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Ben Hur: The Making of an Epic

Posted September 27, 2011 05:17 PM by Robert Siegel

"Well", I said to myself, "this has to be something special," after all, Ben-Hur is just that and more, a monumental motion picture in the history of cinema. So for the last three months, I have been digging through my collection and for this column sought the help of several other collectors and have come up with, what I hope, will be something you truly enjoy. I had hoped to have this up a week or two ago, but I certainly couldn't pass by Citizen Kane or Star Wars either, and some of the materials for this column only arrived days ago. I know the fan base for Ben-Hur is tremendous, and so with that in mind, I set out to present a history of the property with some graphics to feast your eyes on, some of which I don't think have been on any special edition set or anywhere on the internet. So sit back in your chariot and learn what it took to make a picture of this magnitude in 1958-1959 and then marvel at the Blu-ray that has been so lovingly restored by Warner Home Video. Remember, you can left-click on most images to enlarge them. Enjoy!

Ben-Hur, which has been making theatrical and literary history for 130 years all around the world, again took the news when top film executives signed contracts for the first showing of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Academy Award-winning production of the Gen. Lew Wallace classic. The deal involving this booking set another record for Ben-Hur and brought the long-anticipated picture to theaters. These bookings were signed even before production began. At the time, called the most acclaimed motion picture ever made, the William Wyler presentation of Ben-Hur won 11 Academy A wards, including the "Oscar" for Best Picture of the Year. This was the greatest number of awards ever received by a picture in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Ben-Hur also won the British "Oscar," was named Best Film of the Year by the New York Film Critics, Best Produced Film of the Year by the Screen Producers Guild, and was given a long list of additional awards and citations.

Ben-Hur began making literary history back in 1880, when the book was published and became a world-wide best-seller. For years, the author had refused to permit any stage version of his novel. Finally, the theatrical firm of Klaw & Eerlanger induced Wallace to permit use of his book for a play. Wallace was paid 4-2/3 per cent royalty (huge in those days) and the contract was referred to as a million dollar deal. The word "millions" became attached to anything concerning Ben-Hur. Late in 1899, Ben-Hur opened in New York City. It was a sensation. With the release of the film, Ben-Hur drove his chariot to renewed acclaim, It had become known as the most valuable theatrical property in show business history. Never had any single entertainment enterprise excited as much interest as this film which was remade again... and again!

Rare photo from the early 1900's stage play
1907 Version

The first film version of Ben-Hur was produced in 1907, in the era of silent films. The film was made without the author's permission and was only fifteen minutes long. A lawsuit was brought by the author's estate of copyright infringement. The film company lost to a ruling by the United States Supreme Court in 1911. This was of major importance to the film industry as it set the precedent that all movie studios must obtain rights to previously published work before writing a screenplay. The fifteen minute film focused mainly on the chariot race. Up to that time nothing as daring had ever been put on film. The short version was directed by Sidney Olcott (a Canadian film-maker) and Frank Oakes Rose among others. The picture was filmed on Manhattan Beach, California and at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York, where local firemen acted as the riders. It was filmed in 35mm format with a 1:33:1 aspect ratio and the entire film fit onto one reel. It was released on December 7, 1907. Interestingly enough, the budget for the film was $500, which would be $11,547 today. The film is in public domain and can even be seen on YouTube. Home video versions were initially made from 8mm reduction prints.

1925 Version

For many years, a stage play of Ben-Hur, produced by Abraham Erlanger, had a successful run. Louis B. Mayer decided in 1923 to direct a second, more complete version of the movie directed by Charles Brabin (who would later be replaced by Fred Niblo due to disappointing product). He purchased the rights from Erlanger for what was then the most expensive purchase of rights to a property. This second production would not only cover much more of the original Lew Wallace book, but cost the studio just under $4 million to produce, a staggering amount for a film in 1925 (today, with inflation taken into account, the film would cost $50 million, but probably much more with digital effects artistry). This was not the intended budget, but the film due to its shooting problems went way over its initial allotment. Louis B. Mayer supervised the entire project which starred Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy and Betty Bronson (Rudolph Valentine was considered for a short time for the role of Ben-Hur).

Considered the most expensive silent movie ever made, Louis B. Mayer put all of his studio to work on the early production. Shooting would begin in late 1922 in Rome and various locations around California including the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth and Santa Cantina Island in the Channel Islands, ending at the Culver Studios where the chariot race was filmed with a cast of over 124,000. Shots of topless women were used in the film (which was edited by some theaters and in later versions until Warner Home Video restored the film to its original version). Since the film was considered a religious movie, this nudity was passed by the censors during the initial release.

As production commenced, due to the insistence of Mayer, 48 cameras (some rented from outside of MGM) were used for the sea battle which was a record for the period in film and 50,000 feet of film were used for the one scene. For this scene, 42 cameras were used. There were many problems with the Italian set, which was eventually demolished and re-built in Culver City, California in what is now the intersection of La Cienega and Venice Boulevards. The chariot scene would cause the MGM crew more than its share of headaches and sadness. In Rome, one of the drivers was killed during filming when one of the wheels loosened from the chariot. Mayer had been disappointed with the chariot race and offered incentives to the drivers, causing more than the one accident, several of which can be seen in the film in its video version. Production stopped and Mayer himself went to Rome and announced that the production would head back to the United States.

This time, "A Tale of the Christ" would be added to the title. Also, the film would add (from the 1907 version) 2-strip Technicolor for some sequences, while others were black and white. The film was one of the longest big-studio productions, running 2 hours and 23 minutes. Ben-Hur was released on December 30, 1925 and grossed $4,359,000 in the United States and in re-release (1931) the film earned another $5 million, plus another $12 million worldwide in its original and re-release. It was still not a big boxoffice success for Mayer because of the large royalty paid to Erlanger for the rights. In 1997, the film was inducted into the National Film Registry, with a preserved print. Warner Home Video (under the guidance of Ted Turner) restored the film and issued it on home video with the four-disc collector's edition DVD of the 1959 version. The color tints were restored as well as the Technicolor frames, and a newly-recorded stereo score was added with the London Philharmonic.

Ben-Hur 1959

Filmed in Italy and among other locales in which the story is set, Ben-Hur was one of the most ambitious motion picture ever undertaken by any company aside from possibly Gone with the Wind and The Ten Commandments. More than five years of active preparation preceded the turning of the first camera at Rome's Cinecitta Studios. By the time actual filming was completed ten months later, more people had enacted scenes in front of more elaborate sets than had ever been used in any picture. And more people had worked behind the scenes to accomplish this than had ever been engaged in any similar undertaking. General Lew Wallace, the Civil War hero who wrote the novel, is said to have remarked, when he viewed the sets for the first stage presentation of Ben-Hur in 1900: "My God! Did I set all this in motion?" One can only wonder what his comment might have been had it been possible for him to visit Rome and see the activity surrounding the film which Sam Zimbalist had produced and William Wyler had directed for MGM.

Sam Zimbalist, Producer

By any standards: experience, temperament or talent, the late Sam Zimbalist was considered one of the foremost movie-makers in the world. Known for the courage and vision with which he attempted new fields of entertainment, he was responsible for such memorable screen achievements such as Quo-Vadis, King Salomon's Mines and Mogambo. His untimely death occurred in Rome during the last stages of the production to which he had devoted so many years.

William Wyler, Director

MGM considered it a noteworthy achievement in obtaining the services of William Wyler as Director. Universally recognized as one of the finest directors the screen had ever known, with many critics placing him at the top of the list, Wyler saw in Ben-Hur the challenge of his career. It was the dramatic story and its colorful characters that excited him and led him to predict the picture could well be his masterpiece.

