The only Hollywood film to make the Vatican approved film list in the category of religion.
The sum wagered by Mesala against the sheik of 4-to-1 odds on 1,000 talents, would be the modern-day equivalent of approximately 660 million dollars.
During the 18-day auction of MGM props, costumes and memorabilia that took place in May 1970 when new studio owner Kirk Kerkorian was liquidating the studio's assets, a Sacramento restaurateur paid 4,000 dollars 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 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.
This is the first of three films to have won 11 Academy Awards, including the Best Picture Oscar. The second was Titanic (1997) and the third was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Several of the categories won by "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" didn't exist in "Ben-Hur"'s day, making its 11 wins that much more impressive. It is also the first ever film to win at least 10 Academy Awards.
The desert sequences were all set to be filmed in Libya until authorities in the country--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 has the only desert in Europe.
The chariot race has a 263-to-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every one foot used), probably the highest for any 65mm sequence ever filmed.
The production cost MGM a massive fifteen million dollars, and was a gamble by the studio to save itself from bankruptcy. The gamble paid off, with the film earning 75 million dollars.
William Wyler was so impressed with 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--"Chariot Race directed by David Lean." He declined the offer, knowing that Wyler was a truly talented director and could certainly pull it off himself.
Charlton Heston had learned how to handle a two-horse chariot when he was making The Ten Commandments (1956). When he arrived in Rome, he instantly began lessons in four-horse chariot racing with the film's stunt coordinator, Yakima Canutt.
Martha Scott was 45 at the time of filming, only ten years older than her screen son, Charlton Heston. She also played Heston's mother in The Ten Commandments (1956) three years previously.
The ten-square-block set that represents Jerusalem is an historically accurate one.
Sheik Ilderim's white horses 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 chariot race was shot MOS - without sound. This was added in post-production when the decision was also made to not have any music throughout the sequence.
Several times during the film, Judah touches a box on the door frame of his home. This is a Mezuzah, a case containing a passage from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and and 11:13-21), which Jews traditionally affix to the door frames of their houses as a constant reminder of God's presence.
One of the very few (and very expensive) 65mm cameras in existence was wrecked during the filming of the chariot race.
Desiring as much authenticity as possible, real aristocrats were recruited to play patricians as guests at the party sequence. Among those utilized were Emanuele Ruspoli, Count Marigliano del Monte, Duchess Nona Medici and Prince Raimondo of Italy, Count Santiago Oneto of Spain, Princess Nina Hohenlohe of Austria and her husband the Prince, Princess Irina Wassilchikoff of Russia and Baroness Lillian de Balzo of Hungary.
The film was originally intended to be made in 1956 with Marlon Brando in the lead role.
Kirk Douglas was offered the role of Messala but turned it down, because he didn't want to play a "second-rate baddie". Douglas wanted to play Judah Ben-Hur, whose Jewishness appealed to him, but he was too old and Charlton Heston had already been cast. The experience motivated Douglas to develop his own epic, Spartacus (1960), which was partially designed to compete against Ben-Hur (1959).
Shot over a period of nine months at Rome's Cinecitta studios. The outdoor set of the chariot race circus was the largest built for a film at the time.
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 eight 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.
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.
Although William Wyler was Jewish, he was particularly keen to make a film that would appeal to all religious faiths. In any case, he viewed the novel's subtitle, "A Tale of the Christ", as almost incidental to the story. He never lost sight of the obvious fact that the story was about a man called Judah Ben-Hur. His insistence that it be that personal story is largely responsible for the film's enduring success.
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.
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 (1954), and hated the experience. He also said it taught him that he didn't have the legs to wear a tunic.
Of the three Academy Awards that Miklós Rózsa won, he cherished the one he won for this film the most, because of the score's size, complexity, intricacy, emotional content and its being a distillation of his more than 20 years' experience scoring films.
Jesus Christ was played by American opera singer Claude Heater, who went uncredited in his only feature film role, because he never spoke. He was born in Oakland, California.
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. In any event, Lancaster, who was 45 when the film eventually went before the cameras, was too old for the part.
