A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Ben-Hur (1959)

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Takes You Back In Time To 1959 For The Sword & Sandal Epic Of Visual Beauty, Excitement & Unsurpassed Cinema Artistry. This Is The 60th Anniversary Of “Ben-Hur”. They Just Don’t Make Them Like They Use To. 

The 50’s saw an increase in productions across Hollywood known as “The Spectacle Films” or “The Hollywood Epic”. The increase came with the introduction of a brand new cinema technology known as CinemaScope. Developed by Earl Sponable, head of research at 20th Century Fox studios, CinemaScope was made to easily let existing theaters retrofit their systems to show widescreen movies. Based on the designs of French astronomer and inventor Henri Chrétien. Sponable worked to correct optical and functional defects in Henri’s initial designs. 

CinemaScope was capable of an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which is the ratio that films are still shot at today. The CinemaScope format proved to be revolutionary as it was central to the overall viewing experience giving you up to 50% more picture and giving you a wider panoramic view of the movie, that would give you a full viewing experience.

In 1953 20th Century Fox, rolled out the red carpet and introduced CinemaScope with their sword and sandal biblical epic “The Robe”. Other studios soon followed suit, but soon enough CinemaScope was made obsolete by 1967 due to better developments, having been primarily advanced by the Panavision lens company. While CinemaScope is no longer around, the anamorphic format  and ratio of 2:35.1, has continued to be used to this day. The film-industry created the jargon, Scope which is a shortened version of CinemaScope. It is still widely used by both filmmakers and projectionists. 

During the 50’s when CinemaScope was deemed the next big thing. The Ultra Panavision was created through a joint production between MGM and Panavision to compete with Fox’s highly successful CinemaScope. Panavision utilized a new type of lens that used two prisms in addition to the anamorphic lens. This helped minimize problems when actor close ups were needed. Panavision used an extremely wide frame at 2.76:1, that would help give the camera to be more easily focused and requiring less light. The first film to showcase the Panavision widescreen format was the next big biblical sword and sandal epic “Ben-Hur”. A highly rewarding dramatic experience, that’s rich and complex in human values, a great adventure full of excitement, visual beauty, thrills and an unsurpassed cinema artistry. 

Director William Wyler (director of “Wuthering Heights”, “Big Country”, “Funny Girl” and “Roman Holiday”) directs “Ben-Hur”, a retelling of the spectacular silent film from director Fred Niblo. Known as “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” from 1925. Both the silent film and Wyler’s Hollywood epic were adapted from the novel, first published in 1880, by former Civil War General Lew Wallace. The silent film featured a cast of 125,000, cost about $4 million to make after shooting began on location in Italy, it was the most expensive silent film ever made.

Wyler’s sword and sandal epic of “Ben-Hur” was released in 1959 and makes it’s 60th anniversary this November. While the films anniversary isn’t until Thanksgiving, this month (April 2019) Regal Cinemas will be showing “Ben-Hur” for two days only. I saw the Wednesday afternoon screening at Regal and seeing one of my favorite films of all time on the big screen in glorious widescreen is truly a sight to behold and an experience I’ll never forget. 

Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” was a tremendous make or break risk for MGM Studios and ultimately saved the studio from going into bankruptcy. The film was a massive success earning 75 million dollars at the box office, which doesn’t sound like a lot since in today’s market that is how much a film makes in it’s opening weekend alone. Back then that kind of money as a total take-in was a huge payday for any film. It was a big dual win for MGM, since they had won the Best Picture race two years in a row, the previous year for “Gigi” in 1958 and “Ben-Hur” the following year in 1959. 

“Ben-Hur” holds the record as one of only three films (the other two being “Titanic” and “Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King”) to have won 11 Oscars. Originally nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning for: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston, his only Oscar), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Colour Cinematography, Best Colour Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Color Costume Design and Best Special Effects. It only lost in the Screenplay category due to a dispute over screenwriting credits. 