Earlier (1946) publicity still of William Wyler

The day was hot. The Italian sun beat down on the two men with the intensity of a blast from a furnace. Standing in the courtyard of a lavish Roman villa, they spoke to each other, at first softly, then in voices rising to a shrill crescendo. When they had finished, a short, stocky man who had been listening with fierce concentration spoke: "Let's do it once more, please." Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd, the two men, forgot the heat and discomfort of the heavy costumes they were wearing. For the twentieth time they proceeded to speak their lines for Scene 65-A in Ben-Hur. It never occurred to them to complain. William Wyler had asked for "one more." As anyone who has ever worked on one of his films knew, what William Wyler demands, any actor was willing to give and with no questions asked. It was enough for Heston and Boyd, portraying two of the leads in the picture, to know Wyler felt the scene could be improved.

William Wyler was said to enjoy every minute he worked on Ben-Hur

From experience they knew he would settle for nothing less than perfection, no matter if it meant doing the scene one-hundred times. This is one of the reasons Wyler was universally recognized as tops among movie directors. Known as one of the most painstaking men in the business, he literally had actors fighting to work for him. Charlton Heston, like many others, said he would gladly appear in any Wyler film without seeing the script. Wyler's previous project, The Big Country, was a large-scale production, far removed from the more intimate type story with which he was generally associated. But it was dwarfed by comparison with the mammoth sets and thousands of actors used in the filming of General Lew Wallace's classic novel. "I approached the job with trepidation," he said. "But the more I studied the project, the more I realized that 'Ben-Hur' is a magnificent story about real people. After all, the spectacle only consumes a half hour or so of the action. The story and the characters are what count."

From the time he took over the job, Wyler literally lived and breathed Ben-Hur It was his contention this is the way any man should approach his job. Probably no other director had been so honored nor so roundly praised by critics and public alike as William Wyler. At the time, he was a previous two-time winner of the Academy Award for best screen direction and had been nominated for the award 14 times, 11 as a director and 3 as a producer. Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives were the previous films for which he won Oscars. Others which earned him direction nominations were Dodsworth (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), The Heiress (1949), Detective Story (1951), Roman Holiday (1952), Friendly Persuasion (1956) and Ben-Hur." Of the six pictures which he produced as well as directed in 1959, three were nominated for "Best Picture of the Year" award. Filming of Ben-Hur began on May 18, 1958.

MGM Camera 65

Although MGM had sided with 20th Century Fox on using the Cinemascope process, It was decided that Ben-Hur would be photographed in the "new" MGM Camera 65 (65mm) with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1. Panavision developed ten new lenses for the production manufactured by Steinheil, a company from Germany. The lenses were made under the supervision of the company president Robert E. Gottchalk. The new lenses allowed for the camera-men to shoot very wide shots in what was then crystal-clear clarity. This sharpness translated to the prints which were said to be "of extreme beauty and crispness." The first film at MGM with Camera 65 was Raintree County (2.35:1). Camera 65 was MGM's answer to Cinerama in a single strip format. It could be used on regular Cinemascope screens.

Using single stock film, the process horizontally compressed the image, by a factor of 1.33x, via an anamorphic lens that yielded an approximate aspect ratio of 2.95:1; it was little used, because of the large, heavy cameras and the film stock's very wide aspect ratio proved incompatible with the projectors of most cinemas. Anamorphic 35mm prints, derived from the Camera 65 negatives, were cropped to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and were indistinguishable from Cinemascope film images, thus, the laserdisc and DVD releases of Ben-Hur were the widest-letterbox-image home videos of the time.

The process was soon named Ultra Panavision 70 (the first of which was Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962) which had a 1.25x anamorphic horizontal compression. All of these film prints were capable on supporting a 6-track stereo soundtrack. A complete new MGM logo to begin films shot in the process was produced.


When General Lew Wallace wrote Ben-Hur eight decades ago, he peopled his story with Romans, Ju-deans, Arabs, Byzantines, Corinthians and characters of similar origin. To portray the people of these many nationalities in the motion picture based on Wallace's famed book, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer rounded up a host of persons with backgrounds as colorful and varied as those described in the story. In fact, when the company opened a casting office in Rome to select the thousands of persons who would appear in Ben-Hur, it marked the beginning of a global operation. Literally from the far corners of the world came the men and women, boys and girls who appeared in front of the six cameras used to film the spectacular story. Of the thousands finally selected, a total of 452 had speaking roles. Forty-five players were considered sufficiently important to be listed as principals. The list of those who filled the leading roles reads like a roll call at the United Nations.

More than 25,000 persons appeared in front of the cameras. From Hollywood came Charlton Heston, fresh from his triumph in The Ten Commandments, to portray the title role (for which many actors had fought hard for the part, exisiting today is a screen test with Leslie Nielsen). Jack Hawkins, following his appearance in The Bridge on the River Kwai, was brought from England to appear as Quintus Arrius, Roman naval commander. For the colorful role of Messala, who engages in a life-and-death contest with Ben-Hur in the chariot race, a relative newcomer, Stephen Boyd of Belfast, Ireland, was selected. From Israel came Haya Harareet to portray the part of Esther, the sweetheart of Ben-Hur. It was Wyler who brought this exciting new actress to MGM's attention. He had met her in Europe and had seen her only two previous films, one Israeli and the other Italian. Hugh Griffith, the Welsh actor who had appeared on the British stage for many years, had to leave his starring role on Broadway in "Look Homeward Angel" in order to fly to Italy and take the part of Sheik Ilderim, the desert chieftain who befriends Ben-Hur and persuades him to enter the race.

Rock Hudson was strongly considered for the lead

Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell, both well known in Hollywood, were among the others who came from America to join the cast. They play Ben-Hur's mother and sister, respectively. Sam Jaffe, one of the theater's most distinguished character actors, came from New York to portray Simonides. From Australia came Frank Thring, one of his country's best known performers, to take the role of Pontius Pilate. Finlay Currie traveled from England to portray Balthasar. Adi Berber was brought from Vienna to take the part of Mal-luch, loyal friend and bodyguard of Esther and Simonides. Terence Longden, Andre Morell, Stevenson Lang and more than 20 other prominent British actors were brought to Rome from London for important roles. Marina Berti, remembered as the slave girl, Eunice in "Quo Vadis"; and Stella Vitelleschi and Jose Greci were among the Italian performers joining the huge cast. The latter made her film debut in the role of the Madonna.

Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell studio photographs for Ben-Hur

Do you know of any feminine film star who received basic training in the Armed Forces? Haya Harareet has. Like other Israeli girls, Haya served in uniform for two years after she graduated from high school in Tel Aviv. She carried a rifle in the Marines and went through basic training like any other soldier. It was after she left the service that she began her acting career.

Count Mario Rivoltella, a direct descendant of the man who invented the revolver, is seen in Ben-Hur The titled young Italian portrays the Roman guard who arrests Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) on orders of the Governor and sends him to the galleys. Count Rivoltella's great-great-great-great grandfather invented the first revolver three centuries before in Northern Italy. However, in Ben-Hur the present Count was not able to use that particular weapon. With the story set more than 2,000 years ago, he uses spear and dagger instead.

For an elaborate party sequence, the casting office persuaded three Princes, two Princesses, two Counts, a Duchess, a Baroness, a Marquise and even an English Lord to appear before the cameras. Director William Wyler informed the casting office that he wanted authentic patrician types as guests at the party given in the film for Ben-Hur. Casting officials got busy and scoured the city for real titles. Just a few of the noble names that were recruited included Prince Emanuele Ruspoli and his brother, Prince Raimondo, representing one of the oldest families in Europe; Prince and Princess Ho-henlohe of Austria, Princess Irina Wassilchikoff of Russia, Count Marigliano del Monte of Italy, Count Santiago Oneto of Spain, Duchess Nona Medici of Italy, Baroness Liliana del Balzo of Hungary, Marquise Lina Lodigiani of France. Lord Philip Brompton, who was the representative of English nobility.

