Movie-A-Day #412: Ben-Hur

Chaplin

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Ben-Hur
Directed by William Wyler

Cast:
Charlton Heston - Judah Ben Hur
Ramon Novarro - Ben-Hur
William Wyler
Stephen Boyd - Messala
Francis X. Bushman - Messala
Bette Davis
Jack Hawkins - Quintus Arrius
May McAvoy - Esther
Laurence Olivier
Betty Bronson - Virgin Mary
Haya Harareet - Esther
Lillian Hellman
Hugh Griffith - Sheik Ilderim
Claire McDowell - Mother of Hur
Gregory Peck
Kathleen Key - Tirzah
Carmel Myers - Iras
Terence Stamp

Critic's Review:
William Wyler's Ben-Hur is the quintessential Hollywood biblical epic: a huge story, given a suitably exalted treatment, splashed across a broad canvas, and centered on a pair of well-drawn central characters. It's easy to forget that the film was the culmination of a cycle of religious epics that dated back slightly more than a decade, and closed out the genre as a viable Hollywood phenomenon. Since Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah in 1949, the public had shown a willingness to spend money on screen stories adapted from (or inspired by) the Old or New Testaments; the advent of the Cold War and the threat of thermo-nuclear annihilation likely made filmgoers start thinking about God, heaven, and the hereafter more than usual. Apart from MGM's trouble-plagued Quo Vadis? and 20th Century Fox's The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, however, few of the resulting movies did more than modest business at the box office, and none received any serious critical respectability. Ben-Hur proved to be an exception: Wyler's direction is sure and carefully balanced, avoiding any hint of the campiness and awkward line delivery that broke the verisimilitude of many of the other films; Charlton Heston, though far from the first choice for the title role (Paul Newman and Rock Hudson both turned it down), brings a compelling intensity to his performance; and Jack Hawkins' work as father figure Quintus Arrius lent the film a dignity comparable to Finlay Currie's St. Peter and Leo Genn's Petronius in Quo Vadis? Coupled with Yakima Canutt's stunt direction, those virtues proved unbeatable. Ben-Hur was the most expensive movie in MGM's history (perhaps not coincidentally, the 1926 silent version of the story had also been the most expensive non-sound production in the studio's history), but it ended up playing for two years in venues all over the world. The film earned enough money to keep the studio solvent, allowing them to acquire other films of this kind for distribution, most notably Nicholas Ray's King of Kings. Ben-Hur was virtually the last film of its kind made in Hollywood, or by Hollywood -- costs were too high to do too many more, and it also seemed as though audiences had seen most of the religious stories that were worth their moviegoing dollars. With the exception of box-office disasters such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Bible, most subsequent examples of the genre would be produced in Europe. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

My Review:
Not much more can be said about a movie with such scope and force. This was actually one of my favorite movies when I first got into movies as a teenager--not because of the religious aspect, but how gloriously detailed the world of Ben-Hur was. The first time seeing the chariot race in widescreen is just one of those moments that stick with you. 11 Academy Awards later, it remains one of the most awarded films in movie history.

The acting is also top-notch. Charlton Heston plays Ben-Hur with a heroic air, and while today it might be cliched to be "that good", Heston works it as well as anyone could. Stephen Boyd is also a standout as the evil Messalah who rightly meets a grisly end.

The cinematography and art direction is top shelf, and it doesn't take long to be totally immersed in the era. The great thing is that Wyler made a film that while having a Christian undertone, can appeal to all religions, mainly as a statement of faith.

Even though today it can be overshadowed by other epics like the LOTR films, it still deserves a place amongst the best films ever made.

Trivia:
MGM wanted an authentic-looking Roman boat for the live battle scenes. To design the boats, they hired a person who had spent his whole career studying Roman naval architecture. When he presented his designs to the MGM engineers, Mauro Zambuto (set engineer) exclaimed, "But this is top heavy! It will sink!" They built the boat anyway and launched it in the ocean, and at first it seemed to float. Then, however, a little wave came along, a wake from another boat, splashed against the highly unstable boat, and tipped it over. MGM then put the boat in a large pond with a huge painted sky backdrop. To steady the boat, they ran cables from the bottom of the boat to anchors on the bottom of the pond.

