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Ben-Hur is a 1959 epic film directed by William Wyler, and is the third film version of Lew Wallace's novel 1880 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It premiered at Loew's State Theatre in New York City on November 18, 1959. The film went on to win a record of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a feat equaled only by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.


The film's prologue depicts the traditional story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Twenty-six years later, Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy merchant of noble blood in Jerusalem. Preceding the arrival of a new governor, Ben-Hur's childhood friend Messala, a military Tribune, returns as the new commanding officer of the Roman garrison. At first Judah and Messala are happy to meet after years apart, but their differing political views separate them: Messala believes in the glory of Rome and worldly imperial power, while Ben-Hur is devoted to his faith and the Jewish people. Messala asks Ben-Hur to caution his countrymen about protests, uprisings, or criticism of the Roman government. Judah counsels his countrymen against rebellion but refuses to disclose dissidents' names, and the two part in anger.

Judah's family welcomes two of their slaves who arrive with a caravan from Antioch: Simonides, their loyal steward, and Simonides's daughter Esther, who is preparing for an arranged marriage. Judah gives Esther her freedom as a wedding present, and the two realize they are attracted to each other.

During the welcoming parade for the new Roman governor, a tile falls from the roof of Ben-Hur's house and startles the governor's horse, which throws him off, nearly killing him. Although Messala knows that it was an accident, he condemns Judah to the galleys and imprisons Judah's mother Miriam and sister Tirzah, in an effort to intimidate the restive Jewish populace by punishing the family of a known friend. Ben-Hur swears to return and take revenge. En route to the sea, he is denied water when his slave gang arrives at Nazareth. He collapses in despair, but a then-unknown Jesus Christ gives him water and renews his will to survive.

After three years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur is assigned to the flagship of Consul Quintus Arrius, tasked by the Emperor to destroy a fleet of Macedonian pirates. The commander notices Ben-Hur's self-discipline and resolve, and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer, but Ben-Hur declines, declaring that God will aid him.

As Arrius prepares the galley for battle, he orders the rowers chained but unaccountably orders 41 (Ben-Hur) to be left unchained. When the pirates attack the Romans, Arrius's galley is rammed and sunk, but Ben-Hur escapes and saves Arrius's life and, since Arrius is believing the battle to have ended in defeat, also prevents him from committing suicide during their time afloat. Eventually, they are rescued by a Roman vessel and Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet's victory, and in gratitude petitions Tiberius Caesar to drop all charges against Judah, eventually adopting Judah as his son. With regained freedom and wealth, Judah learns Roman ways and becomes a champion charioteer.

Returning to Judea, Judah finds that Esther's arranged marriage had not occurred and that she is still in love with him. He visits Messala and demands that he free his mother and sister; Messala sends Drusus to the fortress to look for them. When the soldiers enter the cell, they discover that Miriam and Tirzah have contracted leprosy, and they turn them out of the city. Esther learns of their condition when she finds the two women after nightfall in the Hur house's courtyard; and they beseech her to conceal their condition from Judah and allow him to remember them as they were. Esther tells Judah that his mother and sister have died in prison.

The Arab sheik Ilderim, whom Juda happens to acquaint on his journey home along with Balthasar, owns four magnificent white Arabian horses and wishes to have them trained for chariot racing. Discovering that Judah had been a winning charioteer in Rome, Ilderim introduces him to his "children" and requests that he drive his quadriga in the upcoming race before the new governor, Pontius Pilate. Ben-Hur accepts upon learning that Messala, considered the finest charioteer in Judea, will also compete in the race. (As Ben-Hur is leaving, Ilderim adds, "There is no law in the arena. Many are killed.")