Charlton Heston

When actor Charlton Heston stepped from his train at Rome's Stazione Termini in the Spring of 1958, he was greeted by shouts of "E Mosee!" In English, this means "It is Moses!" When he left nine months later, his tall, rangy frame attracted even more attention. As he strode through the big station, Italian porters, ticket sellers and spectators waved a friendly greeting. This time they called out, "Ecco Ben-Hur!" ("There goes Ben-Hur!") Those who greeted him upon arrival were identifying Heston with his role in The Ten Commandments. Those who witnessed his departure had learned, during the months he spent in Rome making Ben-Hur, to think of him as the young man he portrays in that film. It was a tribute to Heston's versatile talents as an actor that people around the world identified him as the man he was portraying at the moment.

By the time Ben-Hur played around the world, Charlton Heston would have been seen and heard by more people than any actor who ever lived. Comparatively unknown ten years previous, he also has starred in "The Greatest Show on Earth." This and The Ten Commandments were both tremendously successful pictures. Paradoxically, although the general public is familiar with his face, it is doubtful if there was a popular Hollywood personality about whom it knows so little. While he was an outgoing, friendly person, Heston had never attempted to attract attention. He had been married seventeen years to his college sweetheart. With their-then six-year-old son, Fraser, they moved from the same apartment they'd occupied for many years into their first home.

Various shots of Charlton Heston on the set

Exactly what sort of man is Charlton Heston when he leaves the colorful trappings of a Moses or Ben-Hur behind him at the studio? Here were the facets of his personality: Heston could not remember a time when he did not want to act. At the age of seven, he read Ernest Tompson Seton's "Lives of the Hunted," a story about animals, and acted out all the parts himself. He was outspoken, extremely articulate and cooked an excellent dish of spaghetti. He was an avid reader. During World War II, he served overseas as a radio operator on a B-29. He was six-feet-two-inches tall, weighed 190 pounds at the time the movie was filmed. He was born in Evanston. Although he preferred symphonic music, he was a rabid Bing Crosby fan. He abhors crowds and detested wise-crackers. He fell asleep in ten seconds. He was bored by baseball, singing waiters and quiz shows. He was an excellent tennis player, a good horseman and fencer, and was adept at cowboy rope tricks. He could be a successful artist if he were not an actor. During filming of Ben-Hur, he made more than 500 pen sketches of his fellow performers. He also kept a daily diary of every day he worked on the film.

Charlton Heston publicity still

Haya Harareet

The scene is Cannes on the French Riviera. It is 1957 and the closing day of the annual Film Festival. In the Grand Ballroom of the Casino, three American movie directors are standing in a receiving line, greeting some 2,000 or so guests at a reception. For one of them the evening has been especially noteworthy. His production of Friendly Persuasion has just been awarded the Grand Prix. Just how auspicious an occasion the evening would prove to be for him he had not the slightest idea. For fate had chosen this moment to bring together the director and a young lady whom less than a year later he would be guiding in the leading feminine role of the one of the most spectacular motion pictures ever made. This was the setting of the first meeting between William Wyler and Haya Harareet, the young Israeli girl who achieved overnight screen stardom in Ben-Hur. Miss Harareet had gone to Cannes as the guest of the Italian film industry. She had been invited in connection with the showing of "La Donna del Giorno," one of the only two films in which she had ever appeared. Along with other guests, the actress passed down the reception line and shook hands with Wavier, who asked where she was from. She told him she had lived all her life in Israel. The director mentioned he had always wanted to visit that country. It was then Haya Harareet revealed the spark which was to make William Wyler remember her. "Oh, you Americans," she told Wyler, "You all say you want to visit Israel. But nobody ever does, and I don't think you really mean it."

The conversation lasted no more than thirty seconds. Miss Harareet walked on and Wyler turned to other guests. But it was the girl's spirit and spunk, as well as her beauty, which made him remember her when he and Producer Sam Zimbalist later sought a girl to portray Esther in Ben-Hur. He might have recalled her spirit, but he couldn't remember her name. From Hollywood to Rome went a cable: "Find out name of Israeli actress at Cannes last year. Bring her to Rome and test her for Esther." The MGM office in Tel Aviv discovered the name was Haya Harareet. Its owner was located in Paris, where she was discussing a possible film to be made in France. Within ten hours she was on her way to Rome and the test that was to change the course of her life. The test, covering a scene in which Ben-Hur and Esther profess their love, was flown to Hollywood. MGM executives viewed it and knew the search was ended. Miss Harareet was signed for the picture and placed under long-term contract. In Haya Harareet, Wavier and MGM uncovered one of the most exciting and unique film personalities in many years. Slim, dark-haired and with expressive black eyes, this girl, who once carried a rifle in the Israeli Marines, was born against a background of terror in Haifa, now part of Israel but then under British mandate and Arab terrorism. Her father, Reuben Neuberg, and her mother, Yocheved, had both emigrated to Palestine from Poland while in their teens. Haya was the first of three children. The family still lives in Israel.

Stephen Boyd

According to legend, the actor who performs Hamlet on the stage or the tenor who sings Pagliacci in opera often is a happy-go-lucky, carefree fellow around the house. On the other hand, the show business comedian most likely will be serious minded and unsmiling when his day's work is ended. By the same token, the villain who chases a virtuous heroine through thirteen reels of a movie might well be the personable boy-next-door type away from the job. Stephen Boyd, the Irish actor who portrays Messala is a case in point. In the film, Messala is just about as ornery a cuss as a writer could dream up. He doesn't bat an eye when he sentences his best friend to the galleys. Nor does he flinch as he condemns the friend's mother and sister, both of whom helped nurse him through childhood, to prison for life. He is unmoved when, years later, he learns they're in a leper colony. And in the climactic chariot race of Ben-Hur, Alessala uses the foulest and most unsportsmanlike means at his command in an effort to emerge the victor. In short, he is not exactly the type a girl would want to take home to meet mother.

Stephan Boyd publicity still

Yet Stephen Boyd, who enjoyed to the hilt playing this villain, was so popular with members of the film's Italian-British-American crew in Rome that, when his assignment was completed, they presented him with a gold clock emblematic of their affection. Boyd was the kind of a man who was born to make friends and he had been doing it most of his life. Away from his job, that is. As an actor he had made villainy his specialty. It was his portrayal of a conniving-spy in "The Man Who Never Was" that brought him to the attention of Hollywood and of Brigitte Bardot almost simultaneously. The French actress wanted him for her leading man in "Heaven Fell That Night" and a Hollywood studio wanted to place him under long-term contract. Boyd first acted the part of a heel opposite Miss Bardot in her film, then went to Hollywood, where he now makes his home. He was signed by MGM for Ben-Hur after Director William Wyler had seen him acting-mean in The Bravados.

Stephan Boyd publicity still

"After all," he said on the set, "in most plays and movies it's the villain who is the most interesting. Even in Shakespeare, except for Hamlet, the really meaty roles are those of the bad fellows." Boyd was a blue-eyed, curly-haired chunk of masculinity who made no attempt to hide the fact he just plain liked people. On the set of Ben-Hur he rarely occupied the fancy portable dressing room set aside for his use. Instead, he spent his time between scenes sitting around and chatting with electricians, carpenters and his fellow actors. He would discuss most any subject and enjoyed a good argument. He could, like most Irishmen, sprinkle his talk with wit as well as sagacity.

Boyd began early in life to talk his way in and out of situations. In fact, he talked his way into a job at the age of eight. Born in Belfast, the youngest of nine children, he began contributing to the family's support when he appeared on a BBC radio broadcast just before his ninth birthday. Soon he was a fixture on dramatic shows being broadcast from Ireland. Following a season or two with an acting repertory company in Dublin and Belfast, he went to England at the age of twenty and joined a dramatic group touring the provinces. He went through a lean period in London, once being reduced to picking up a guitar and singing for the amusement of cinema queues in Leicester Square in order to get money for dinner. He was working as a movie theater doorman when a chance meeting with actor Michael Redgrave won him a part in an important play. Yes, he played the villain. But the cast of the play, realizing he had gone through a bad period, showed their affection by buying him a heavy woolen sweater to keep him warm. Stephen Boyd had begun early to prove the old theory that stage and movie villains were nice guys at heart.


