Director: William Wyler
Stars: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
Plot: Judah Ben-Hur lives as a rich Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century. His old friend Messala arrives as commanding officer of the Roman legions. At first they are happy to meet after a long time but their different politic views separate them. During the welcome parade a roof tile falls down from Judah's house and injures the governor. Although Messala knows they are not guilty, he sends Judah to the galleys and throws his mother and sister into prison to advance his career. But Judah swears to come back and take revenge.
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.
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 chariot scene alone cost about four million dollars, or about a fourth of the entire budget, and took 10 weeks to shoot.
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
The production cost MGM a massive fifteen million dollars, and was a gamble by the studio to save itself from bankruptcy. The gamble paid off, with the film earning 75 million dollars.
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.
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.
The 300 sets built required five years of research and 14 months of labor.
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.
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.
Director William Wyler decided that the Romans should have British accents, and that the four Americans in the cast would play the Judaeans.
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).
Stephen Boyd wore lifts in his shoes to make his height more on a par with Charlton Heston's.
Producer Sam Zimbalist offered William Wyler one million dollars to direct this film. This was the highest director's fee ever paid up to that time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.