In June 2008 this film was ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Epic".
Stephen Boyd, and several other actors playing Romans, wore dark contact lenses, so their eyes appeared brown.
Sergio Leone was an uncredited second-unit director. In later years he claimed that he directed the chariot race scenes, but that is an apparently self-serving exaggeration (Leone had a reputation for stretching the truth).
Director William Wyler decided that the Romans should have British accents, and that the four Americans in the cast would play the Judaeans. This was a technique later used in Masada (1981) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). There are, however, exceptions, such as Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther, and a British actor dubbing one of the Judaeans winching provisions down to the Valley of the Lepers.
Stephen Boyd wore lifts in his shoes to make his height more on a par with Charlton Heston's.
William 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 Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. 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.
At 2 hours, 1 minute, and 23 seconds, Charlton Heston's performance in this movie is the longest to ever win an Academy Award for Best Actor, and the second longest to win in any category.
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 a few days of shooting, Andrew Marton discovered the most effective way to shoot in the arena would be to have the cameras right in the midst of the race, necessitating a camera car that moved with the chariots. He also noted that the best shots on the curves were done using a specially built camera chariot with rubber tires.
The process of amassing the more than one million props that were needed began in Rome two years before cameras started rolling.
One of only four MGM films in which 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), Westward the Women (1951) and North by Northwest (1959), in which composer Bernard Herrmann's growling music took the place of the lion's roar (the lion used in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was the studio's new stylized--and short-lived--logo, first used in the credits for that film, not a real lion.
During filming, director William Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He had the make-up department construct a prosthetic that included a protruding false bone to cover the man's stump for the scene where the galley was rammed by a pirate ship. Wyler made similar use of an extra who was missing a foot.
Producer Sam Zimbalist, 54, collapsed and died of a heart attack 40 minutes after leaving the set complaining of chest pains.
Upon reading Karl Tunberg's original script, William Wyler had written in the margins "awful . . . horrible". Consequently, he brought in Gore Vidal--who was under contract to MGM at the time and hated it--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. Wyler then brought in playwright Maxwell Anderson to do a draft. Playwright Christopher Fry was then engaged by Wyler to polish a screenplay that, by that time, was largely Anderson's work, built on the skeleton of Tunberg's earlier drafts. Neither Fry nor Vidal (whose contribution was almost negligible) received screen credit for their work on the film, which infuriated Wyler so much that he leaked the story to the press.
The chariot scene alone cost about four million dollars, or about a fourth of the entire budget, and took 10 weeks to shoot.
One of the models of the Roman ships was on display at the amusement park Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri. It was outside and exposed to the elements for many years.
It is the first movie remake to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The Departed (2006) became the second remake, 47 years later. It can be argued that a talking picture made from the same story as an earlier silent film is not a true remake, since the storytelling techniques each employ are so radically different.
While this film was occupying most of the stages and back lot at Cinecitta, Federico Fellini was shooting La Dolce Vita (1960) on a small corner there.
Ben-Hur (1959) is currently, as of 2017, the last Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Producer Sam Zimbalist offered William Wyler one million dollars to direct this film. This was the highest director's fee ever paid up to that time.
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.
During a shot of chariots swinging around the large curve, two of the vehicles smashed into the cameras, which were fortunately protected by a wooden barricade. Nevertheless, production was held up for small repairs and testing on the cameras. No cast, crew or horses were badly injured in the mishap.
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.
Six of the newly developed Camera 65 units, each valued at 100,000 dollars (over 750,000 dollars in 2016 dollars), were loaded onto two ships in Califonia and transferred to Italy.
William Wyler kept up a 16-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week schedule for the nine months it took to shoot.
After shooting, the studio ordered the dismantling of all the sets (at a cost of 150,000 dollars), partially to sell off whatever could be salvaged and partly to prevent producers of low-budget Italian "epics" from using the same materials.
Director William Wyler had served as an assistant director wrangling extras in crowds under action specialist B. Reeves Eason (aka "Breezy"), who directed the chariot race in MGM's mammoth silent version of the story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).