The screenplay for Ben-Hur becomes a lasting monument to the talents of Karl Tunberg, one of Hollywood's most experienced and successful writers. Other great creative minds contributed to the adaptation of General Wallace's novel. Playwrights Maxwell Anderson, S. N. Behrman and Gore Vidal all made important contributions. To top off this array of writing talent came Christopher Fry, recognized as one of the great poet-playwrights of contemporary literature. Mr. Fry was on the set at Director Wyler's side throughout the production in Rome. It marked the first time he had worked on a motion picture. The screenplay would take a total of 8 months and contain almost as many pages as The Ten Commandments. There were days when the screenwriters would lock themselves in their offices and ask not to be disturbed, and didn't come out for hours at a time. Five different drafts were presented to Wyler before the final script was approved.

(l-r) Cast and crew take some down time, Charlton Heston's family visits the set

Music Score

Miklos Rozsa was born April 18, 1907 in Budapest . He was introduced to music at a very young age, especially enjoying classical music and folk music that his mother, who was a classical pianist, would play at home. At age 5 he studied violin, then studied the piano. He did, however, have an interest in chemistry, and enrolled at the Leipzeg Conservatory, but realizing that his love was for music, switched to a music major. He graduated in 1929. Arthur Honegger , a friend who helped stage compositions of his and Rozsa's, told Rozsa that he made a little extra money on the side composing film scores. When he moved to London, he composed his first score for Knight without Armour. In 1939, he embarked on a trip to Hollywood where he composed his first American score for Thief of Bagdad. He earned his first Academy Award nomination for the film.

Miklos Rozsa

Rozsa, having moved to Hollywood by this time, would work on many scores and quickly became known in Hollywood film circles. In 1944, he scored Double Indemnity with director Billy Wilder. His first Oscar win would be for a film in which he worked with Alfred Hitchcock titled Spellbound. Two of his other scores were nominated in that same year. In 1948, MGM hired Rozsa to do his first score for the studio for the picture Madame Bovary. He enjoyed his work at MGM, liked the people and the studio system that Mr. Mayer had built over the years. His first work for MGM on a biblical film was Quo Vadis in 1951. He then did Ivanhoe the next year for the studio. Mr. Mayer was very impressed by his work as was William Wyler.

Rozsa holding an Academy Award (with Ginger Rodgers)

A meeting was set between Mayer, Wyler and Rozsa. Mayer and Wyler spent hours preparing, setting up costume sketches, script pages, finished props, and their ideas on what a spectacle Ben-Hur would be. The meeting took just under one hour. Leaving with the script in his hand, Rozsa told Mayer he would come back in a week with several "themes." In exactly one week, Rozsa called a meeting with Mayer and Wyler in the music department of MGM and played them the opening march and one of the main themes. It was a standing ovation for those in the music department, some said to be peering through slightly-opened doors to hear it. The rest is history. The score for Ben Hur would win an Academy Award and as most will agree, Ben-Hur would not be the same without its imperial, adventurous and romantic score. It has withstood the test of time has has been recorded on over two hundred albums.

Rozsa conducting for his last project in 1982, "Thief of Bagdad."


Contrary to what one might suppose from reading the daily newspapers, it was religion, not sex, violence or romance, that provided the greatest guarantee for the boxoffice success of a motion picture in the late 1950's. That was the somewhat surprising conclusion of an MGM-commissioned survey into the nation's movie-going habits. Conducted by the famous Sindlinger Research organization, the survey revealed that when a film stressing sex is matched against one placing the emphasis on religious and spiritual values, it is the latter that most likely would draw the greater audience. The research group was engaged by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film company to conduct an extensive survey in connection with its production of Ben-Hur. The company was anxious to determine which of the many elements in the film would appeal most greatly to the public and the survey covered hundreds of persons in every walk of life and in every section of the country. Although Gen. Lew Wallace's famous novel, first published in 1880, does not contain any plot lines that might be construed as sex or sensationalism, there is an underlying theme of a man's desire for vengeance and a strong romantic story, as well as the basic religious theme which led the author to subtitle his book, "A Tale of the Christ."

The 65mm camera in action and Heston visiting on the set

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wanted to know which of these elements might make the greatest impact on the public. Three short one-page synopses of the plot were prepared. One stressed the religious sequences; one placed a greater importance on the action scenes and the revenge angle of the plot; the third played up the love story. Without revealing that the outlines were concerned with Ben-Hur, but rather that they were all part of the story of "a new motion picture," members of the survey team showed the synopses to those being interviewed. "Which story," they were asked, "has the greatest appeal? Which would make the most interesting motion picture?" An overwhelming majority,42.2% of those interviewed, voted in favor of the outline which placed the greater importance on the religious angles. Some 22.5% of the respondents said they considered the love story the most attractive angle. A total of 22.1% declared in favor of the revenge plot.

On-set shots

The religious story proved the most attractive in each age group interviewed and emerged on top in both the male and female divisions, except in the case of males of the 12-17 age bracket. This group declared in favor of the action scenes and revenge theme. But in the previews, review cards, which were given to preview audience members, took a better liking to the action after seeing the finished product.


More than 300 sets were constructed, the most dramatic being the arena for the chariot race sequence. Covering more than 18 acres and with 1,500-foot straightaways alongside the Spina in the center, this was the largest single movie set ever built up to that time. Four statues atop the Spina stood 30 feet high each. Almost three months were devoted to filming of the race, one of the most exciting and highly dramatic sequences ever recorded on celluloid and is considered one of the major achievements in film. Ten square blocks, representing the ancient city of Jerusalem, rose miraculously on the studio's back lot. These were dominated by a huge replica of the architecturally impressive Joppa Gate, which leads into the walled city. In Rome, the largest Set Ever Built took more than a year. The arena, seating many thousands of spectators, was built on the back lot at the Cinecitta Studios by more than 1,000 Italian laborers.

A man-made lake was dug out of the earth and two full-sized Roman galleys placed upon it for close shots of the tremendous sea battle sequence. On the largest sound stage in Europe, a courtyard containing 40 fountains was built around a floor covered with a mosaic created out of millions of tiny pieces of colored glass. Thousands upon thousands of costumes (it was impossible to make an accurate count), including 1,000 pieces of armor, were assembled from all over the world. A bolt of rare silk, for instance, for one of Ben-Hur's costumes, was procured from Siam. More than a million props to decorate the sets were assembled by a staff that worked in Rome some two years before the picture began filming.

The day on which they filmed the big Victory parade for Ben-Hur will be remembered by the florists of Rome, Italy as the day in which they did their biggest business in years. Customers, however, will recall it as the day when it was scarcely possible to buy a flower in all the city. Under orders of Director William Wyler, Set Decorator Hugh Hunt and Prop-Man Don Vanni rounded up 60,000 blossoms to decorate the streets for the scene in which Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins march in a spectacular parade. The two actors were preceded by girls strewing flowers before them.

Preparing for the Big Race

In a Hollywood movie, if there's a stunt or a trick to be performed by a horse, inevitably the call goes out for a genial, stocky man of middle-age whose love of the equine breed is so great his mother once jokingly told him he must be part horse himself. Glenn Randall's name won't be found in any Who's Who in American Education, although he was one of the nation's foremost teachers. His students probably were the most famous in their field, and include such names as Trigger and Silver. Over the years he had trained literally hundreds of animals to do his bidding. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to film Ben-Hur in Rome, Randall was dispatched to Italy to train the 78 horses purchased for the picture's chariot race. Two sets of teams for each chariot had to be trained. It was Glenn Randall's task to teach the horses, none of which had ever hauled anything more complex than a farm wagon, to perform the stunts. In addition, four Arabian steeds had to be taught to kiss and nudge their master affectionately. Others had to learn to walk through a tent at a signal to stop at a call, to fall and rise on command. And all on the cue of Director William Wyler while the cameras were turning. But getting animals, and especially horses, to comply with his wishes was an old story for Randall. He had devoted 30 years to educating movie, circus, rodeo and show horses. He trained horses for the U.S. Army when the cavalry was an important part of it. He taught Trigger, Roy Rogers' famous movie horse, to spend an evening in the Grand Ballroom of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel without ever once misbehaving. He played nurse to horses in plane flights and had taken horses up hotel elevators.