Another problem concerned the color of the water in the pond holding the boat; it was too brown and murky. They hired a chemist to develop a dye to color the water Azure Mediterranean blue. The chemist dumped a huge sack of some powder into the pond, which, instead of turning the water blue, formed a hard crust on the surface of the water, which had to be chiselled off the boat at great expense. They finally found some dye that would make the water blue. During one of the battle scenes, an extra who fell into the water and spent a bit too much time there turned blue, and was kept on the MGM payroll until it wore off.

When it came time to film inside the boat, it was discovered that the large 65mm cameras wouldn't fit. The boat had to be taken out of the pond, cut in half lengthwise, and placed in an Italian sound stage. The oars wouldn't fit in the sound stage, so they had to cut them off just beyond the hull. This resulted in an extremely light oars which, when rowed by the actors, didn't look believable, since you could move them with one hand. To solve the problem, Mauro Zambuto sent an army of production assistants to all of the hardware stores in Rome to buy the kind of spring-and-hydraulic piston mechanisms that are normally attached to doors to force them closed but to keep them from slamming. Placing these devices on the oars and the hull gave enough resistance to make the rowing scenes look realistic.

Although there were presumably white horses in Italy, the white horses used in the film were brought in from Lipica, Slovenia, the original home of the snow-white "Lipizzaner" horse breed. Glenn H. Randall Sr. trained 78 horses for the film, starting months before photography began.

The film used over 1,000,000 props.

Shot over a period of nine months at Rome's Cinecitta studio. The outdoor sets built for the chariot race were the largest built at the time.

Initially there were queries over whether William Wyler was the right director for the job, as he'd never tackled a film of this scale before. One of the doubters was Wyler himself.

By the time filming had finished, MGM's London laboratories had processed over 1,250,000 feet of 65mm Eastman Color film, at the cost of $1 a foot.

Charlton Heston was taught to drive a chariot by the stunt crew, who offered to teach the entire cast. Heston was the only one who took them up on the offer. 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 of the chariot.

The chariot race segment was directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. Joe Canutt (Yak's son) doubled for Charlton Heston. During one of the crashes, in which Judah Ben-Hur's horses jump over a crashed chariot, the younger Canutt was thrown from his chariot onto the tongue of his chariot. He managed to climb back into his chariot and bring it back under control. The sequence looked so good that it was included in the film, with a close-up of Heston climbing back into the chariot. Canutt got a slight cut on his chin, but it was the only injury in the incredibly dangerous sequence. Stuntman Nosher Powell, who worked on the film, states in his biography, that Yakima Canutt went pale as a ghost when the chariot crashed. The crash was not planned, and everybody - including Yakima Canutt - believed that Joe Canutt had died.

The large "island" in the stadium was great for filming, since a backdrop of a stone wall is cheaper to film than a backdrop of thousands of extras. However, such an "island" in a real stadium prevents spectators from viewing the race properly at all angles and would not normally exist.

Miklós Rózsa wrote the musical score in eight weeks.

The chariot race has a 263-to-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every one foot kept), probably the highest for any 65mm sequence ever filmed.

Burt Lancaster, a self-described atheist, claimed he turned down the role of Judah Ben-Hur because he "didn't like the violent morals in the story" and because he did not want to promote Christianity.

Cesare Danova screentested to play Ben-Hur.

Charlton Heston himself wrote some additional scenes between Ben-Hur and Messala. They were never used as William Wyler deemed them to be "the phoniest thing" he'd ever had to deal with from an actor.

William Wyler was a renowned stickler for detail. Charlton Heston recalled one particular scene where Judah Ben-Hur simply walks across a room upon his return from slavery. Such a simple scene required 8 takes before the actor finally asked Wyler what was missing. The director informed him that he liked the first take where Heston had kicked a piece of pottery to give the scene its only sound. Heston on the other hand had assumed that Wyler didn't like the kicking and had therefore deliberately avoided doing it again.

In the original novel, Ben-Hur's mother does not have a name; she is referred to as Mother of Hur. For the film, she was called Miriam.

Robert Ryan was considered for the role of Messala, with Burt Lancaster as Ben-Hur.

Paul Newman was offered the role of Judah Ben-Hur but turned it down because he said he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic.

Besides Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson was also offered the role of Ben Hur. Hudson seriously considered accepting the part until his agent explained to him that the film's gay subtext was too much of a risk to his career.

Stephen Boyd wore dark contact lenses for this film.

This is the only one of the three movies who have won 11 Academy Awards (the others being Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)) to have won an Oscar for acting performances.