It took six years to prepare for the film shoot, and over half a year of on-location work in Italy, with thousands of extras. It featured more crew and extras than any other film before it. The desert sequences were all set to be filmed in Libya until authorities in the country, which was a Muslim nation, realized that the film was promoting Christianity. The government ordered MGM out of the country, forcing the studio to shift filming to Spain, which had the only desert in Europe.

“Ben-Hur’s” most famous sequence and one of the greatest action sequences in movies, that is as thrilling as anything ever put on film is the film’s chariot race. Staged by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. This sequence has been discussed for years for its pictorial and dramatic excitement, its precision in the way it’s shot, with the wheeling of 36 horses pulling nine chariots. With a total of 15,000 extras just for the chariot race sequence alone. The set was constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside of Rome. Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice and the remainder used during filming. The actual sequence took a total of five weeks to film.

William Wyler was so impressed with legendary director David Lean’s work on “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) that he asked Lean to direct the famous chariot race sequence. Lean would have received full screen credit for the job as “Chariot Race directed by David Lean”. He declined the offer, knowing that Wyler was a truly talented director and could pull it off himself. Being left up to it himself, Wyler selected all the camera angles for the chariot race, but left all the details of its actual shooting in the hands of his second-unit directors. When he saw Marton and Canutt’s work, Wyler remarked that it was “one of the greatest cinematic achievements” he’d ever seen. Wyler then supervised the editing of the sequence.

All these years later, the chariot race remains just one of “Ben-Hur’s” crowning achievements. One of the big tragedies during the chariot race was when one of the very few, and very expensive 65mm cameras in existence was wrecked during the filming. A massive undertaking that required the contributions of director Wyler and several second-unit assistants (including, among others, Sergio Leone), actors Heston and Boyd, and various stunt-men, this ten-minute sequence remains unchallenged as one of the most tense, suspenseful, memorable races and action sequences in the history of cinema. 

While both Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd did most of their own chariot driving, stunt actors were still used and the cuts between the close ups of Heston and Boyd and the long range shots of their stunt doubles are seamless. An infirmary was created especially for the filming of the chariot race scenes. However, in the end, very few injuries were actually sustained, most of them being just sunburns. The heat of Rome proved to be a serious drawback for the action scenes. Horses could only make about eight runs a day at most. Because of this, most of the shots in the race were done on the first take.

Even the sea battle in which 50 miniature ship props were built specially for the sea battle between the Romans and the Macedonians, with the shots of the galley slave rowers, is another vivid highlight of the films extensive production. 

“Ben-Hur” was originally intended to be made in 1956 with Marlon Brando in the lead role, which failed to take off. But before Charleston Heston finalized the deal to became “Ben-Hur”, Kirk Douglas wanted to play Judah “Ben-Hur”, whose Jewishness appealed to him, but he was deemed too old and Charlton Heston had already been cast. Instead he was offered the role of Messala but turned it down, because he didn’t want to play a “second-rate baddie”. Douglas’ experience motivated him to develop his own sword and sandal epic, “Spartacus” (1960), which was partially designed to compete against “Ben-Hur”. 

Paul Newman was offered the role of Judah “Ben-Hur” but turned it down because he’d already done one Biblical-era film, “The Silver Chalice” in 1954, and hated the experience. He also said it taught him that he didn’t have the legs to wear a tunic. Then there was Burt Lancaster, a self-described atheist, who 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. 

“Ben-Hur” would mark the second time Charlton Heston appeared in a big-budget “Bible movie”. The other being of course, Cecil B DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”. During this era, Heston was one of the go to actors for “manly” roles. His box office clout, combined with his willingness to endure the physical deprivations of long, arduous shoots, made him a natural for epics. “Ben-Hur” was a long arduous shoot for sure as William Wyler kept up a 16 hours a day, six days a week schedule for the total nine months it took to shoot the film. 