Heston and Boyd Awaiting the filming of the chariot race

Randall operated a highly successful commercial ranch in North Hollywood, where much of his time was spent training animals for the movies. He went to Rome six months before a camera turned on Ben-Hur and didn't leave until the picture movied back to the United States more than a year later. When he arrived, he found his new students awaiting him. They had been assembled by a group of experts who had traveled through Europe seeking the most likely candidates for the film. Seventy-five of them, mostly of Arab breed and including a number of pure Lippizaners, had come from Yugoslavia. Another three had been imported from Sicily. Before Randall set up his own special classroom, a large stable and a corral were built at the Cinecitta Studios. A veterinarian, a blacksmith, harness makers and 20 stable boys were retained to look after the health and comfort of the high-strung, expensive pupils. After the film was completed, the highly trained animals were sold to circuses, stables and just plain horse lovers.

Randall began by separating his charges into temperamentally suited groups of four, much as a ballet master would line up dancers in different movements of an intricate number. "I knew from the start," he said to Boxoffice Magazine in 1960, "that I had to deliver four horses who could fall, four who could jump, four who could raise their front legs high in the air, and four who could nudge on cue. Then, of course, all of them had to be trained to pull a chariot in a race." According to Randall, the animals were conditioned and trained as if they were being prepared to run the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes and participate in a fox hunt all in one day. A training track, exactly the same dimensions as the track in the huge stadium where the race was to be filmed, was built near the stables. It was here the horses learned the difference between pulling a chariot and a wagon. It was here Heston, Boyd and seven Hollywood stunt men learned to drive the chariots and execute the spills and tricks they later performed in front of the cameras.

Sketches drawn including drawings for the chariot race

Glenn Randall's association with horses began during his childhood in Gering, Nebraska, then a vast ranching area. He trained his first horse, the one he used to take him back and forth from school, at the age of nine. After graduating from high school, he went to work for the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Robinson. His job was to break three-year-old horses destined for cavalry units. Later he took to the rodeo trail, and moved to California to help train race horses at a thoroughbred ranch near Bakersfield. When he joined Hudkins Brothers, a motion picture rental stable, Randall's career as a trainer of horses for show business was launched. He became associated with cowboy actor Roy Rogers when the latter was just beginning his film career and had trained the star's horses ever since. Randall owned his own stable. He specialized in training horses and other animal acts for motion pictures, circuses, rodeo and horse shows. He and his wife, Lynn, herself an expert horsewoman and trainer, owned several top touring horse acts.

The Chariot Race

Under construction in Rome for more than a year, the arena set, scene of the spectacular chariot race was the largest single set ever built for a motion picture. The arena, seating many thousands of spectators, was built on the back lot at the Cinecitta Studios by more than 1,000 Italian laborers. It covered 18 acres.

Ten thousand spectators arc on their feet, voices raised in a roar that echoed across the arena in a mighty wave. Their eyes remain focused on the circular track where teams of charging horses, those that had survived a grueling test of endurance, thundered toward the finish line. Each driver appeared spent as he Frenziedly whipped his own team in the struggle to be first. Along the two-and-a-half-mile course lay the wreckage of highly colored chariots, their upturned wheels still spinning grotesquely like unhinged windmills in a storm. Hugging the high walls of the arena are stretcher bearers, waiting to rescue last minute casualties. And speeding behind the racers rolls a two-ton truck on which is mounted a giant crane with an oversized motion picture camera suspended from its top.

This is how a journalist might have described the scene in Rome, as five MGM cameras recorded the end of the chariot race. This was the climax of the biggest scene in the movie. Almost three months had been devoted to its filming. But more than a year had gone into its preparation. A two-and-a-half-mile event on the screen, its horses, drivers, chariots and cameras had covered more than 200 miles in its making. It would last approximately twenty minutes on the screen. But the late Producer Sam Zimbalist, William Wyler, who directed, Andrew Marton, veteran action director who was in charge of the race sequence, and the others concerned with its filming were determined it would be the most exciting twenty minutes ever recorded on celluloid. For it they had Art Director Edward Carfagno arrange for the construction of the largest single set ever built for a motion picture, the arena carved out of a rock quarry at the far end of Cinccilta Studios. Modeled after the ancient circus in Antioch, where the race in Ben-Hur takes place, its construction kept more than 1,000 artisans and laborers occupied a full year.

In order to facilitate handling of the army of extras, many of whom were required to arrive as early as 5AM, they enclosed the entire arena and stable area with high wire fences and placed behind them wardrobe buildings, make-up tents, washrooms and even a cafeteria equipped to serve 5,000 persons in twenty minutes. Twelve months before a camera turned, workmen began building the arena. By the time their job was completed they had used 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, more than 1,000,000 pounds of plaster and 250 miles of metal tubing. The track, with 1,000-foot straightaways, circled a Spina topped with four gargantuan bronze figures, each 35 feet high, and an obelisk with sliding sides so that a camera could poke a lens from its tower and obtain an unusual view of the race. The floor of the track built on a foundation of rock had to be covered with 40,000 tons of white sand carted from beaches of the nearby Mediterranean.

Six months before the race was to begin, the first participants arrived in Rome. These were the horses, mostly Lippizaners, collected from farms in Yugoslavia and Sicily. It was the task of Glenn Randall, animal trainer, to teach them to pull chariots instead of carts. He also had to train them to execute the difficult spills which Yakima Canutt, veteran movie stunt man and rodeo star, worked out on paper. Included in the series of thrills is a moment near the race's finish, when Messala (Stephen Boyd) tries to crowd Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) into the wreckage. Instead, Ben-Hur jumps his horses and chariot over the pile-up. Randall spent many hours teaching four white horses to perform this hair-raising stunt.

Special extra-large lobby stills for the 70mm theaters

The Great Sea Battle

In the 1950's world of atomic-powered marines and guided missiles, any naval strategist knew that a sea battle generally is fought without the opponents ever sighting one another. As a matter of fact, the battle might be concluded without either side ever having been within 500 miles of the other. However, it wasn't always that way. British film star Jack Hawkins attested to that. He played the role of the redoubtable hero of the Roman seas in Ben-Hur. It was, he declared, one of the toughest assignments of his career. As commander of a Roman galley which becomes engaged in a great naval battle, Hawkins spent more than two months aboard a ship. Far from failing to sight his opponents, however, he was surrounded by them. "A sea battle in the days of 'Ben-Hur' was hardly different from an engagement fought on land," he said. "It was the custom for a commander to ram his ship into an enemy vessel. Sailors on one would scramble aboard the other and then the fighting was on."

Visual aids for the sea battle

In connection with his role of Commander Quintus Arrius, Hawkins joined the MGM art designers in researching the naval history of ancient Rome. "No less authority than Livy gave us the clue as to just how our battle should be waged," he said. "Writing of a naval engagement off Southern Italy in 210 B.C., he said: 'The signal being given on both sides, the ships charged each other with the beaks of their vessels and none during the conflict either drew back his own ship or allowed his adversary to get clear. The prows remained lashed, bridges were tossed from deck to deck and the engagement grew so close that the men fought not only with missiles but with swords and fists as well.' " According to Hawkins, there was ample evidence that sailors of ancient Rome dressed much the same as soldiers on land. "Even when we were working under the broiling Italian sun and the temperature was in the 90's, I was loaded down with almost fifty pounds of armor," he said. "How those sailors of ancient Rome ever stood up, much less fought a battle, I'll never know."

