Ben Hur “A Biblical Tale of Jesus Christ”
Ben Hur “A Biblical Tale of Jesus Christ” William Wyler’s epic film is a 3 hour and 32 minute movie in full Technicolor and was the behemoth entry at the 32nd annual Academy Awards in 1960, at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood CA. Setting an Oscar record, the movie swept 11 of the 12 categories where it was nominated, consisting of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Charlton Heston).
Wyler’s 1959 movie was the latest dramatic adaptation of the mega-bestselling novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880 by Lew Wallace. Wallace, a previous general in the American Civil War, wrote his most effective book after experiencing a new awakening of his Christian faith.
The book told the story of a young Jewish aristocrat, Judah Ben Hur, who chafes against the repressive Roman rule in Judea, loses his fortune and his family, but ultimately triumphs over his challenges with the intervention of Jesus Christ.
After Wallace’s novel was adopted into a long-running play in 1899 and a brief film
in 1907, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the film rights and produced a significant motion-picture version, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, in 1925. After DeMille scored a block buster hit with the remake of his own 1923 biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956), MGM decided to revive Ben-Hur as well. Wyler had actually worked on the set of DeMille’s 1925 version and the square-jawed Heston played Moses in The Ten Commandments.
Filmed on location in Italy, on a budget of $15 million, Ben-Hur was the most expensive film ever made up to that point. The movie’s popular chariot race scene took 3 weeks to shoot and used 15,000 extras. The setting for the race was built on 18 acres of back-lot area at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. Aside from a few of the most daredevil stunts, Heston and Stephen Boyd (who played Messala, Judah Ben-Hur’s boyhood good friend turned bitter enemy) did a lot of their own chariot driving. The payoff was huge: Writing in his review of the movie for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther called the scene a “spectacular and magnificent setting, thrilling action by horses and men, both panoramic and overwhelming dramatic use of sound.”
At the 1960 Oscars, Ben-Hur swept 11 categories, consisting of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith, playing an Arab sheik who befriends Ben-Hur), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Direction, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Color Costume Design and Best Special Effects. It was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay classification. Ben-Hur’s record variety of Oscars still stands, although 2 films (1997’s Titanic and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) have also matched it.