Ben-Hur (1959) is MGM’s three and a half hour, wide-screen epic Technicolor blockbuster – a Biblical tale, subtitled A Tale of the Christ.
Director William Wyler’s film was a remake of the spectacular silent film of the same name (director Fred Niblo’s and MGM’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)). Wyler had been an ‘extras’ director on the set of DeMille’s original film in the silent era. MGM’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), featuring a cast of 125,000, cost about $4 million to make after shooting began on location in Italy, in 1923, and starred silent screen idols Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. This figure is equivalent to $33 million today – it was the most expensive silent film ever made. Both films were adapted from the novel (first published in 1880) by former Civil War General Lew Wallace.
The colorful 1959 version was the most expensive film ever made up to its time, and the most expensive film of the 50s decade. At $15 million and shot on a grand scale, it was a tremendous make-or-break risk for MGM Studios – and ultimately saved the studio from bankruptcy. [It was a big dual win for MGM, since they had won the Best Picture race the previous year for Gigi (1958).] It took six years to prepare for the film shoot, and over a half year of on-location work in Italy, with thousands of extras. It featured more crew and extras than any other film before it – 15,000 extras alone for the chariot race sequence.
Ben-Hur proved to be an intelligent, exciting, and dramatic piece of film-making unlike so many other vulgar Biblical pageants with Hollywood actors and actresses. Its depiction of the Jesus Christ figure was also extremely subtle and solely as a cameo – it never showed Christ’s face but only the reactions of other characters to him.
It was one of the most honored, award-winning films of all time. It was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Color Costume Design, Best Special Effects, and Best Screenplay. It was the first film to win eleven Oscars!