Make-Up and props

Miss Harareet admitted to no special rules for cosmetics, except for one maxim. "The most important thing about make-up," she says, "is to make up your own mind about it. While I was growing up in Israel and studying for the theatre, I never wore much makeup, perhaps nothing more than a light lipsticking, sometimes not even that. Today, I do wear more cosmetics, but still a very restrained amount. I don't think heavy make-up is right for me and I refuse to use it even if it is the vogue."

Perhaps Miss Harareet's secret lay in the fact she never permitted cosmetics to obscure her naturalness. This could well be the very thing that fastened her in Wyler's mind. As far as the specifics go, the actress was a soap-and-water girl. "I don't use cream for cleansing or for lubricating the skin at night. It's a mystery to me how complexions can breathe when they are slathered. Happily, I'm olive-skinned and rarely feel that my face is dry. When it does become so, I give it a coating of olive oil, which works wonders." A light foundation readies her skin for a touch of powder, next comes lipstick, then eye make-up. "I would say it takes me about fifteen minutes to put on my face," she estimated "and ten of them go into making up my eyes. To me, eyes are the most important facial feature and call for extra-special attention and care.

Assorted products for sale in 1959

"First comes a subtle application of eye shadow, even in the daytime, followed by eyelid liner that's quite heavy toward the outer part of the eye and lighter toward the nose. I mascara only the upper lashes. Possibly the most vital element of this whole process is patience."Not only did Miss Harareet keep her grooming simple, she also maintained an uncomplicated program for figure streamlining. "I walk everywhere," she says. "Old fashioned as it may seem, I never ride if I can walk. I suppose I'm used to going places by foot-power because of my Marine training, but I really enjoy it. Walking is a wonderful way to keep in condition and isn't nearly as boring as a daily ritual of calisthenics." No dieting for this actress, either. "People tell me I'm lucky because I honestly don't enjoy rich foods. ! never eat anything fried, much preferring broiled meats and steamed vegetables. And instead of reaching for a pastry at dinner, I'm more content with an apple or orange. This is the kind of beauty savvy that serves movie stars and women everywhere equally well."

Top row: Golden tarnished copper-colored fiberglass and wood "scoop" chairs decorated with Greco-Roman tableaux. Bottom row: Hand-hammered and riveted metal helmet with Fleur-de-lis metal appliques and black ostrich feather brush top worn by the Royal Guard on Caesar's dias in the procession into Rome.

Over 5,000 pounds of make-up were used for Ben-Hur. The MGM Make-up department went into full swing to make each character look as they would during the period in which the film takes place. Each actor and actress had different skin tones which had to be changed, truly a huge accomplishment considering the number of cast members involved in the film. Charlton Heston was apt to use as little make-up as possible, luckily for him it was the women who spent more time in the make-up chairs. But for certain scenes and because of lighting, all of the cast members at one time or another needed extra work for close-ups. Airbrush make-up is an application technique that was devised when make-up artists at MGM studios had to makeup hundreds of extras for the film Ben Hur.

It revolutionized make-up application as it proved to be a method that produced better results than traditional make-up, and in less time. Hollywood secret for many years, Airbrush make-up is fast becoming the application method of choice for top make-up artists working across the board in: fashion, television, film, special occasion and bridal make-up because of the flawless and long- lasting results it produces.


Martha Scott, on costuming, said on the set, "As an actress, I've been privileged to travel to various parts of the United States and, for that matter, to many places in Europe in connection with films in which I've appeared. I've never ceased to be amazed at how Hollywood influences styles and fashions everywhere. Let Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner display a new hairdo featuring bangs, and women all over the world will follow suit. Let Cary Grant wear a double-breasted suit with three buttons, and Saville Row tailors will immediately receive orders for similar styles. Most everyone who knows anything about motion pictures is well aware of all this. But not many people, myself included, realize the tremendous effect clothes worn in a movie have upon the economy of places miles from where the picture is produced. Especially, if it is a large scale production involving many scenes and people.

(L-R) Caesar's Tangerine silk and gold-lined cape worn by George Relph; Ben-Hur's tunic and cape from the royal procession; Messala's ceremonial armor of metal and leather

For example, consider "Ben-Hur." I had the good fortune to play a leading role in this spectacular production and during the eight months I spent in Rome, where it was filmed, I learned a great deal about what a picture like this means to people who are involved with providing the costumes for it. Elizabeth Haffenden, the brilliant designer from England who created the clothes for the production, let me in on a few secrets. For instance, would it seem likely that a year before a camera turned in Rome, Ben-Hur had affected the life of people in faraway Thailand? Well, it had. And in Germany, England, Yugoslavia and, of course, Italy, as well. In all these countries, and many others, the decision by MGM to make a motion picture based on Gen. Lew Wallace's literary classic meant work and dollars.

(l-r) Chariot racing costume made of green leather; Marius' interlocking torso armor of hammered metal and black suede was finished with brass decorations; Sheik Ilderim (High Griffith) royal caftan made of heavy linen with a vertical rose print was heavily embroidered with beads and metallic thread

Months before Ben-Hur was scheduled to begin, the little country of Thailand had dipped into MGM's till for a neat $20,000. At the same time, England benefited by more than $15,000; Italy, certain to gain more than any other country, since the entire picture was to be made there, was pocketing a preliminary $35,000; Germany was netting $15,000. These sums were being spent in the manufacture of the costumes for the thousands of persons appearing in Ben-Hur. On a film of this size and scope, the task of creating the huge wardrobe began at least a year before starting date. That is why, in Thailand, natives were spinning silks for clothes to be worn by the picture's principals long before they would be needed. In England, workers were embroidering woolens and tooling leathers. In Italy, they were creating boots reaching to the knee, heavily laced and glorified with gold designs. In Germany, they were manufacturing armor reflecting the glory of ancient Rome. From South America came more woolens, from Switzerland pieces of rare costume jewelry, from France a bolt of delicate lace. The cost to do this today would be so high that no studio would even attempt to try to secure finances to do it.

(l-r) Jack Hawkins' (Quintus Arrius) lace-up sandal boots had faux-leopard trim and were 13" high; gold colored custom-made sandals worn by Jack Hawkins; Charlton Heston's 13" high sandal boots with dark brown leather

Assembling the wardrobe for Ben-Hur involved the sort of logistics that would make an army quartermaster quail. What made the job for this particular film especially unique was that the task was in the hands of two women, Miss Haffenden and her assistant, Joan Bridge. After spending almost a year in preliminary work in England, they moved to Rome several months before William Wyler turned the first camera. Throughout the filming they presided over the huge wardrobe assembled in three buildings at Rome's Cinecitta Studios. The buildings housed the unit's own dyeing works, its own drycleaning and its own laundry service. More than 100 persons were employed, including seamstresses, leather makers, armorers and just plain dressers.

MGM costume tests

Thousands of costumes had to be made. The storage rooms at Cinecitta studios which held the costumes were so over-crowded, some of the offices had to be used. Each garment and prop was given a code number and a precise scene in which it was to be used and by whom. This task alone took over a month. Preparations for making these costumes required over six months of extensive research by the costume department at MGM. At the time, MGM had made several films which took place in the era, and some of the props and costumes were able to be used, but the majority all had to be designed in sketches and sewn from the first thread. Watching the movie, one cannot help but marvel at the enormous job that was accomplished by these highly trained professionals and the incredible amount of work that was involved..

Production of props began as early as the screenplay work. Hundreds of helmets, swords, chairs, columns, arm bands and other props had to be reproduced and William Wyler would go over every sketch to be sure that the props were authentic. Almost a year of planning went into the props used in Ben-Hur. Bibles, books of famous historians, and hundreds of other sources were used to be sure to keep everything as accurate as possible. Interviews were done all over Europe with historians and libraries who might have visual aids were sought and these were used as reference. Wyler stated in a later interview, "We had to have everything completely accurate, otherwise the film would have no merit. I wanted everything down to the rings worn to be made out of the same materials that were used in the era, and that was extremely difficult to accomplish, but accomplish it we did, and I can't tell you the feeling I had at the premiere watching the film, knowing all of the work we had put into it, and it gave me a thrill I had never experienced before.