The city of Jerusalem set took up 10 square blocks. Altogether, the production used about 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, more than a million pounds of plaster, and 250 miles of metal tubing.
Stephen Boyd's contact lenses caused him terrible pain, forcing a rescheduling of scenes so he could rest his eyes.
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).
According to Charlton Heston, William Wyler was not reluctant to change his mind about an approach to a scene or character, resulting in frequently conflicting direction. He also noted in his diary: "I doubt [Wyler] likes actors very much. He doesn't empathize with them--they irritate him on the set. He gets very impatient, but invariably they come off well. The only answer I have is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it."
In Christian tradition, Balthasar of the Three Wise Men is the black or dark-skinned one. In this movie, however, he is depicted as white and played by Scottish actor Finlay Currie, while Melchior, traditionally white, is dark-skinned in the film, and played by an uncredited Reginald Lal Singh.
In nearly all the main sources the story of the scriptwriting for this movie is told from one of two viewpoints: that of director William Wyler and star Charlton Heston, or that of novelist Gore Vidal. The views of producer Sam Zimbalist, who died in mid-production before the controversy over the screenplay erupted, have been filtered through the views of Wyler, Heston and Vidal in most of the published sources (no memoirs of Zimbalist himself have been published). However, there is another viewpoint based on extensive reading of the sources. Zimbalist had the idea of remaking "Ben-Hur" in the mid-'50s. This remake (the same story had been made twice before as a silent film) was a gamble to rescue MGM from near bankruptcy. Zimbalist engaged screenwriter Karl Tunberg to write the script for the new "Ben-Hur" after Tunberg's success with MGM's historical epic Beau Brummell (1954). Tunberg suggested Sidney Franklin to direct, but Zimbalist insisted on Wyler. Wyler disliked Tunberg's script and brought in other writers during the shooting, including Vidal (who later claimed a large contribution, but this recollection was not supported by the memoirs of Heston or Wyler), Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman and Christopher Fry. When rough cuts were viewed by MGM executives in late 1958, all agreed that many of the scenes were unsatisfactory. At this point Tunberg, despite being primarily involved in Count Your Blessings (1959), was engaged to rewrite Wyler's changed material and compose some added scenes, all of which went into the final version. Many of these changes amounted to restoring what had been in place before Wyler's interventions in the script while on the set. This final script was actually the basis of the film released in theaters. However, Wyler still demanded that Fry get credit for the work he had done on the set. The Screen Writer's Guild conducted a formal arbitration, using no oral testimonies but only experienced writers as judges, each studying all the drafts of the script in the ignorance of the others. These judges ruled unanimously that the final script was essentially Tunberg's work. Their process and rationale for this decision was published in "The Hollywood Reporter" on Friday, November 20, 1959 (p. 5). A careful reading of the Guild's published statement will corroborate the events mentioned above. Wyler, infuriated by this rebuff, used his great influence in Hollywood (helped by Heston) to conduct a publicity campaign against Tunberg. The campaign had its effect--"Best Screenplay" was the only category in which "Ben-Hur" was nominated for an Academy Award, but did not receive it.
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 didn't want him to play a supporting role to Charlton Heston. Granger was 45 when the film began to shoot, ten years older than Heston, and too old for the part.
Originally William Wyler had planned only to film the first unit and leave the second unit duties to producer Sam Zimbalist. These plans had to be scrapped after Zimbalist's premature death. MGM persuaded Wyler to see the film through to completion by offering him a greater financial stake in the film.
Charlton Heston made a big blunder early on by composing a lengthy memo outlining his ideas about his character in the first scene with Messala. He later noted that it took him considerable time to get back in William Wyler's good graces after doing that and may have had something to do with the rough time the director gave him during production. He also wrote that Wyler once told him he wished he (Wyler) could be a nice guy on the set but that "you can't make a good picture that way."
Such was the expense of the film that nervous MGM executives flew out to Rome on a weekly basis to check on the production's progress.
In 1880 Lew Wallace, author of the novel on which this film is based, told his wife that they might receive as much as one hundred dollars in royalties per year for his novel, After years of refusing to sell theatrical rights, Wallace finally acquiesced.
