Best Costume Design, Color;
*Best Special Effects;
*Best Film Editing for John D. Dunning and Ralph E. Winters;
*Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; and
*Best Sound.

Additionally, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film also won four Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture, Drama, Best Motion Picture Director, Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for Stephen Boyd, and a Special Award to Andrew Marton for directing the chariot race sequence. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Film, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture and the DGA award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Motion Picture.

American Film Institute recognition

*1998 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies #72
*2001 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills #49
*2005 AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores #21
*2006 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers #56
*2007 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #100
*2008 AFI's 10 Top 10 #2 Epic film

DVD release

"Ben-Hur" has been released to DVD on three occasions. The first was on March 13 2001 as a one-disc Widescreen Release, the second on September 13 2005 as a four-disc set, and the third as part of the Warner Brothers Deluxe Series.

2001 release

(2-Disc release in some countries, a 2 sided disc in the U.S.)Disc One & Two: The Movie + Extras
*Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
*Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
*Commentary by: Charlton Heston
*Documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic
*Newly discovered screen tests of the final and near-final cast including Leslie Nielsen, Cesare Danova, and Haya Harareet
*Addition of the seldom-heard Overture and Entr'acte music
*On-the-set photo gallery featuring Wyler, producer Sam Zimbalist, cameraman Robert Surtees, and others

2005 release

(4-Disc)Discs One & Two: The Movie
*Newly Remastered and Restored from Original 65mm Film Elements
*Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio
*Commentary by Film Historian T. Gene Hatcher with Scene Specific Comments from Charlton Heston
*Music-Only Track Showcasing Miklós Rózsa's Score

Disc Three: The 1925 Silent Version
*The Thames Television Restoration with Stereophonic Orchestral Score by Composer Carl Davis

Disc Four: About the Movies
*New Documentary: Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema — Current filmmakers such as Ridley Scott and George Lucas reflect on the importance and influence of the film
*1994 Documentary: Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic Hosted by Christopher Plummer
*Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures — New audiovisual recreation of the film via stills, storyboards, sketches, music and dialogue

*Screen Tests

*Vintage Newsreels Gallery
*Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Ceremony
*Trailer Gallery

Also Included in paperback form
*36 page booklet about the production


External links

* [ Getting It Right the Second Time — a comparative analysis of the novel, the 1925 film, and the 1959 film, at]

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