(l-r) Hand hammered metal charioteer helmet had twisted wire and ball outline and striped paint decor for a chariot race driver; Short sword in faux ivory and hardwood handled short sword was 29" including sheath in black leather; Corinthian driver leather helmet used in several MGM productions.

Haya Harareet wears a $125,000 diamond and emerald bracelet in one of the scenes of the film. MGM arranged to borrow the rare piece of jewelry from the famous Rome jeweler, Boulanger. The studio agreed to furnish an armed guard to accompany the piece from the shop to the set at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the guard to remain with the valuable prop until it was returned at the conclusion of each day's filming. In the film, the bracelet is given to Miss Harareet by Heston.

Lobby Card Set

The publicity campaign for Ben-Hur was one of the largest ever attempted by MGM. In the summer of 1959, Variety reported the publicity budget to be paid by MGM would be around $3,000,000. At least 15% of that budget promoted the premiere releases in New York and Los Angeles.

(top to bottom) Tokyo premiere, and a look at what was seen around the country outside of Ben-Hur engagements.

MGM also worked with dozens of companies to release products that pertained to Ben-Hur. A Candy bar was named after the film. Promotions with restaurants all over the country commenced and deals were made for Ben-Hur games, toys, fashions and publishing companies. A special hard-back souvenir book was published to hand out at the roadshow events.

The merchandising department had their work cut out for them but came out shining. There was even a bar named after the film.


MGM was not going to take any chances with the presentation of it's spectacle, which had been carefully crafted, edited and mixed for the widescreen. Four months of hard work were done in the editing room, and several months mixing the 6-channel soundtrack. MGM wanted to be sure that the large-city theaters would present the show as best they could. If a print was damaged, MGM asked the theaters to ask for an immediate replacement instead of making their own splices. MGM also sent a letter to the large venues for the proper presentation of Ben-Hur, which I were lucky enough to have in my collection. The condition of the letter was very poor so I scanned the top which is exactly as it was sent, and re-typed the content of the 2-page letter word-for-word. The second part of the letter was for 35mm 4-track stereo venues. Note how MGM felt the stereo tracks were of great importance, and discouraged any 35mm showing in mono.

MGM letter to large-venue (big city) theaters running 70mm showings


Premiere in L.A. was held at the Egyptian Theater

With a budget of just under $16 million, Ben-Hur had its New York premiere on November 18, 1959, and a week later its Los Angeles premiere on November 24 (just in time for Thanksgiving) to benefit the USC Medical School Scholarship fund. It was shown in 70mm 6-track stereo sound. The Chamber of Commerce of Culver City pronounced November 24 "Ben-Hur Day." The film played roadshow, and it would be almost a year before the film played smaller venues (for which 4-track stereo mix-downs were made) and several years before the film would play in other countries such as Denmark, Greece and Mexico.

Premiere night

The film was a true success story for MGM. The premiere in New York was a star-studded evening, attracting most of the important people of the world of Broadway and many Hollywood stars had flown in to see the monumental film. The Los Angeles premiere would be a spectacular event at the Egyptian Theater. Those in attendance included not only the cast, but Cary Grant, Doris Day, Lana Turner, Lee Remick, Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis, James Stewart, John Wayne, Dean Martin, John Gavin, Eva Marie Saint, Rock Hudson, Audrey Hepburn, Jack Lemmon, Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and a long list of other celebrities, as well as the heads of most of the major studios.

The Egyptian Theater was Sid Grauman's first ornate movie palace. When it opened on October 18, 1922, it was truly a spectacle. The opening film was Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks. The theater continued to install new projectors and screens as developments in film were made, but it was the multi-million dollar design that attracted the attention of the public. Then one of the biggest screens in Hollywood, the theater was very modern for its time, and built with King Tut's Tomb in mind as well as the Egyptian ages. Several other similar theaters opened that had similar design: Peery's Egyptian Theater in Utah, The Egyptian Theaters in Colorado and Illinois. Most of them have been torn down but the Hollywood theater had a major restoration several times, once after an earthquake had severely damaged it, and later another restoration. The Egyptian continues to host 70mm festivals and shows some of the greatest films in history, and quite successfully.

After Release

Ben-Hur won in the following categories: Best Picture of 1959; Best Direction (William Wyler) ; Best Actor (Charlton Heston) ; Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith) ; Best Musical Score (Miklos Rozsa) ; Best Color Cinematography (Robert L. Surtees) ; Best Editing (Ralph E. Winters, John D. Dunning) ; Best Costume Design (Elizabeth Haffenden) ; Best Art Direction (William A. Horning, Edward Carfagno, Set Decoration by Hugh Hunt) ; Best Special Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie and Robert MacDonald for Visual Effects, Milo Lory for Sound Effects); Best Sound (Franklin E. Milton). Ben-Hur also was honored by the British Film Academy as the Best Picture of the Year; was named Best Picture of the Year by the All American Press; was cited as Best Produced Film by the Screen Producers Guild; as Best Directed Film by the Screen Directors Guild; and won the New York Film Critics Award, the Federation of Motion Picture Councils' Award and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Golden Globe as the Best Motion Picture of the Year.

William Wyler at the Academy Awards, Chalton Heston with Susan Hayward with Oscars

In addition it received special plaques from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, from a number of magazines, and has been named as Best Picture of the Year by nearly every newspaper critic in every city in which it has opened. A major re-release in 70mm 6-track stereo took place on February 25, 1969. The film played a special run at the Hollywood Pacific Cinerama Dome in 1990 and continues to play at 70mm festivals around the world.

Not only did the film garner the awards sweep, but impressed the critics as well. Publications from Time to Look to local newspapers hailed the film as one of the greatest in motion picture history. The New York Times declared the film "One of Hollywood's Best Blockbusters." Variety reported that the film was the blockbuster to top all blockbusters, and Time Magazine declared it "A Whale of a picture-the best of the Hollywood super-spectacles."

Ben Hur Live

In Austrailia, French Director Robert Hossein revived Ben Hur on the stage. It was titles, "Ben Hur-The Stadium Spectacular." Most people would think this an impossible task. But Hossein's $15 million production used 49,212 square feet of arena stage, 400 costumes, 200 back-stage crew, 216 actors, 124 soldiers, 36 horsemen, 32 horses, 26 gladiators, 9 chariots and 5 Arabian dancers. The production was certainly one of biblical proportions. Hossein claimed this would be the biggest and most spectacular live event ever held in the country.
The show would tour Europe ending its tour in Sydney. Tour director Isabelle Trapon-Legget explained, ""We were looking for a story that was larger than life, and we found it in Ben-Hur. It also had to be a story that was epic in nature, had a human impact and could excite stadium crowds." This production featured slave ships, gladiators and a chariot race in the show's climatic finale, all sure to excite audiences." In Sydney, the show played at the ANZ Stadium which was chosen for its likeness to a Roman ampitheatre in structure, and allowed for a 360-degree performance. Huge Panasonic LED screens, 32 feet high and 75 feet long graced the sides of the auditorium for those who could not get close seats.

Photos from Ben-Hur Live
Video Releases

Ben Hur was first tele-cast on Sunday, February 14, 1971 on CBS. The complete film was shown using a then unprecedented 5 hour time slot for the network for prime time. The first DVD release was issued in 2001 as a 2-sided DVD disc. This included the rare Overture and Entr'acte music. In 2005, a special 4 disc set was issued, with the film in 2 parts, one on each of 2 discs. This had a newly remastered version of the film from original 65mm elements and added a music-only track. Warner Brothers again went back to the original elements and did a complete (and rather expensive) restoration for Blu-ray disc which took several years. A complete frame-by-frame restoration was done, quite a job for a movie of this length. The original 6-track music stems were remastered and used for this release. New feature-length documentaries were made. It also includes the 1925 silent version with the stereo orchestral score, screen tests and highlights from the Academy Awards telecast.