Gore Vidal was uncredited as a screenwriter, although producer Sam Zimbalist promised he and Christopher Fry, who worked on the script independently from Vidal, a screen credit. Karl Tunberg, who wrote the original screenplay that had been very much rewritten into a shooting script by Vidal and Fry, claimed the credit. Zimbalist died before the movie ended, and thus could not testify at the guild arbitration hearing. Tunberg won the credit, but failed to win the Oscar. The film had been nominated for 12 Oscars, and won a record 11 (since tied). The movie's sole loss was for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and usually is attributed to the fallout from the credit dispute, which Vidal made widely known.

Upon reading Karl Tunberg's original script, William Wyler had written in the margins "awful...horrible". Consequently, he brought in Gore Vidal - who was on contract with MGM at the time and hated being so - to rewrite the screenplay. Vidal also thought that Tunberg's script was dreadful and initially didn't even want to take on the project. He changed his mind when Wyler promised to get him out of the remaining two years of his contract. Christopher Fry then polished up Vidal's work on the screenplay and wrote a new ending. Neither Fry or Vidal received screen credit for their work on the film, something which infuriated Wyler so much that he leaked the story to the press.

According to Gore Vidal, as recounted in The Celluloid Closet (1995) one of the script elements he was brought in to re-write was the relationship between Messala and Ben-Hur. Director William Wyler was concerned that two men who had been close friends as youths would not simply hate one another as a result of disagreeing over politics. Thus, Vidal devised a thinly veiled subtext suggesting the Messala and Ben-Hur had been lovers as teenagers, and their fighting was a result of Ben-Hur spurning Messala. 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, where the actor admitted that Vidal had authored much of the final shooting script.

One of only two films shot in the MGM Camera 65 cinematographic process (the other being Raintree County (1957), which was only released in 35mm prints). The MGM Camera 65 process used 65mm negative stock, but the 70mm prints intended for projection contained additional space for a stereophonic track that was printed in magnetic stripes directly on the film in the sprocket-hole area. Magnetic stripes were superior to optical soundtracks in that they could provide four channels of sound (six in the Todd-AO process) compared to the single sound channel of optical prints. The MGM Camera 65 used an anamorphic lens akin to CinemaScope that squeezed the image by 10%. Exhibitors rejected the new system as they had already made huge capital outlays of money to equip their theaters with CinemaScope lenses, stereophonic sound systems and 70mm projectors.

During the 18-day auction of MGM props, costumes, and memorabilia that took place in May 1970 when new owner Kirk Kerkorian was liquidating the studio's assets, a Sacramento restaurateur paid $4,000 for a chariot used in the film. Three years later, during the energy crisis, he was arrested for driving the chariot on the highway.

The rumor that Stephen Boyd's double was killed during the chariot race is false. According to second-unit director Yakima Canutt, the "Messala" that was run over, a Roman soldier standing on the center island who was hit by a chariot and the driver of a spilled rig who jumped out of the way of one chariot but was immediately run over by another one were all articulated and weighted dummies (made with movable arm and leg joints), so when they were hit they "reacted" the way a normal human body would in that situation. A combination of adroit placement and expert editing made the dummies look like real people being run over.

For some sequences in the chariot race, some of the chariots had three horses instead of four. This enabled the camera car to move in closer.

One of the very few (and very expensive) 65mm cameras in the world was wrecked during the filming of the chariot race.

An infirmary was created especially for the filming of the dangerous chariot race scenes. However, in the end, very few injuries were actually sustained, most of them being sunburns.

The production cost MGM a massive $15 million and was a gamble by the studio to save itself from bankruptcy. The gamble paid off, with the film earning $75 million.

MGM acquired over 40 scripts for the film.

The film's credits appear with the Sistine Chapel ceiling as background. Charlton Heston played Michelangelo, the painter of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, in the film The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).

Leslie Nielsen made a screen test for the part of Messala, part of which can be seen in the documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (1993).

Audrey Hepburn visited the set during the filming of the chariot race (she was in the midst of shooting The Nun's Story (1959)). This led to the false legend that she was an extra in the crowd scenes, as a favor to her former director, William Wyler.

Producer Sam Zimbalist died two months before production ended, with William Wyler handling his duties afterward.

The chariot race required 15,000 extras, on a set constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. Tour buses visited the set every hour. Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film.

Director William Wyler decided that the Romans should have British accents, and that the four Americans in the cast would play Hebrews. This was a technique later used in "Masada" (1981).