“Ben-Hur” opens with a prologue in which three Wise Men pay a visit to a certain manger. It then skips forward a quarter-century and introduces the film’s main players: Judah “Ben-Hur” (Heston), an affluent and influential Jewish prince living in Jerusalem, and his childhood best friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), who has been assigned by Rome to keep order in the city in advance of the arrival of a new governor. Everyone, including Judah’s mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), and sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), is delighted about Messala’s return but things start going downhill quickly. Judah’s refusal to spy for his old friend creates friction and, when an accident that nearly kills the governor is traced to Judah’s household, Messala exacts retribution. Judah is pressed into service as an oarsman for a Roman warship and Miriam and Tirzah are sent to prison.

For three years, Judah nurses his grudge until fate provides him with an opportunity. During a fierce naval battle, he saves the life of the ship’s commander, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), and is given an opportunity for freedom and redemption. He uses this to return to Jerusalem, where he is reunited with his love, Esther (Haya Harareet), who tells him everything that has happened during his absence. He confronts Messala about his sister and mother. When he erroneously believes they died in prison (in actuality, after contracting leprosy, they were exiled), he agrees to represent Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) in a chariot race against the four-time reigning champion: Messala. The final act of the friendship-turned-bitter is played out in front of thousands.

The story of Jesus Christ has been told on film in dozens of ways, from the uber-religious (something like The Greatest Story Ever Told) to the uber-personal (The Last Temptation of Christ) to the uber-gory (The Passion of the Christ). But probably one of the most fascinating takes is how “Ben-Hur”, is a film that’s only minimally about Christ, it contains a powerful message told in the most subversive and subtle ways.

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 one dollar per foot. After shooting completed, the studio ordered the dismantling of all the sets to sell off whatever could be salvaged and to prevent producers of low-budget Italian “epics” from using the same materials. When adjusted for inflation, “Ben-Hur” would be the 13th highest grossing movie of all time.

The legacy of “Ben-Hur” still makes waves in movies today, from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” with the Podrace sequence which was inspired by the chariot race or even to the whole of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (my 5th favorite film of all time), which was the closest to being able to captivate the grandeur and epic quality of William Wyler’s magnificent three hour and forty-two minute epic. 

The unprecedented $15 million production cost is all there on the screen in a prodigious array of breathtaking spectacle, wonder, splendor, unforgettable sights and sound. The magnitude of the physical and technical production is unsurpassed. Director William Wyler never lets the spectacle and size (which is clearly there) interfere with the elemental passions and conflicts of his human story.

“Ben-Hur”, is arguably the most famous Bible-informed epic not to be made by Cecil B. DeMille. It is a testimonial to how poorly many spectacles couldn’t stand against the sheer magnitude of “Ben-Hur”. In its day, “Ben-Hur” was seen as the ultimate in motion picture entertainment: a long, lavish fusion of action, adventure, melodrama, and Christian dogma. 

Joining the ranks and legacy of “Gone With The Wind”, “El Cid”, “The Ten Commandments”, “Lawrence Of Arabia” and becoming one of the greatest spectacles ever conceived is William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur”. Every frame is a perfect composition, brilliantly lighted like Renaissance paintings. It’s an epic drama, virtually flawless in every way, that sets the bar quite high for the epic motion picture genre, which was rather popular during the era.

It is one of the best motion pictures ever made, a stunning achievement for the era. Not only is it one of the most profound, spiritually powerful re-tellings of the Christ story, but it’s a wildly entertaining adventure, filled with beauty, lavish sets, stunning visual effects and elaborate action set pieces. There’s not one scene in this film that is absent of something memorable.

•”Ben-Hur” will screen at Regal Cinemas on Sunday April 14 @ 1pm and Wednesday April 17 @ 1pm and 6pm

•Also available on DVD, Digital and Blu Ray. Both DVD and Blu Ray releases has gift set editions with collectibles and hours upon hours of special features. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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