In the run-up to the chariot race, we see a widescreen view of the imposing Circus building and nine four-horse chariots. (Ilderim warns Ben-Hur that Messala has a "beaked chariot," with blades on the hubs, designed to chew up opposing chariots that get too close. (The DVD subtitles read, in four languages, "Greek chariot"; the Portuguese subtitles also call the quadriga a biga.) In the violent and grueling chariot race, Messala removes several opponents by damaging their chariots with his beaked hubs, but in a collision he falls and is run over and trampled, sustaining severe injuries. After receiving the victor's laurel wreath from Pilate, Judah visits Messala in the infirmary, where surgeons are amputating both legs in a futile attempt to save his life. Before dying, Messala bitterly tells Judah that the race is not over: he can find his mother and sister in the "Valley of the Lepers." Judah leaves in anguish to search for his family, and he is devastated when he finds them in their diseased and disfigured condition.

The film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and it is at this point that Jesus reappears. Esther witnesses the Sermon on the Mount and is moved by Christ's words. She tells Ben-Hur about it, but he remains bitter and will not be consoled. Learning that Tirzah is dying, they take her and Miriam to see Jesus, but they cannot get near him, as his trial has begun. (We don't hear the testimony, verdict, or sentence; but we see Pilate famously washing his hands.) Recognizing Jesus from his encounter with him as he was being taken to the galleys, Judah attempts to give him water during his march to Calvary, echoing Jesus' kindness to him, but he is shoved away by the guards.

Eventually, Judah witnesses the Crucifixion. Immediately after Christ's death, Miriam and Tirzah are healed by a miracle (Christ's blood from the Crucifixion washes into the cave where the women are hiding and touches them), as are Judah's heart and soul. He returns to his home and tells Esther that as he heard Jesus talk of forgiveness while on the cross, "I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." The film, which had begun with the Magi visiting the infant Jesus, ends with the empty crosses of Calvary in the background and a shepherd and his flock (a prominent Christian symbol) in the foreground.


  • Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur
  • Stephen Boyd as Messala, Judah's boyhood companion
  • Martha Scott as Miriam, Judah's mother
  • Cathy O'Donnell as Tirzah, Judah's sister
  • Haya Harareet as Esther, Judah's love interest
  • Sam Jaffe as Simonides, Esther's father
  • Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Judah's Roman patron and adoptive father
  • Terence Longdon as Drusus, Messala's assistant
  • Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim
  • Finlay Currie as Balthasar, the mage / Pre-credits narrator
  • Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate
  • Claude Heater (uncredited) as Jesus, whose presence is evident with his face concealed
  • Marina Berti as Flavia, Judah's Unwife and husband
  • Jose Greci as Mary, Jesus' Mother
  • Laurence Payne as Joseph, Jesus' Father
  • Richard Hale as Gaspar, The 1st Wisemen / the mage
  • Reginald Lal Singh as Melchior, The 3rd Wisemen / the mage


  • Shofar Calls (Star of Bethlehem Disappears) - man
  • Love Theme - MGM Studio and Orchestra (no singing)
  • Fertility Dance - Indians, MGM Studio and Orchestra
  • Arrius' Party - MGM Studio and Orchestra
  • Hallelujah (Finale) - MGM Studio and Orchestra Chorus

The film score was composed by Miklós Rózsa.



Ben-Hur was an extremely expensive production, requiring 300 sets scattered over 340 acres (1.4 km²). The $15 million production was a gamble made by MGM to save itself from bankruptcy; the gamble paid off when it earned a total of $75 million.

Aspect ratio

The chariot race scene, illustrating the extremely wide aspect ratio used (2.76:1).

The movie was filmed in a process known as "MGM Camera 65", 65 mm negative stock from which was made a 70 mm anamorphic print with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, one of the widest prints ever made, having a width of almost three times its height. An anamorphic lens which produced a 1.25X compression was used along with a 65 mm negative (whose normal aspect ratio was 2.20:1) to produce this extremely wide aspect ratio. This allowed for spectacular panoramic shots in addition to six-channel audio. In practice, however, "Camera 65" prints were shown in an aspect ratio of 2.5:1 on most screens, so that theaters were not required to install new, wider screens or use less than the full height of screens already installed.