It was the first "remake" to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The Departed (2006) became the second "remake" to do so, 47 years later.

According to his memoirs Stewart Granger was offered the role of Messala but claimed that he turned it down on the advice of his agent who recommended Granger not to play a supporting role to Charlton Heston.

Producer Sam Zimbalist offered William Wyler $1,000,000 to direct this film. This was the highest director's fee ever paid up to that time.

Director William Wyler had previous experience with Ben-Hur. He served as an assistant director under action specialist Breezy Eason (B. Reeves Eason) who was one of the directors for the chariot race in MGM's mammoth silent version of the story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).

[June 2008] Ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Epic".

This is believed to be one of only three MGM films where the studio's trademark Leo the Lion did not roar at the beginning of the opening credits, apparently because of the religious theme in the film. The others were The Next Voice You Hear... (1950) (another film with a religious theme) and Westward the Women (1951). (The lion used in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was the new illustrated logo first used in the credits for that film, not a real lion. But this logo was shortly discarded permanently, and so doesn't count.)

Christ was played by opera singer Claude Heater, who went uncredited for his only film role.

During filming, director William Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He had the man's stump covered in blood with a false bone protruding from it for the scene where the galley was rammed by another ship. Wyler made similar use of an extra who was missing a foot.

Director William Wyler took on the project because he wanted to do a Cecil B. DeMille type picture.

Although William Wyler was Jewish, he particularly wanted to make a film that would appeal to all religious faiths.

The 10 square block set that represents Jerusalem is an historically accurate one.

Such was the expense of the film, nervous studio executives flew out to Rome on a weekly basis to check on the progress of the production.

The only Hollywood film to make the Vatican approved film list in the category of religion.

One thing William Wyler was completely unable to do was get his leading man to cry on-screen. You'll note in Ben-Hur (1959)'s crying scenes that Charlton Heston covers his eyes.

This was to be the last film for Cathy O'Donnell who was then married to Robert Wyler, the director's brother.

Wyler left all the details of the chariot race - every shot, crash and stunt - in the hands of his second-unit director Andrew Marton. When he saw the final version of Marton and lead stuntman Yakima Canutt's work, Wyler remarked that it was "one of the greatest cinematic achievements" he'd ever seen.

Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins and all other actors, that had the role of a Roman, they had to wear darkened contact lenses, if their eye color was not brown. William Wyler didn't want his two leading men to have the same eye color. Boyd's lenses constantly irritated and scratched his eyes, often leading to days where shooting had to be halted to allow the actor's eyes time to recover.

Martha Scott was 45 at the time of filming, only 10 years older than her screen son. She also played Charlton Heston's mother in The Ten Commandments (1956) the same year.

Originally William Wyler had planned only to film the first unit and leave the second unit duties to producer Sam Zimbalist. These plans were scuppered by Zimbalist's premature death. MGM persuaded Wyler to see the film through to completion by offering him a sizable amount of money.

William Wyler missed just 2 days of the lengthy shoot due to flu.

Stephen Boyd wore lifts in his shoes to make his height more on a par with Charlton Heston's.

When he was cast as Messala, Stephen Boyd grew a bushy beard for the role, only to be told that fashionable Roman men of the time didn't wear beards.

The desert sequences were all set to be filmed in Libya until the Muslim Libyan authorities realized that the film was promoting Christianity. The unit was ordered out of the country, only to show up in Israel.

Producer Sam Zimbalist originally intended for the chariot race to be shot in Cinerama. This proved to be too expensive and unwieldy an idea.

The chariot race was shot without sound. This was added in post-production when the decision was also made to not have any music throughout the sequence.

Sidney Franklin had initially been courted to direct the film.

William Wyler was an assistant director on the original Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and 34 years later directed its remake, Ben-Hur (1959).

Wednesday, November 18, 1959, was exactly the same month, date and year that actor, Arthur Q. Bryan died and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer originally released Ben-Hur (1959).

When Simonides and Esther came to visit the family house of the Hur's, Miriam, Judah and Tirzah. Judah Ben-Hur spoke to him nice in calling Simonides' name, Miriam also said Simonides' name, shortly after Judah. These are the only two times that Simonides' name was verbally said, through-out the movie, because when the name is pronounced, it has four syllables.

