The Definition Of An Epic: 1959’s Ben-Hur

Considered one of the greatest period historical epics of all time, Ben-Hur continues to marvel audiences who are conditioned to CGI daily. It’s a mix of religion, violence, and heroism that has kept everyone on the edge of their seats since 1959. See why this film is at the top of the few to win a record-breaking number of Academy Awards, and why it’s still considered to be the definition of “epic” in film.

William Wyler Turned Down The Directing Position, At First

William Wyler in a directors chair
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

When director William Wyler was initially offered to direct the 1957 production of Ben-Hur, he turned it down. However, after reading the script, he didn’t think much of it until he realized that it was a story worth telling.

On top of that, in directing the Biblical epic, he also saw an opportunity to one-up The Ten Commandments from director Cecil B. DeMille, as the two had a rivalry for quite some time. If that wasn’t enough, MGM was offering the biggest pay ever offered to a Hollywood director at the time of $350,000 – plus eight percent of the gross or three percent of the net profits, whichever was more.

Kirk Douglas Was Almost In It

Douglas in Spartacus
Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although Kirk Douglas was first offered the role of Messala, he turned it down, claiming that he didn’t want to be seen playing a “second-rate baddie.” Instead, Douglas suggested that he play Judah Ben-Hur, as he wanted to play a Jewish character.

However, at that point, Douglas was too old, and Charlton Heston had already been cast. This denial resulted in Douglas deciding to develop his own epic, Spartacus, in 1960, which was basically a way of competing with Ben-Hur.

Wyler Was A Stickler For Detail

Promo shot of Heston
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Throughout the production of the film, William Wyler was always paying close attention to detail. Charlton Heston recalled one particular moment during filming when Judah Ben-Hur simply walks across a room after his return from slavery.

Apparently, what should have been a simple shot to film took eight takes before Heston asked what he was doing wrong. Wyler told him that he liked the first take when he kicked a piece of pottery to give the scene sound. Unfortunately, for Heston, he had assumed he messed up at first and avoided the pottery every take after.

The Shooting Of The Chariot Scene Was Done By Two Parties

Heston during the chariot race
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

While director William Wyler personally selected all of the camera angles for the chariot race, surprisingly, he left the details of the sequence to his second-unit directors Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt.

When Wyler saw Marton and Canutt’s work, he was blown away, stating that it was “one of the greatest cinematic achievements” that he had ever seen. When it was time for editing, Wyler sat down with Marton and Canutt, and the three improvised the editing of the sequence.

Heston Wasn’t A Master Of The Chariot

Heston with a whip
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

In preparation for the chariot scene, the stunt crew offered to teach the entire cast how to drive a chariot, although Heston was the only person to take up the offer. When filming the beginning scene of the race, on the first attempt, Heston shook the reins but nothing happened.

Realizing what was going on, someone at the top of the set yelled “Giddy -up!” and the horses sprang into action. Heston was then flung backward off the chariot.

Wyler Was Indecisive

Wyler with little girl
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

According to Charlton Heston, it was not unusual for Wyler to change his decision about a scene or a character on the spot. Of course, this could be extremely frustrating to the actors and would result in conflicting directional ideals.

Heston even wrote in his diary, “I doubt [Wyler] likes actors very much. He doesn’t empathize with them–they irritate him on the set. He gets very impatient, but invariably they come off well. The only answer I have is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it.”

There’s A Subtle Love Story

Boyd and Heston
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

According to screenplay contributor Gore Vidal, for eagle-eyed audiences, it can be understood that Ben-Hur and Messala were former lovers and that Messala betrayed Ben-Hur after their relationship had ended.

Vidal discusses this concept with Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, but withheld the information from Charlton Heston because it was believed that he wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Later, Heston firmly denied that there was any suggested subtext in the film and claimed that Vidal had little to no involvement in the script.

The Story Has Been Told In Several Mediums

Portrait of Lew Wallace
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The story of Ben-Hur comes from the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ, written by Lew Wallace in 1880, surpassing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the best-selling book of the 19th century. In the late 1800s, the novel was then adapted for a theatrical production that ran for more than 6,000 performances before an unauthorized short film was released in 1907.

Then, in 1925, a silent film with the same name of the novel was released and is considered one of the greatest epics in film history for its time. Then, Wyler’s version of the film was released in 1959, an animated version in 1988 and 2003, and a live-action remake in 2016.

The 1959 Film Won 11 Oscars

Cast with their awards
Phil Burchman/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Phil Burchman/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 1959 version of Ben-Hur is still tied for first place for the film with the most Academy Awards alongside Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. It was awarded an impressive 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor, among numerous others.

The film is renowned for being on an epic scale with particular sequences such as the iconic chariot race being considered some of the greatest moments ever to be shot in Hollywood.

Many Actors Had To Wear Contacts

Boyd as a Roman soldier
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, and all other actors that played Romans had to wear darkened contact lenses if their eyes weren’t already brown. Also, William Wyler didn’t want his two leading characters to have the same eye color, as it helped to show the differences in the characters.

