Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Ben-Hur (Bridgeport, CT: Famous Authors Ltd.), 1951
Stories by Famous Authors Illustrated, Vol. 1, Number 11
Adapted by Dana E. Dutch, Illustrated by Gustav Schrotter
Images 'from my collection' at personal.ksu.edu

"Did I set all this in motion?" In 1899, Major General Lew Wallace, the hard-riding and hard-writing Civil War commander was already appalled by the smashing success of his first historical novel, Ben-Hur, which in 19 years had sold 400,000 copies. And that, though the general did not live to see it, was only the beginning. By 1920, a stage version of the general's work had been running 21 years, had been seen by 20 million fans, had grossed $10 million. In 1926, M-G-M turned it into the first of the cinemammoths, a $4,000,000, two-hour spectacle starring Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. By 1936, the film had grossed almost $10 million, and the book had become the biggest bestseller (more than 2,000,000 copies) in U.S. history.

A poster for the 1926 version of Ben-Hur
From astor-theatre.com

In Nov 1959, after five years of preparation, 6½ months of shooting in Italy, nine months of editing in Hollywood, and a massive publicity campaign, M-G-M displayed a new version of Ben-Hur that is far and away the most expensive movie ever made—it cost $15 million to produce, $1,500,000 more than The Ten Commandments—and also one of the longest—3 hr. 37 min., not including a 15-minute intermission. Only Gone With the Wind (3 hr. 42 min.) and The Ten Commandments (3 hr. 39 min.) ran longer.

The classic, roadshow poster
The 1959 version of Ben-Hur
From astor-theatre.com

Poster artwork by Joseph Smith
Internet Movie Poster Awards
Face3media at impawards.com

The post-Oscar poster for the 1959 version
From astor-theatre.com

Ben-Hur, 1959, by MGM's statistics, is adorned with more than 400 speaking parts, about 10,000 extras, 100,000 costumes, at least 300 sets. One of them, the circus built for the chariot race in Rome's Cinecitta, was the largest ever made for any movie. It covered 18 acres, held 10,000 people and 40,000 tons of sand, took a year to complete, and cost $1,000,000.

Top-shot of the arena before the chariot race starts
From astor-theatre.com

The race itself, which runs only nine minutes on the screen, ran three months before the cameras and cost another million.

Classic top-shot of chariot race
From astor-theatre.com

Wide-shot of Ben-Hur in race
From astor-theatre.com

Three months before the shooting stopped, Production Manager Henry Henigson had a serious heart attack, and two weeks later Producer Sam Zimbalist had a fatal one. By the time the cameras had finally stopped rolling, MGM's London laboratories had processed, at a cost of $1 a foot, some 1,250,000 feet of special, 65-mm. Eastman Color film.
Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), falls out with his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, who demands that Ben-Hur inform against other Jewish patriots.

Publicity shot of Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur)
From astor-theatre.com

Ben-Hur and Messala (Stephen Boyd)
when they were still friends
From astor-theatre.com

When Ben-Hur refuses, Messala condemns him to certain death as a galley slave and shuts up his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell) in a pestilential dungeon. Ben-Hur is freed from the galley, taken to Rome and adopted by a Roman admiral (Jack Hawkins) whose life he has saved.

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

As soon as possible, he goes back to Palestine, hears that his mother and sister are dead, enters against Messala in the chariot races and rides him into the ground. But Messala has his vengeance. With his dying breath he tells Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are alive, but are lepers. Heartbroken and crazed with hate, the hero sets out to raise a rebellion against Rome, but he is caught up in the procession to Calvary. The picture ends with the hero's rebirth.

What matters most and comes off best in the picture is the great scenes of spectacle, particularly the chariot race, a superbly handled crescendo of violence that ranks as one of the finest action sequences ever shot. All by itself it would be worth the price of admission.

