The story of Ben-Hur and its Academy Award winning legend
In 1959, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur was released to great success. The film, starring Charlton Heston in the title role, would be nominated for a then-record 12 Academy Awards and won an unprecedented 11 Oscars (a record that would stand for 37 years until Titanic equaled it in 1997). Ben-Hur remains the only film in Academy Awards history to win both Best Picture and Best Director awards without being nominated in any of the acting categories. It is truly a legendary achievement. But how did this film come about?
The original Ben-Hur was a novel written by Lew Wallace and published in 1880. The book was an instant bestseller and has been adapted for stage, screen and radio several times over the years. The most famous adaptation before Tyler’s film was a 1925 silent film directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro. This version of Ben-Hur was immensely popular and successful, earning a then-record 7 Academy Award nominations (although it would eventually lose to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise in the Best Picture category).
When Wyler came on board to direct the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, he knew he had big shoes to fill. To meet (and exceed) audience expectations, he wanted to make the most lavish and spectacular film. And in this he succeeded; at the time of its release, Ben-Hur was the most expensive film ever made, with a price tag of $15 million (the equivalent of about $128 million today).
To put that number in perspective: George Lucas’ Star Wars cost $11 million to make in 1977 ($45 million adjusted for inflation). Even adjusted for inflation, Ben-Hur cost almost 3 times as much as Star Wars!
Wyler’s gamble paid off; Ben-Hur was a resounding critical and commercial success. It won 11 Academy Awards (a record that would stand for 37 years), including Best Picture and Best Director. Not bad for a g-rated film!
The Movie: Ben Hur – A Timeless Epic
While trying to save his friend Messala from being crushed by a falling piece of rubble during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 66 A.D., Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is wounded and his mother and sister are sent into slavery. When he learns that his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) has betrayed him, he seeks revenge, but he is arrested and sentenced to serve as a galley slave. After surviving a sea battle, he is sent to a leper colony to work. There he meets Esther (Haya Harareet), a beautiful Jewish princess who is also exiled there. When he finally returns home after years, Judah discovers that his wife has died in childbirth and that his child Simonides (Toby Stephens) has been adopted by Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), the man who was the captain of the ship that rescued Judah from slavery. Quintus takes an interest in the young man and helps him learn how to become a successful charioteer so he can compete in Roman races. But when Messala becomes commander of the Roman garrison in Judea and learns that Judah is still alive, he sets out to destroy him forever….
A timeless epic full of action, adventure, love and betrayal, Ben Hur is a must-see film for anyone who appreciates a good story. With breathtaking cinematography and some of the most memorable scenes in film history, it’s no wonder this film won 11 Academy Awards – one of only three non-English language films to ever do so. If you haven’t seen Ben Hur yet, be sure to add it to your viewing list!
In 1959, William Wyler’s adaptation of Lew Wallace’s classic novel Ben-Hur debuted to critical acclaim. The film would go on to win an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. To this day, it remains the only g-rated film to ever win the top prize at the Oscars. Thanks to its impressive sets and costumes, beautiful music and iconic chariot race, Ben-Hur is widely considered one of the best films ever made. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and go see it!