Director William Wyler took on the project because he wanted to do a Cecil B. DeMille type of picture.
Although only about 36 horses would ever be seen on screen during the race, 82 animals (to cover for accidents and rest periods) were brought in from Yugoslavia.
Director William Wyler began his career at Universal Pictures directing one two-reel western per week, each budgeted at 2,000 dollars - the same amount it cost MGM for every hour spent on shooting this film.
According to Gore Vidal's interview in The Celluloid Closet (1995), Ben-Hur and Messala were former lovers and Messala betrayed Ben-Hur because their relationship ended. According to Vidal, he discussed this with Stephen Boyd (Messala) ahead of shooting, but this information was hidden from Charlton Heston because it was felt that he could not handle it. After Vidal's interview, Heston vehemently denied that Ben-Hur had any homosexual subtext or that Vidal had any real involvement with writing the script. Vidal responded by quoting extracts from Heston's 1978 autobiography "An Actor's Life", in which Heston admitted that Vidal had written much of the finished screenplay. Wherein Vidal added a gay subtext between Ben-Hur and Messala, all of the other "Ben-Hur" screenwriters - Karl Tunberg, Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, and Christopher Fry - added two conflicts between the two characters, which revolved around (1) one's devotion to his country and one's devotion to God; and (2) how one person can be redeemed after replacing his/her humanity with hatred and vengeance. Upon receiving the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1959, Heston had only one "Ben-Hur" screenwriter to thank in his acceptance speech: Christopher Fry.
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 William Wyler, who gave Hepburn her first starring role in Roman Holiday (1953), for which she won the Oscar. Hepburn, one of Wyler's favorite actresses and people, would make two more films for him, The Children's Hour (1961) and How to Steal a Million (1966)
Because the main set for the chariot race was still being built, an identical track was constructed next to it to train horses and drivers and lay out camera shots.
Miklós Rózsa wrote the musical score over a period of nearly a year. He was resident in Rome with the production while he composed, and recorded his music with the MGM studio orchestra in Culver City, California.
The film's budget ballooned to ten million dollars nearly fifty percent higher than the original budget. Joseph Vogel president of MGM's parent company Loew's Inc., came over from New York to say that there was growing concern among the board of directors and stockholders over the picture. He asked William Wyler if there was anything he could do to help; the director politely answered "No, thank you," and continued shooting. Vogel left for a five-week European business trip. When he returned to the set Wyler was reshooting the scene he had been working on when Vogel had left for his trip five weeks previously, now improved by some new dialogue from Christopher Fry. The nervous company boss wondered if they had been filming the same scene the entire time.
Sheikh Ilderim's four horses' names are Aldebaran, Altair, Antares and Rigel. Their mother's name is Mira. All are Arabic names for major stars in the sky. Both Hugh Griffith (Sheikh Ilderim) and Charlton Heston mispronounce "Rigel": each pronounces it as "REE-ghel," with a hard "g" as if it were from the Latin, whereas the correct Arabic pronunciation is "REEJL," employing a hard "j" sound. As an Arab, Sheikh Ilderim should have known better.
Robert Ryan was considered for the role of Messala, with Burt Lancaster as Ben-Hur. However, he was 49 when production began, making him too old for the part.
The chariot arena was built by more than 1,000 workers beginning in January 1958, according to some reports. It was 2,000 feet long by 65 feet wide and covered 18 acres, the largest single set in motion picture history to that time. Reputedly, 40,000 tons of white sand were imported from Mexico for the track.
One of the problems William Wyler and director of photography Robert Surtees encountered was composing shots for the wide-screen process. They had to figure out how to avoid empty screen space, wanting neither to film two actors in a vast screen void nor fill the frame with pointless, distracting elements.
Charlton Heston had about a month to learn how to drive a chariot properly. Stephen Boyd--who was cast much later in the production--only had two weeks to do so.
Stuntman Cliff Lyons worked as a stuntman/chariot driver in both this film and the original Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).