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Great credit goes to Producer Zimbalist, Scenarist Tunberg and Director Wyler, but the greatest belongs to Wyler. His wit, intelligence and formal instinct are almost everywhere in evidence, and he has set a standard of excellence by which coming generations of screen spectacles can expect to be measured. His virtues have been agreeably rewarded. Friends report that his percentage-of-profits deal with M-G-M will put him on easy street for the rest of his life. But it is probable that MGM, which was in a shaky financial spot when the project was launched, will not have any trouble keeping up the payments. Ben-Hur has run up the biggest advance sale ($500,000) in film history, and the studio expects it to run at least two years at high-priced, ten-a-week showings in selected theaters, and to make more money than The Ten Commandments, which has already grossed more than $50 million.
("Cinema: New Picture, Nov. 30, 1959", Time at © 2009 Time Inc.)
The climactic chariot race, staged in a huge amphitheater, is still thrilling as Ben Hur and Messala face each other at last. See it on the biggest screen you can find, with a good sound system. Pounding hooves, terrifying stunt work and great direction make it one of the greatest sequences ever put on film. (There is long-standing urban myth that a stunt man died during the filming, but everyone connected with the movie denies it.)

Front-shot of Ben-Hur driving chariot
From astor-theatre.com

The real stars of this film are the page-turning story with its improbable twists and the jaw-dropping sets, from the lavish Roman interiors to the stunning Circus Maximus.
Movie lovers of all stripes will want to see it for its sweep, artistry, history and plain old movie magic. They really don’t make them like this any more.
Made in a special wide-screen format, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time, and every penny shows on the screen. Ben Hur hoovered up eleven Oscars, a record that stood alone for forty years until Titanic came along and tied it. Trust it: Ben Hur is better.
(By Laurie Boeder at ©2009 About.com, a part of The New York Times Company)
The 1959 Academy Awards:
Picture: Ben-Hur
Actor: Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur)
Supporting Actor: Hugh Griffith (Ben-Hur)
Director: William Wyler (Ben-Hur)
Score: Ben-Hur (Dramatic or Comedy) / Porgy and Bess (Musical)
Cinematography: The Diary of Anne Frank (Black and White) / Ben-Hur (Color)
Costume Design: Some Like It Hot (Black and White) / Ben-Hur (Color)
Art / Set Decoration: The Diary of Anne Frank (Black and White) / Ben-Hur (Color)
Film Editing: Ben-Hur
Foreign Language Film: Black Orpheus (France)
Sound: Ben-Hur
Special Effects: Ben-Hur
(By Jennifer Rosenberg at ©2009 About.com, a part of The New York Times Company)
There is not a single Oscar award that it did not deserve. The cinematography, film editing, art direction, set decoration, sound, and special effects are superb. Its score, written by the great Miklós Rózsa, is among the finest achievements in symphonic soundtrack music ever recorded; in fact, the themes stand on their own as orchestral compositions in their eloquent expression of passion, struggle, and redemption. (For an introduction to the importance of orchestral scores from an Objectivist perspective, see Jeff Britting's essay, "Romantic Music: Dead or Alive?," in ART Ideas 5, no. 3 (1998): 7-8.) Charlton Heston's "Best Actor" performance (in the title role) is one of the most nuanced of his career. Hugh Griffith's supporting actor performance (as Sheik Ilderim, owner of the horses that Ben-Hur rides to victory in the chariot race) and William Wyler's remarkable direction were also worthy recipients. (The only Oscar the movie failed to grab was the one for "Best Screenplay," an omission that can probably be chalked up to Hollywood politics. The script involved everyone from Karl Tunberg to Christopher Fry; even Gore Vidal got into the act. Wyler was livid that Tunberg was the only nominee, and he publicly praised Fry's contributions in Variety. The controversy apparently led most Academy members to vote for "Room at the Top" instead of "Ben-Hur.")
Ultimately, however, it matters not how many awards or accolades a film garners. What matters is the film. Is it a work of art worthy of our attention?
(By Chris Matthew Sciabarra at Essays Home Page)
The movie was filmed in a process known as "MGM Camera 65", 65 mm negative stock from which was made a 70 mm anamorphic print with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, one of the widest prints ever made, having a width of almost three times its height. An anamorphic lens which produced a 1.25X compression was used along with a 65 mm negative (whose normal aspect ratio was 2.20:1) to produce this extremely wide aspect ratio. This allowed for spectacular panoramic shots in addition to six-channel audio. In practice, however, "Camera 65" prints were shown in an aspect ratio of 2.5:1 on most screens, so that theaters were not required to install new, wider screens or use less than the full height of screens already installed.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Ben Hur
The chariot race scene
illustrating the extremely wide aspect ratio used (2.76:1)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The original design for the boat Ben-Hur is enslaved upon was so heavy that it couldn't float. The scene therefore had to be filmed in a studio, but another problem remained: the cameras didn't fit inside, so the boat was cut in half and made able to be wider or shorter on demand. The next problem was that the oars were too long, so those were cut too; however, this made it look unrealistic, because the oars were too easy to row; so weights were added to the ends.
During filming, director Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He had the man's stump covered in false blood, with a false bone protruding from it, to add realism to the scene when the galley is rammed. Wyler made similar use of another extra who was missing a foot.
The galley sequence includes the successive commands from Arrius, “Battle speed, Hortator... Attack speed... Ramming speed!” The word hortator is no longer in use, and is notably absent from most modern dictionaries. It was a Latin word that on a ship meant “chief of the rowers”, or “he who has command over the rowers”, and likely has roots in the Latin verb hortor (“to exhort, encourage”). The command "Ramming speed, Hortator!", which is widely remembered and parodied, never occurs.
The galley sequence is purely fictional, as the Roman navy, in contrast to its early modern counterparts, did not employ convicts as galley slaves.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Director William Wyler, [Andrew Marton, Richard Thorpe]
Producer Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay Karl Tunberg, [Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal, Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman]
Camera Robert L. Surtees; Editor Ralph E. Winters, John D. Dunning
Music Miklos Rozsa
Art Director William Horning, Edward Carfagno
Judah Ben-Hur - Charlton Heston
Quintus Arrius - Jack Hawkins
Messala - Stephen Boyd
Esther - Haya Harareet

