It was the film of the decade, the one that every other epic movie from then on would be compared to. Ben-Hur hit the big screen in 1959 from famed director, William Wyler with the man of the moment, Charlton Heston in the starring role. The epic religious film was one of the biggest commercial successes of its time and still today is regarded as one of the best films ever made.
It was the first film in history to score 11 Oscars at the Academy Awards, a record that is still yet to be broken. In fact, only two movies have been able to match, but not succeed, the number of Oscar wins including Titanic in 1997 and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2003. Ben-Hur was also the only Hollywood film to be included in the religion category of the Vatican’s Best Films List from the 100th anniversary of cinema in 1995.
The story follows Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur as he is betrayed by his Roman friend and forced out of Jerusalem. Judah’s experience as a slave, his encounter with Jesus and his return to the kingdom are all moments that simply add to the build up for the movie’s iconic climax, the chariot race.
While it’s the pinnacle point of the film and the moment that really solidified its box office success, the 10-minute long scene took five full weeks to film, 15,000 extras, 82 animals, 40,000 tonnes of imported sand and 18 different chariots. The high calibre production quality of the race including the realistic trampling of Messala will forever go down in history as a one of the best, most timeless scenes in movie history.
With a run-time of over three and a half hours, this movie is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. It’s hard to compare any modern movies to the Golden Age of cinema, and a 2012 remake of Ben-Hur confirmed that some things are better left untouched.
Director William Wyler was no stranger to success, directing other famous films such as Roman Holiday in 1953 starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Carrie in 1952 starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones and Funny Girl in 1968 with Barbra Streisand.
Before the lead role was given to Charlton Heston, a range of Hollywood stars were up for consideration including Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman. Newman actually turned down the role because of how much he hated filming his previous Bible-era film, The Silver Chalice in 1954 and reportedly said the only thing he learnt from the experience was that he didn’t have the legs to wear a tunic!
The film will forever be a memorable moment in cinematic history as well as a nostalgic memory for many kids of the 1950s and ’60s because there really is nothing bigger than Ben-Hur!