Unfortunately for Boyd, the contact lenses greatly irritated his eyes, which he constantly scratched. This resulted in several stalls in production in order to let Boyd’s eyes recover from the lenses.

Getting The Color Of The Water Right Was A Process

Men on a raft
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

An issue that the production team encountered during filming was the color of the water that the boat was on. So, the production crew hired a chemist to develop a dye that would turn the water into a Mediterranean blue.

Unfortunately, when the chemist dropped a large sack of the powder into the pond, instead of turning the water blue, it created a hard crust on the surface of the water. Eventually, the process was perfected, and the water was the right color. However, when an extra fell into the water, his skin was dyed blue for some time.

Wyler Was Resourceful

Two ships about to collide
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

During the filming process, Wyler noticed that one of the countless extras used in the movie was missing a hand. So, instead of fitting him with a prosthetic for another scene, he decided to think outside of the box.

He covered the stump in blood and added a false bone, so the extra would look like someone who was injured during the scene where the galley is rammed by another ship. He did the same thing for an extra missing a foot.

A Lot of Thought Went Into The Boats

Ben-Hur ship
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

For the water battle scenes, MGM was adamant that they wanted an authentic-looking Roman boat. To accomplish this, the studio hired an expert who had spent his career studying Roman naval architecture. When the expert presented the design, set engineer Mauro Zambuto was convinced that the boat was top-heavy and would sink.

As it turns out, when they launched it in the ocean, it ended up tipping over. So, the decision was made to build a massive pond with a painted sky backdrop. The boat was then stabilized using cables attached to the bottom of the pond.

A Near-Fatal Accident Was Kept In The Movie

Heston and Boyd on chariots
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The chariot race scene was directed by stuntman Yakima Canutt, with his son, Joe, doubling for Charlton Heston. During one of the crashes, in which Ben-Hur’s horse jumps over a crashed chariot, Joe was thrown from his chariot and onto its tongue while still moving.

Miraculously, he managed to climb back onto the chariot and bring it back under control. The scene was so incredible, however, that it was included in the film. Unbelievably, the only injury that Joe received was a cut on his chin even though it could have been disastrous.

Leo The Lion Doesn’t Roar At The Beginning

MGM logo
MGM
MGM

Ben-Hur is only one of three MGM films in which the studio’s trademark Leo the Lion doesn’t roar at the beginning of the opening credits. The assumption behind this is due to the religious themes in the film.

The other films include The Next Voice You Hear… in 1950, and Westward the Women in 1951. Furthermore, in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, an animated version of the lion was used in the credits. However, this logo was shortly discarded permanently.

Dummies Were Mistaken For People

Boyd in costume
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

During the chariot race, three lifelike dummies were strategically placed throughout key points on the set to create the appearance of men being run over by chariots. One of these dummies was given the appearance of Stephen Boyd’s character, who gets tangled up under the horse’s hooves and trampled to death.

The scene was so shockingly real, interestingly, that it resulted in a rumor circulating that Boyd’s double had actually died in the film, and the footage was real.

It Was An Unheard Production In Terms Of Size

Heston in Ben-Hur
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The size of the production of Ben-Hur was nothing short of epic. The production design included no fewer than 1 million props, 100,000 costumes, and over 300 sets that were built using over 1 million pounds of plaster and 40,000 cubic feet of lumber.

Unsurprisingly, such a production caught the attention of countless other celebrities that had to see it themselves. Some of the celebrities that frequented the set included Kirk Douglas, Jack Palance, Susan Hayward, and Audrey Hepburn.

It Had The Biggest Movie Set Ever Constructed

View of the track
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

At the time, the chariot race sequence was the largest and most extravagant movie set that had ever been built. The arena was built to scale of that of an actual Roman stadium outside of Jerusalem, which was five stories high and big enough to fit a track that was 2,000 feet long and 65-feet wide.

There were two of these tracks built, with one for the shooting of the scene, and the other for the horses and trainers to rehearse. For the surface of the track, 40,000 tons of sand were imported for Mexico, and the arena cost more than $1 million, taking up 18-acres.

Remington Olmstead Almost Wasn’t In The Film

Man playing Jesus
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

William Wyler was very impressed with actor Remington Olstead, who plays the Decurian soldier that denies water to Ben-Hur when he’s a slave. When he learned that Olmstead had been slyly replaced, he made a point to bring him back.

Wyler demanded that Olmstead be found and brought back onto the set no matter what the cost. Luckily, it didn’t take long to find him, coincidentally, Claude Heater, who played Christ, was a regular at Olmstead’s cafe.

Some Props Were Sold To People That Got Into Trouble

Heston on a chariot
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

When MGM went under, there was an 18-day auction held in May 1970 of memorabilia that started when Kirk Kekorian began liquidating the studio’s assets. One of the props sold at auction was a chariot featured in Ben-Hur that went for a surprisingly low price of $4,000.

Three years later, Kerkorian was arrested for using his chariot as a form of transportation during the energy crisis. He opted to ride a chariot rather than waste gas.