Famed stuntman Yakima Canutt was brought in to coordinate all the chariot race stunt work and train the drivers. Charlton Heston was among the first to begin training, arriving on location a few months ahead of scheduled shooting. He was also there to do costume fittings.
Vittorio Gassman, Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, Van Johnson and Edmund Purdom were considered for the lead role.
The film's credits appear with the Sistine Chapel ceiling's center panel, "The Creation of Adam", as background. Charlton Heston would later play Michelangelo, painter of the Sistine ceiling, in the film The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965).
By the end of photography, approximately 1.25 million feet of the expensive 65mm Eastmancolor film had been exposed, and processed at a cost of roughly one dollar per foot.
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.
According to Andrew Marton, who directed the chariot race, the track was constructed of steamrolled ground rock debris covered with 10 inches of ground lava and finished with eight inches of crushed yellow rock to make the surface hard enough to hold the weight of the chariots and horses while still having enough give not to make the horses lame (which Marton said was achieved by a top of sand). After one day of shooting, the upper layer of rock was removed because it had slowed the pace of the race considerably. The lava layer, which Marton and Yakima Canutt had initially opposed, proved to be the most workable element.
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.
According to William Wyler's wife, Margaret Tallichet, as soon as photography was done and he and his cast left Rome, he started to experience migraine headaches, which lasted until the film opened in November 1959.
Final film of Cathy O'Donnell. NOTE: She was married to Robert Wyler, director William Wyler's brother. She would thereafter work only in television.
Although the original 35mm release was in Technicolor (there is no such thing as a 70mm Technicolor print, as Technicolor was never equipped to make them; all the original release's 70mm prints were in MetroColor), all of the 1974 release's prints were in MetroColor. More significant was that the 1974 release was cut from the original running time of 212 minutes to 170, and the film shorn of its musical overture and entr'acte (it was presented without intermission). Most egregiously, the sequence of some scenes was re-ordered, an almost unheard-of bowdlerization of a successful film, especially one that had won an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards.
Stephen Boyd had difficulty driving the chariots. His hands and wrists blistered, and rest time had to be scheduled.
Andrew Marton had three 65mm cameras at his disposal for shooting the race. The larger-format film proved to be an issue. The standard close-up lens for 35mm photography was 100mm; it became, in the wide-screen process, a 200mm lens, which could not be focused closer than 50 feet. So Marton had to use a 140mm lens, requiring he and his crew to move closer to the dangerous action of the race.
The pace and scope of the production, combined with miserable summer heat, began taking a toll on everyone, although it was never so bad that, as MGM publicity claimed, a 20-bed hospital staffed with two doctors and two nurses was on hand. Veteran General Manager Henry Henigson was forced to take a vacation on Capri, but returned after four days, too involved with the production to stay away.
One thing William Wyler was completely unable to do was get his leading man to cry on-screen. During Judah Ben-Hur's crying scenes, Charlton Heston simply covered his eyes.
Nervous at the expense and trying to cover all its bases, MGM executives dissatisfied with the script hired Ben Hecht to "polish" it during shooting. They flew him to Rome, set him up in a house and paid him approximately 15,000 dollars for a week's work. It's not known if any of Hecht's dialogue made it into the final film.
Ben-Hur's house was constructed of wood frame covered with stucco painted to look like stone.
The 65mm cameras were extremely heavy. It took four men with steel bars to move them, so William Wyler ended up using a crane most of the time.
MGM offered Universal 750,000 dollars for the loan-out of its contract star Rock Hudson. 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.
Producer Sam Zimbalist died two months before production completed. William Wyler handled the remaining production duties.
Sculptors cast more than 200 pieces of statuary to supplement the thousands of props used from Cinecitta's warehouse.
"Hortator" is not a name but a title. It is a Latin noun meaning "inciter" or "one who arouses" and is the root of our English word "exhort" and all of its forms (like "exhortation" for a speech that arouses people to action). Thus the man beating the drum is addressed not by name but by title, as one might say "ensign."
At one point MGM planned this as a vehicle for three of its most popular contract stars--Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger.