In the Roman galley scenes, Ben-Hur is referred to as "number 41." In the original General Lew Wallace novel, he is "number 60" (Book 3, Chapter 3, page 123, Harper Brothers 1922). In the Dell Movie Classic comic book, he is referred to as "number 40" (Dell Comics #1052-5911, 1959, pages 15 and 16). And in both Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and the 1958 Classics Illustrated comic book there is no reference to any number, either by scene decor, dialogue, or intertitle.

The first of only three films to win 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It also has the highest percentage of winning Academy Awards. In 1959 and 1960 there were only 12 categories. 11 of 12 = 91 and 2/3%, 91.667%.

Urban legend claims that 4 stuntmen were killed during the filming of the chariot race. There is no truth to this whatsoever.

Stuntman Cliff Lyons worked as a stuntman/chariot driver in both Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and the remake Ben-Hur (1959).

NGN was unsatisfied with the script even as the film was shooting, and hired Ben Hecht to "polish" it. They flew him to Rome, set him up in a house and paid him approximately $15,000 for a week's work. It's not known if any of Hecht's dialogue made it into the final film.

When the screenplay credit went to arbitration, the WGA accorded sole credit to screenwriter Karl Tunberg, despite Gore Vidal's rewrite and Christopher Fry's polish.

Rock Hudson was offered a record $750,000 to star in the movie, but turned it down in order to star in A Farewell to Arms (1957).

SPOILER: Three lifelike dummies were placed at key points in the chariot race to give the appearance of men being run over by the chariots. The best of these was the stand-in dummy for Stephen Boyd's character that gets tangled up under the horses hooves and gets trampled to death. This resulted in a realistic death sequence that shocked the theater audiences of the time, and spawned an urban legend that this was a real death.
 

Shane

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Great great movie Chap. Awesome choice!
 

Cardinals.Ken

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People wonder why I'm a NASCAR fan. Watch the chariot race in this film, and you'll know why.

Excellent film, and a good choice Chap!
 

Shane

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People wonder why I'm a NASCAR fan. Watch the chariot race in this film, and you'll know why.

Excellent film, and a good choice Chap!

Seen it many times. Nascar still blows. ;)
 

Shane

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And you are still a dork...a dork with the authority to arrest me, but still a dork nonetheless. :D

I found you at your last Nascar event:

:D

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Cardinals.Ken

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I found you at your last Nascar event:

:D

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Ha! That's not me! If it was, it would be a number 2 (in the old days) or a 16! :p

Back on topic...

The chariot race required 15,000 extras, on a set constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. Tour buses visited the set every hour. Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film.

I've recently started going through my DVD/Blu-Ray collection, just to watch films that featured incredible scenes like this that used something almost unheard of in today's day and age; stunts by stuntmen...real stunts, not CGI rubbish.

I've gotten so tired of CGI. If I want to see what a computer can do, I'll play a video game.

As a viewer, I get so much more satisfaction out of seeing a scene play out with actual actors, stuntmen, and props.
 

DemsMyBoys

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Nobody died making the chariot scene? I'm a little bit shocked. This came out when I was a real little kid and I can remember hearing it. My parents took us to see this at the Egyptian in Hollywood and I'd bet most of the audience believed somebody had died during filming.

Seeing this at the Egyptian rocked, BTW. Another grand old Hollywood movie palace. Huge screen and it sat about 2,000 people. It played at the Egyptian for two years.
 
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Chaplin

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Nobody died making the chariot scene? I'm a little bit shocked. This came out when I was a real little kid and I can remember hearing it. My parents took us to see this at the Egyptian in Hollywood and I'd bet most of the audience believed somebody had died during filming.

Seeing this at the Egyptian rocked, BTW. Another grand old Hollywood movie palace. Huge screen and it sat about 2,000 people. It played at the Egyptian for two years.

The myth about a stuntman dying has been around for a long time, and watching the film, those "dummies" they used look very lifelike.
 

DemsMyBoys

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The myth about a stuntman dying has been around for a long time, and watching the film, those "dummies" they used look very lifelike.

This was bugging me so much I called my brother. (Who remembers 1959 a heck of a lot better than I do.) He was shocked as well to hear it wasn't true. He said he clearly remembers the talk that a stuntman had been killed and that it started while the movie was still in production. He shared my memory of sitting in the theater and everyone saying (during the chariot race), "Here's where the guy was killed".(He also said the neighbors were horrified that my parents even took small kids to see this movie.)

He wondered if MGM started the talk to juice the box office since they nearly went broke filming it and had no idea it would be the success it was.
 
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