Many other men were offered the role of Ben-Hur before Charlton Heston. Burt Lancaster claimed he turned down the role of Ben-Hur because he "didn't like the violent morals in the story". Paul Newman turned it down because he said he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic. Rock Hudson and Leslie Nielsen were also offered the role.

Out of respect, and consistent with Lew Wallace's stated preference, the face of Jesus is never shown. He was played by opera singer Claude Heater, who received no credit for his only film role.

Galley sequence

The original design for the boat Ben-Hur is enslaved upon was so heavy that it couldn't float. The scene therefore had to be filmed in a studio, but another problem remained: the cameras didn't fit inside, so the boat was cut in half and made able to be wider or shorter on demand. The next problem was that the oars were too long, so those were cut too; however, this made it look unrealistic, because the oars were too easy to row; so weights were added to the ends.

During filming, director Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He had the man's stump covered in false blood, with a false bone protruding from it, to add realism to the scene when the galley is rammed. Wyler made similar use of another extra who was missing a foot.

The galley sequence includes the successive commands from Arrius, “Battle speed, Hortator... Attack speed... Ramming speed!” The word hortator is no longer in use, and is notably absent from most modern dictionaries. It was a Latin word that on a ship meant “chief of the rowers”, or “he who has command over the rowers”,[1] and likely has roots in the Latin verb hortor (“to exhort, encourage”). The command "Ramming speed, Hortator!", which is widely remembered and parodied, never occurs.

The galley sequence is purely fictional, as the Roman navy, in contrast to its early modern counterparts, did not employ convicts as galley slaves.[2]

Chariot race

The chariot race in Ben-Hur was directed by Andrew Marton, a Hollywood director who often acted as second unit director on other people's films. Even by current standards, it is considered to be one of the most spectacular action sequences ever filmed. Filmed at Cinecittà Studios outside Rome long before the advent of computer-generated effects, it took over three months to complete, using 8000 extras on the largest film set ever built, some 18 acres (73,000 m2).[citation needed] Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film. Tour buses visited the set every hour.

The section in the middle of the circus, the spina, is a known feature of circi, although its size may be exaggerated to aid filmmaking. The golden dolphin lap counter was a feature of the Circus Maximus in Rome. Template:Sound sample box align right Template:Listen Template:Sample box end Charlton Heston spent four weeks learning how to drive a chariot. He was taught by the stunt crew, who offered to teach the entire cast, but Heston and Boyd were the only ones who took them up on the offer (Boyd had to learn in just two weeks, due to his late casting). At the beginning of the chariot race, Heston shook the reins and nothing happened; the horses remained motionless. Finally someone way up on top of the set yelled, "Giddy-up!" The horses then roared into action, and Heston was flung backward off the chariot.[citation needed]

To give the scene more impact and realism, three lifelike dummies were placed at key points in the race to give the appearance of men being run over by chariots. Most notable is the stand-in dummy for Stephen Boyd's Messala that gets tangled up under the horses, getting battered by their hooves. This resulted in one of the most grisly fatal injuries in motion picture history up until then, and shocked audiences.[citation needed]

There are several urban legends surrounding the chariot sequence, one of which states that a stuntman died during filming. Stuntman Nosher Powell claims in his autobiography, "We had a stunt man killed in the third week, and it happened right in front of me. You saw it, too, because the cameras kept turning and it's in the movie".[3] There is no conclusive evidence to back up Powell's claim and it has been adamantly denied by director William Wyler, who states that neither man nor horse was injured in the famous scene. The movie's stunt director, Yakima Canutt, stated that no serious injuries or deaths occurred during filming.[4]

Another urban legend states that a red Ferrari can be seen during the chariot race; the book Movie Mistakes claims this is a myth.[5] (Heston, in the DVD commentary track, mentions a third urban legend that is not true: That he wore a wristwatch. He points out that he was wearing leather bracers right up to the elbow.)