When film students are given a tour of the Panavision facility, they are shown the chariot race from this film in full 70mm Ultra Panavision (2.76:1).
The second of two films shot in the MGM Camera 65 process (eight more would be shot after the process was re-named Ultra Panavision). It was intended to be the first, but production delays led to MGM using it first on Raintree County (1957). Like the Todd-AO format (introduced in 1953), MGM Camera 65 used 65mm negative stock that was then printed to 70mm film for roadshow release prints, or optically printed down to 35mm for general release. Unlike Todd-AO, though, Camera 65 operated at a standard speed of 24 fps from the beginning and utilized 1.25x anamorphic lenses to optically squeeze an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 into the 2.20:1 Todd-AO frame. These lenses were developed and manufactured by Panavision, a natural evolution on its work to improve the quality of anamorphic camera and projection lenses for the CinemaScope system. The extra 5mm of film between the 65mm negatives and 70mm prints was comprised of 2.5mm outside the perforations on either side of the film, allowing for up to four stripes of magnetic oxide carrying up to six discrete channels of sound--offering greatly superior sound quality in comparison to the mono optical tracks on 35mm prints at the time. When MGM sold its camera department to Panavision in 1961, the Camera 65 process was renamed Ultra Panavision 70 but remained technically identical. The complexity of anamorphic photography and post-production, however, meant the system was short-lived--especially due to the use of unique 1.25x anamorphic lenses rather than the 2x power used for CinemaScope--and the process was last used for Khartoum (1966). Most of the cameras were used on Super Panavision 70 productions--Panavision's exact copy of the non-anamorphic 24 fps Todd-AO process--before being replaced by the Panaflex 65 cameras used in Panavision System 65. Notably, due to the complexity and cost of projecting anamorphic 70mm prints, recent re-issue 70mm prints of "Ben-Hur" have been printed from optically unsqueezed negatives to allow their projection on normal 70mm equipment with only slight cropping of the sides of the picture.
More than 300 sets were built on location at the Cinecitta studios in Rome. They were constructed following 15,000 sketches and covered more than 340 acres.
According to Sir Christopher Frayling's biography of Sergio Leone, Leone apparently recalls William Wyler arriving on set early one morning with Charlton Heston, attired in cowboy garb and doing some re-shoots for The Big Country (1958) on the vast Cinecita back lot in Rome.
Both Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston would later go on to work with director Richard Fleischer in a science fiction film. Boyd in Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Heston in Soylent Green (1973).
In the Roman ship galley scenes, Judah 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.
According to text in the film's souvenir program, the film used over one million props.
When the Roman Legion makes a triumphant march through Rome, the band plays the exact same tune that the Legion marched to in Quo Vadis.
Charlton Heston noted favorably that William Wyler, who had no experience with such a large-scale movie, was "no more awed by a ten-million-dollar-plus production than he is by a three million dollar one."
The first film to sweep all the technical awards at the Oscars - Best Director, Editing, Cinematography, Sound Recording, Score, Art Direction, Costume Design and Special Effects.
It shares the top spot of most Oscar wins for a movie. The other movies are Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, all with 11 Oscars.
Charlton Heston mused years later that, if "Ben-Hur" director William Wyler and El Cid (1961) director Anthony Mann_ had exchanged directing assignments, the former film would not have been much less than it ended up being, whereas the latter might have been the greatest epic film ever made. Heston was half-right: Wyler might have made "El Cid" into an epic, even better than "Ben Hur", but Mann was not Wyler's equal and could not have brought to this film the same level of detail to the screenwriting process, visionary direction, and actors' performances that Wyler did.
Charlton Heston's Oscar winning performance in this film is his only Academy Award nomination, though he also won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.
Included among the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
The only Best Picture Oscar nominee that year to be also nominated for Best Art Direction (Color), and Best Costume Design (Color), and Best Special Effects.
Next to the female lead in "El Cid" (1961) Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver also lost the Esther part in "Ben-Hur" due to her contractual obligations to German/ Austrian production "Gustav Adolfs Page" (1960).