Ben-Hur is a 1959 American epic historical drama film directed by William Wyler, produced by Sam Zimbalist, and starring Charlton Heston as the title character. Its a remake of the 1925 silent film with a similar title.
Ben-Hur had the largest budget ($15.175 million), as well as the largest sets built of any film produced at the time. Over 200 camels and 2,500 horses were used in the shooting of the film, with some 10,000 extras, it used over 300 sets and 40,000 tons of sand (for the chariot track). The sea battle was filmed using miniatures in a huge tank at the MGM Studios in Culver City, California.
The nine-minute chariot race has become one of cinema’s most famous action sequences, and the score, composed and conducted by Miklós Rózsa, is the longest ever composed for a film and was highly influential on cinema for over 15 years. The legendary chariot race is the big showdown at the Circus. The nine-minute sequence took a year’s worth of planning, and the construction of the set alone cost $1 million.
Heston and Stephen Boyd learned how to ride a team of horses, but when it came to the more dangerous stunts, Stagecoach alum Yakima Canutt was enlisted to co-direct the chase. His son Joe did some of the more dangerous stunts, and luckily he knew what to do when one of the chariots took an unexpected bounce. A shot of Canutt flying through the air was not planned, but it looked great and stayed in the final cut. He only suffered a few scrapes to the chin.
Ben-Hur swept up a record 11 Oscars, a total that was equaled in 1998 by James Cameron’s Titanic and in 2004 by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In 2004, the National Film Preservation Board selected Ben-Hur for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Charlton Heston is a rebellious Israelite Jew living in Judaea who incurs the wrath of a childhood friend, now a Roman tribune. Although forced into slavery on a galley and compelled to witness the cruel persecution of his family, he survives, harboring dreams of vengeance
A prologue describes the historical background – the film is set in Jerusalem during the time that Jesus was born and became known for his “radical” teachings:
Anno Domini – In the year of our Lord, Judea for nearly a century had lain under the mastery of Rome. In the seventh year of the reign of Augustus Caesar, an imperial decree ordered every Judean each to return to his place of birth to be counted and taxed. Converging ways of many of them led to the gates of their capital city Jerusalem, the troubled heart of their land…Even while they obeyed the will of Caesar, the people clung proudly to their ancient heritage always remembering the promise of their prophets that one day there would be born among them a Redeemer to bring them salvation and perfect freedom.
Ben-Hur proved to be an intelligent, exciting, and dramatic piece of film-making unlike so many other more vulgar Biblical shows with Hollywood actors and actresses.