However, one of the best-remembered moments in the race came from a near-fatal accident. When Ben-Hur's chariot jumps another chariot which has crashed in its path, the charioteer is seen to be almost thrown from his mount and only just manages to hang on and climb back in to continue the race. In reality, while the jump was planned, the character being flipped into the air was not planned, and stuntman Joe Canutt, son of stunt director Yakima Canutt, was considered fortunate to escape with only a minor chin injury. Nonetheless, when director Wyler intercut the long shot of Canutt's leap with a close-up of Heston clambering back into his chariot, a memorable scene resulted.[6]

Differences between novel and film

There are several differences between the original novel and the film. The changes made serve to make the film's storyline more immediately dramatic.

  • In the novel, Messala is seriously, but not fatally, injured in the chariot race. In the movie, Messala falls victim to an accident that is caused by his own attempts to sabotage Ben-Hur, and he dies from the wounds sustained from the accident. In the book, Messala plots to have Ben-Hur murdered in revenge, but his plans go awry. It is revealed at the end of the novel that Iras (who is Messala's mistress and does not appear in the 1959 film) had murdered Messala in a fit of anger about five years after the chariot race.
  • In the novel, Ben-Hur becomes a convert to Christianity before, rather than after, the Crucifixion, and he does not display the harsh bitterness that he does in the William Wyler film. Similarly, the healing of Ben-Hur's mother and sister takes place earlier in the book, not immediately after the death of Christ.
  • In the novel, the character of Quintus Arrius was acquainted with Ben-Hur's father, but in the movie there was no such prior association between the Arrius and Ben-Hur families. In the novel, Arrius dies and passes his property and title on to Ben-Hur prior to Ben-Hur's return home. No mention of Arrius's death is made in the 1959 film, so presumably he is still alive at film's end.
  • The novel ends about five years after the chariot race, with the Ben-Hur family living in Rome. Learning that Sheik Ilderim (who does not die in any of the film versions of the novel) had bequeathed him a large amount of money, and learning of the persecution of Christians in Rome, Ben-Hur helps establish the Catacomb of San Calixto so that the Christian community will have a place to worship freely. The movie however ends almost immediately after the Crucifixion of Christ and the healing of Ben-Hur's mother and sister.

Claims of homosexual subtext

Template:Pagenumbers In interviews for the 1986 book Celluloid Closet, and later the 1995 documentary of the same name, screenwriter Gore Vidal asserts that he had persuaded director William Wyler to allow a carefully veiled homoerotic subtext between Messala and Ben-Hur. Vidal says his aim was to explain Messala's extreme reaction to Ben-Hur's refusal to name his fellow Jews to a Roman officer. Vidal suggested that Messala and Ben-Hur had been lovers while growing up, but Ben-Hur rejected him, so it is the anger of a scorned lover which motivates Messala's vindictiveness. Since the Hollywood production code would not permit this to appear on screen explicitly, it would have to be implied by the actors. Vidal claims that Wyler took his advice, and that the results can be seen in the film. Wyler was initially hesitant to implement the subtext, but agreed on the conditions that no direct reference ever be made to the characters' sexuality in the script, that Vidal personally discuss the idea with Stephen Boyd, and not mention the subtext to Charlton Heston who, Wyler feared, would panic at the idea. After Vidal admitted to adding the homosexual subtext in public, Heston denied the claim, going so far as to suggest Vidal had little input into the final script, and his lack of screen credit was a result of his being fired for trying to add gay innuendo. Vidal rebutted by citing passages from Heston's 1978 autobiography An Actor's Life, where the actor admitted that Vidal had authored much of the final shooting script.