Ben-Hur and Esther (Haya Harareet)
From astor-theatre.com

Sheik Ilderim - Hugh Griffith
Miriam - Martha Scott
Simonides - Sam Jaffe
Tirzah - Cathy O'Donnell
Balthasar - Finlay Currie
Pontius Pilate - Frank Thring
Drusus - Terence Longden
Sextus - Andre Morell
Flavia - Marina Berti
Tiberius - George Relph
Malluch - Ali Berber
Amrah - Stella Vitelleschi
Mary - Jose Greci
Joseph - Laurence Payne
Spintho - John Horseley
Metellus - Richard Coleman
Marius - Duncan Lamont
Aid to Tiberius - Ralph Truman
Gaspar - Richard Hale
Melchoir - Reginald Lal Singh
Quaestor - David Davies
Jailer - Dervis Ward
The Christ - Claude Heater
Gratus - Mino Doro
Chief of Rowers - Robert Brown

Ben Hur movie picture
From The Roman Hideout.com
© 2000-2007 LMB

Rower No. 42 - John Glenn
Rower No. 43 - Maxwell Shaw
Rower No. 28 - Emile Carrer
Leper - Tutte Lemkow
Hortator - Howard Lang
Captain, Rescue Ship - Ferdy Mayne
Doctor - John Le Mesurier
Blind man - Stevenson Lang
Barca - Aldo Mosele
Starter at Race - Thomas O'Leary
Centurion - Noel Sheldon
Officer - Hector Ross
Soldier - Bill Kuehl
Man in Nazareth - Aldo Silvani
Villager - Diego Poztetto
Marcello - Dino Fazio
Raimondo - Michael Cosmo
Cavalry Officer - Also Pini
Decurian - Remington Olmstead
Galley Officer - Victor De La Fosse
Galley Officer - Enzo Fiermonte
Mario - Hugh Billingsley
Roman at Bath - Tiberio Mitri
Pilate's Servant - Pietro Tordi
The Corinthian - Jerry Brown
The Byzantine - Otello Capanna
Syrian - Luigi Marra
Lubian - Cliff Lyons
Athenian - Edward J. Auregui
Egyptian - Joe Yrigoyan
Armenian - Aifredo Danesi
Old Man - Raimondo Van Riel
Seaman - Mike Dugan
Sportsman - Joe Canutt
(By RONALD HOLLOWAY, at Variety 100, Copyright 2009, Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc )

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