Director William Wyler’s 1959 “Ben-Hur” is perhaps one of the most famous movies ever made — in no small part thanks to its record-setting 11 Oscar wins and a spectacular chariot race that, to this day, will put just about anyone on the edge of his or her seats.
Though noting that its three-and-a-half-hour running time was "simply too much of a good thing," The New York Times original review of the film called it a "remarkably intelligent and engrossing human drama" that "is by far the most stirring and respectable of the Bible-fiction pictures ever made."
And with a new version of the story charging into theaters this weekend, here’s a look at some interesting facts about the original movie, its precursors and the book they’re all based on.
1. When a new “Ben-Hur” was announced, many movie fans uttered a collective groan at the thought of another classic getting a pointless Hollywood remake. However, this new version is technically a remake of a remake of a remake of a short film adapted from a Broadway play based on a novel, according to ben-hur.com, so the new film is the fourth film version.
2. The original novel’s author, Lew Wallace, was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, according to britannica.com.
3. According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, inspiration for Wallace's book came from a train ride he shared with an agnostic colonel. Wallace, who was a Christian, said the conversation over the course of the journey made him realize just how little he knew about his religion — something he immediately resolved to fix.
4. Subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” Wallace’s novel, which was published in 1880, became the best-selling book in America — after the Bible — all the way up until Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” in 1936, according to neh.gov.
5. The first film version, a 1907 short, was produced without consent, prompting a watershed legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court and helped establish modern copyright laws regarding film adaptations, according to tandfonline.com.
6. The authorized 1925 film was MGM's first major release and nearly bankrupted the studio, according to a post on patheos.com. An article in The Boston Globe reports the film cost a then-unheard-of $4 million and used 42 cameras and 50,000 feet of film.
7. Production on the 1925 “Ben-Hur” was such a spectacle that silent-era movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and Lillian Gish all signed up to appear as extras to get a better view, according to The Boston Globe. Also popping up as extras were future movie stars such as Gary Cooper and Clark Gable.
8. The Boston Globe article also states that the chariot race from the 1925 version required 62 assistant directors — among them, a young Wyler, who more than three decades later would be hired by producer Sam Zimbalist to direct the classic 1959 “Ben-Hur.”
9. As for Zimbalist, he had a connection to the 1925 movie: He worked on it as a film cutter, according to Turner Classic Movies' website.
10. The website also indicates that the 1959 “Ben-Hur” was greenlit to combat declining ticket sales due to the growing popularity of TV. Producers hoped the epic scale would give audiences a reason to come out to the theaters.
11. TCM says the 1959 version was filmed using a new format to add to its epic scope: widescreen 65mm film stock shot with the MGM Camera 65, later known as Panavision.
12. “Ben-Hur” saw theaters charge special higher ticket prices at as much as $3 on the weekends, according to TCM.com.
13. A number of actors were courted for the lead roles of Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, including Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas and Leslie Nielsen, TCM.com states.
14. With the exception of Israeli actress Haya Harareet, Wyler purposefully chose to cast British actors for the Romans and American actors for the Jews, according to TCM.com.
15. The website also indicates that for the nine-month production, Wyler maintained a 16-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week work schedule. When production ended, he suffered intense migraines for months afterward.
16. Not surprisingly, everyone wants to take credit for the brilliant chariot race sequence. Several of the second-unit directors, including Yakima Canutt, Andrew Marton and the godfather of spaghetti westerns Sergio Leone all later claimed to have directed the sequence. Whoever actually directed it, Wyler’s first choice was none other than David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia”), but according to IMDB.com, Lean declined the offer.
17. TCM.com states the chariot race alone cost around $4 million to film — in other words, as much as the 1925 film that nearly bankrupted MGM decades earlier.
18. One longstanding rumor about the 1959 films is that a stuntman was killed during the chariot race. That only almost happened, according to IMDB.com. In one famous shot, Judah jumps another chariot broken down in the middle of the track, causing him to be thrown over the front of his chariot. Miraculously, he catches himself on the center hitching rail and manages to climb back in. Only the first part of that stunt was planned, though. In reality, second-unit director Yakima Canutt watched as his son, stuntman Joe Canutt, accidentally flew out of the chariot while doing the jump. Yakima Canutt allegedly thought he had watched his son die. Remarkably, the only injury Joe Canutt sustained was a cut on his chin.
19. At the end of the chariot race (spoiler alert) where Messala gets dragged by his chariot around the track, it really is actor Stephen Boyd, and he really is getting dragged by a chariot, according to IMDB. The initial plan to use a dummy didn’t work, so instead they custom-molded a steel pan to fit Boyd’s back. Even with this safety precaution, the stunt still left Boyd with permanent scars from being dragged along the arena, which was covered in 10 inches of ground lava rock.
20. IMDB also reports that by the end of production, MGM had paid for 1,250,000 feet of film to be processed. That’s 25 times as much as the 1925 version.
21. Despite what was, in those days, an absurd production cost — about $15 million — it made it back and then some, earning $74 million, which is about $848 million in today’s money, according to Box Office Mojo.
22. “Ben-Hur” is tied with “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” for the most Oscar wins in history, according to IMDB.com. However, “Ben-Hur” is the only one of those films to earn acting awards (best actor for Heston and best supporting actor for Hugh Griffith). Furthermore, some of the categories for which the other films won didn’t exist in 1959.
23. “Ben-Hur's” Japanese premier was the first movie ever attended by Emperor Hirohito and his wife outside the imperial palace, according to a movie clip on britishpathe.com.
24. Wallace’s novel was the first work of fiction to be beatified by the Catholic church when Pope Leo XIII blessed it, according to interestingliterature.com. The National Endowment for the Humanities also reports the 1959 adaptation was the only Hollywood movie included on the Vatican’s list of approved movies in the category of religion.
25. Carrying on that tradition, the actor playing Jesus in the new “Ben-Hur,” Rodrigo Santoro (“300”), was blessed by Pope Francis while visiting the Vatican, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University.