Box office performance

Ben-Hur was the top moneymaking film of 1960, earning $17,300,000.[7]

Awards and honors

The film won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, a number matched only by Titanic in 1997 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. It won:[8]

  • Best Motion Picture;
  • Best Director for William Wyler;
  • Best Leading Actor for Charlton Heston;
  • Best Supporting Actor for Hugh Griffith;
  • Best Set Decoration, Color for Edward C. Carfagno, William A. Horning, and Hugh Hunt;
  • Best Cinematography, Color;
  • Best Costume Design, Color;
  • Best Special Effects;
  • Best Film Editing for John D. Dunning and Ralph E. Winters;
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; and
  • Best Sound.

Additionally, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film also won four Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture, Drama, Best Motion Picture Director, Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for Stephen Boyd, and a Special Award to Andrew Marton for directing the chariot race sequence. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Film, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture and the DGA award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Motion Picture.

American Film Institute recognition

  • 1998 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies #72
  • 2001 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills #49
  • 2005 AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores #21
  • 2006 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers #56
  • 2007 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #100
  • 2008 AFI's 10 Top 10 #2 Epic film

Ben-Hur also appeared in Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time where it ranked at number 491.[9]

First telecast

The film first telecast took place on February 14, 1971,[10] as a prime time network television special on CBS. Because of the film's length, the entire evening's regular CBS lineup, beginning with 60 Minutes, was scrapped for just that one night, one of the few times in the history of CBS that 60 Minutes was preempted for a movie special. The commercials forced a longer running time on the film, which was shown between 7:00 P.M. and 12:00 A.M., E.S.T.

DVD release

Ben-Hur has been released to DVD on three occasions. The first was on March 13, 2001 as a one-disc widescreen release, the second on September 13, 2005 as a four-disc set, and the third as part of the Warner Bros. Deluxe Series.

2001 release

(2-Disc release in some countries, a 2 sided disc in the U.S.) Disc One & Two: The Movie + Extras

  • Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
  • Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
  • Commentary by: Charlton Heston
  • Documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic
  • Newly discovered screen tests of the final and near-final cast including Leslie Nielsen, Cesare Danova, and Haya Harareet
  • Addition of the seldom-heard Overture and Entr'acte music
  • On-the-set photo gallery featuring Wyler, producer Sam Zimbalist, cameraman Robert Surtees, and others

2005 release

(4-Disc) Discs One & Two: The Movie

  • Newly Remastered and Restored from Original 65–mm Film Elements
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio
  • Commentary by Film Historian T. Gene Hatcher with Scene Specific Comments from Charlton Heston
  • Music-Only Track Showcasing Miklós Rózsa's Score

Disc Three: The 1925 Silent Version

  • The Thames Television Restoration with Stereophonic Orchestral Score by Composer Carl Davis

Disc Four: About the Movies

  • New Documentary: Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema—Current filmmakers, such as Ridley Scott and George Lucas, reflect on the importance and influence of the film
  • 1994 Documentary: Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, hosted by Christopher Plummer
  • Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures—New audiovisual recreation of the film via stills, storyboards, sketches, music and dialogue
  • Screen Tests
  • Vintage Newsreels Gallery
  • Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Ceremony
  • Trailer Gallery

Also Included in paperback form

  • 36 page booklet about the production


  2. (1971) Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 325–326. 
  3. Nosher Powell (2001). Nosher!: p.254
  4. Canutt, Yakima; Drake, Oliver. "Stunt Man: The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt, Chapter 1: The Race to Beat"(1979)
  5. Sandys, John (2002, 2005). Movie Mistakes Take 4: p.5
  6. Canutt, Yakima; Drake, Oliver. "Stunt Man: The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt" (1979) p. 16-19
  7. (1980) Film Facts. New York: Facts on File, Inc.. ISBN 0-87196-313-2.  When a film is released late in a calendar year (October to December), its income is reported in the following year's compendium, unless the film made a particularly fast impact (p. 17)
  8. NY Times: Ben-Hur. NY Times. Retrieved on 2008-12-23.

External links

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