Ben-Hur (1959)

Charlton Heston and William Boyd

'Ben-Hur' is a Biblical epic film made in 1959, directed by William Wyler, and starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd. Made at the end of the Golden Age it was a remake of a classic film of the same name made in 1925 near the end of the Silent Age. Both movies were based on Lew Wallace's 1880 novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ".

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The movie was a remarkable success, making a net profit of over $19 million on its initial release, the highest earning film of the year, and it was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning an unprecedented eleven including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor and losing out only in the Screenplay category. Its Oscar haul was equalled only by 'Titanic' in 1998 and 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' in 2004. The movie also won the New York Film Critics Award for 1959 and the Golden Globe Drama Award in 1960.

At the time 'Ben-Hur' was made, MGM was in dire financial straits, and making the movie was a tremendous gamble for the studio. At over $15 million it was the most expensive film ever made, requiring the building of over 300 separate sets and with many thousands of extras. Half a square mile of the Cinecitta studios in Italy was converted into the Jerusalem of long ago, complete with an eighteen-acre chariot arena, the largest single set ever built by a Hollywood studio, and which became a tourist attraction in its own right. The gamble paid off handsomely for MGM and the studio was saved from bankruptcy.

The film score was composed and conducted by Miklós Rózsa, who won his third Academy Award for his work on the film. It is one of the most popular motion picture scores ever written, and is listed on the AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.

Although billed as "A Tale of the Christ" the story revolves around the relationship between the duplicitous Roman Tribune, Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Jewish merchant prince, Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), boyhood friends who become bitter enemies and the movie's climax is the justly famous and spectacular chariot race between the two during which Ben-Hur exacts his revenge for past wrongs. In the inspiring ending to the film, Ben-Hur witnesses the Crucifixion and finds redemption and forgiveness.

Main Cast

Charlton Heston ... Judah Ben-Hur
Jack Hawkins ... Quintus Arrius
Haya Harareet ... Esther
Stephen Boyd ... Messala
Hugh Griffith ... Sheik Ilderim
Martha Scott ... Miriam
Cathy O'Donnell ... Tirzah
Sam Jaffe ... Simonides
Finlay Currie ... Balthasar / Narrator
Frank Thring ... Pontius Pilate
Terence Longdon ... Drusus
George Relph ... Tiberius Caesar
André Morell ... Sextus


Director ... William Wyler
Producer ... Sam Zimbalist
Production Company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. Screenplay ... Karl Tunberg, Gore Vidal, from a story by Lew Wallace
Cinematography ... Robert Surtees
Musical Score ... Miklós Rózsa
Format ... Color (Technicolor)
Initial Release ... 18 November, 1959
Running Time ... 217 minutes

Academy Awards

Eleven Wins:
Best Picture ... Sam Zimbalist
Best Director ... William Wyler
Best Actor ... Charlton Heston
Best Supporting Actor ... Hugh Griffith
Art Direction/Set Direction ... William A. Horning, Edward Carfagno/Hugh Hunt
Cinematography ... Robert Surtees
Costume Design ... Elizabeth Haffenden
Film Editing ... Ralph E. Winters, John D. Dunning
Music ... Miklós Rózsa
Sound ... MGM Studio Sound Dept., Franklin E. Milton, Sound Director
Special Effects ... Visual,A. Arnold Gillespie; Audio, Milo B. Lory

1 Unsuccessful Nomination:
Writing (Screenplay, based on material from another medium) ... Karl Tunberg