This vast $15 million epic was the most expensive film ever made at the time. Shot in 70mm, the script was based on a 19th century novel by American Civil War general Lew Wallace (when he was governor of New Mexico territory) and set in the Roman Empire’s province of Judea.
Ostensibly a film about Jesus Christ, the story centres on the relationship between Messala (Stephen Boyd), Tribune and commanding officer of the Roman legions, and Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), who lives as a rich Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem at the beginning of the first century.
The two had been childhood friends but tensions inevitably develop between them and Messala contrives to have Judah framed and condemned to life as a galley slave and to send his mother and sister to prison, for the sake of his career.
Whilst in the galleys Ben-Hur rescues a Roman admiral (Jack Hawkins) during a sea battle and is adopted by him.
Making his way back to Jerusalem, he defeats Messala in a climactic chariot race and rescues his mother and sister who have become lepers. They are cured by Christ at the moment of the Crucifixion.
The bare bones of the plot do not even begin to reveal the pomp and pageantry of this film which was lucky enough to also have an extremely literate script, written with assistance from Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal and S N Berman (although screen credit was given to Karl Tunberg).
Ben-Hur is spectacular to watch, though it would be more fun at half the length. As a historical recreation of first-century Judaea, it gets the names and places mostly right but not much else.
The film featured 350 speaking roles with over 50,000 extras. The chariot race – which cost $1 million alone to devise – was directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt.
The iconic race takes up 20 minutes of the film’s nearly four hours and took three months of filming on what was the largest single set ever constructed.
Legend has it that a stuntman was killed on the chariot race set but this is untrue. Charlton Heston’s stunt double, Joe Canutt, was accidentally thrown during a chariot crash. The extent of his injuries was a cut on the chin.
The picture won a record eleven Oscars in 1959, including Best Film, Best Actor (Heston), Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim who provides Ben-Hur with his team for the race).
The role of Ben-Hur was turned down by Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando before Heston accepted. It made him a matinee idol.