Top row: 3 VHS releases; Center row: 3 laserdisc releases; 3rd row: CED videodisc and 2 DVD releases; 4th row: New Blu-ray box set


Ben Hur was re-made as a TV mini-series which aired in 2010 produced by Alchemy Television Group. It aired first in Canada, where it was made, and later on ABC in the United States. It starred Kristin Kreuk, Ray Winstone, Art Malik and Hugh Bonneville. With this production, it was decided to downplay the religious elements and focus more on the action and family stories feuds. It was divided into two episodes, two hours each (counting commercials) and garnered only fair reviews. It was nominated for Best Sound in a dramatic program by the Gemini Awards. The miniseries had neither the grandeur or scope of the film, and those who were familiar with the 1959 version couldn't help but wonder why this had to be re-made. The same was done with The Ten Commandments with disastrous results.

The legacy of Ben-Hur continues and new younger audiences are always discovering this time-honored classic. It is indeed one of the greatest epics ever released for The Silver Screen.

To discuss this and other Silver Screen columns, join us in The Silver Screen forum thread Here
All materials in this and other Silver Screen columns are copyright their respective studios, and the collection of Robert Siegel.

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News comments (26 comments)

  Sep 27, 2011
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Robert, you have outdone yourself. I have adored this film ever since, at age 12, I and my best friend took the bus six times from suburban Minneapolis downtown to see Ben-Hur at the Academy Theater. I thought I knew everything there was to know about it--until now. Thank you for this exhaustive report and the time and energy it took to prepare it.
  Sep 27, 2011
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Wow... this is astounding. If Warner had approached you for the Blu-Ray, I'm sure Ben-Hur's special features section would have earned the final .5 it needed to get perfect marking. The whole work was worth it and it shows in every sentence. Your love for cinema is truly hard to surpass.

It reminds me the book my late grandmother gave me years ago, very much like the one held in the picture at the premiere night. Lots of memories and emotional moments going on...

Keep up the great work sir, your commitment to making such articles is art in itself.

L.A. Guy
  Sep 27, 2011
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This is the first movie my father bought after purchasing a VHS player more than 20 years ago. He had ordered "The Ten Commandments"- in spanish- from a catalog and instead receive "Ben-Hur"-in english, which he could'nt speak. Disapointed he decided to move on and to play it for the family. This would be my first ever feature. All I can say is that this is my favorite film and although I could'nt understand the complexity of the dialogue at a very young age- was still elementary- the images I witness that day left an indelible impression on me. After seeing many other films in other genre's I still consider "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" the greatest movie ever filmed.

Thank-you for this extensive, insightful, and thorough in-depth report.
john a hunter
  Sep 27, 2011
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I think you will find that Camera 65 always used a 1.25 squeeze. Early tests tried out 1.33 which was quickly dropped. The lenses still showed 1.33 even though they were in fact 1.25 compression.

The photo of the guy "sketching" looks like he was in fact painting the mattes that were used several times during the filming.

As a point of interest the stadium production here in Sydney was dreadful with people walking out laughing it was so bad. I doubt it will raise its ugly head anywhere else in the world.

Top contributor
  Sep 28, 2011
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Wow. What a great piece.

Two small items: First, a young William Wyler just happened to be one of 60 assistant directors for the chariot race in the 1925 silent version. Second, though the article about the L.A. Egyptian Theater premiere appears to have been written at that time, if you look closely at the Ben-Hur ad at lower left, it uses the "stylized lion" logo that MGM didn't use till the latter part of the 1960's (and only appeared on-screen in 2001: A Space Odyssey and a couple of other films); thus it must have been printed some years later.

Added by Robert Siegel: Thanks for your very kind comments. Indeed, the newspaper article had a poster photo almost exactly the same, but was torn in that section so I did add a Ben-Hur ad there myself to fill in the hole. Rarely will I change an original presentation of anything, but I wanted that to look as close to the original as possible.

  Sep 28, 2011
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Robert, you have outdone yourself this time and the effort put into this presentation is very worthy of the stature of, without much doubt, the greatest movie ever filmed. We are very lucky to have you here at You are so immersed in your chosen field it shows in all you do and your breadth of knowledge is outstanding. Thank you once again.
  Sep 28, 2011
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great review thanks

Top contributor
  Sep 28, 2011
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great review. "Ben Hur" is together with "Gone with the Wind", the best movie ever made!!! It's always interesting to read about the making of Ben Hur. Well done!!!

  Sep 28, 2011
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You usually have to pay money to get such a great article. Much appreciated!
Top reviewer
  Sep 28, 2011
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I have heard of the tv miniseries "Ben Hur" but did it actually air on ABC in the U.S. I never saw an ad for it or anything in print that it was having a U.S. broadcast
  Sep 28, 2011
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The Ben Hur mini series is available on Sony DVD in Canada. It starred Joseph Morgan as Ben Hur. A mini series for a younger generation,as they claimed on the cover. As most of today's younger generation don't know actors from 50 years ago, I think it was nice to do it with today's young actors. I liked it.

  Sep 28, 2011
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Another great article, Robert! It just reminds those of us old enough to have seen it on the "big, big screen," how exciting that experience was.
Can't wait to see the blu-ray!!!

  Sep 28, 2011
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Thanks Robert! This was a fascinating read while I wait for my pre-order to arrive...
  Sep 28, 2011
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I do believe that the 1907 version of Ben Hur was shot entirely in Brooklyn. Manhattan Beach is the name of the community immediately south of Sheepshead Bay. In 1909 it was still somewhat undeveloped, an excellent location for shooting.
  Sep 28, 2011
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Another superb article to print and include in the box with my copy of the film. Each of these articles is better than any of the special features that come with the movie.

P.S. That memo instructing the projectionist concerning when to open/close the curtains etc. is priceless.

Thank you Mr. Siegel.
  Sep 28, 2011
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saw this movie as an 8 years old in 1959,one of the first movies I ever saw on the big screen,and it made a lasting
impression on me...Seen it twice since over the years and after reading this insightful expose,i look so much more
forward to receive my copy of Ben Hur and watch it over the weekend...Great timing!
Thank you,Mr Siegel, for a wonderful article....

  Sep 29, 2011
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...and what a box set they gave us. This is the best looking one I have purchased...absolutely fitting a film of this caliber.
Pat Gleeson
  Sep 29, 2011
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Robert, many congratulations on yet another stunning article - worthy of the film.
  Sep 29, 2011
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Warner's quality treatment for Ben-Hur makes me wonder when we will ever see such devotion to a Stanley Kubrick film that would soon celebrate an important anniversary... there's still time, but I wish I could say I could hold my breath on that...
  Sep 30, 2011
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Thanks for another informative "Silver Screen" article. I actually saw Ben-Hur at my friend's movie theatre in 35mm a few years back, and thought it was awesome, made more so thanks to seeing it on the big screen.

And I do agree with reidw, the presentation memo is priceless. I had no idea that latecomers were barred from sitting down during the nativity sequence at the beginning of the film. But sometimes little facts like those just blow my mind.

Anyways, Ben-Hur and the presentation memo just goes to prove that they don't make them, and show them, the way they used to.

Top reviewer
Pirate King
  Sep 30, 2011
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Thank you Robert for another first class presentation. It is much appreciated. I believe Ben-Hur to be the best movie ever filmed.... and the chariot race is the best sequence of movie making ever made. Again... thank you.

  Oct 01, 2011
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Thank you, Robert. I always learn something new while reading your articles, and that makes the viewing of the film that much more enjoyable.

  Oct 02, 2011
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Thanks Robert for all the great information and insights. I wonder if they will release a movie only bluray without all the extra things in the box set.

  Oct 02, 2011
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Thank you Robert! Excellent information, etc.! Clicked on over to Amazon UK & ordered their 3-disc edition earlier today.
  Oct 03, 2011
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for mdanderson above and anyone else interested in a movie only version, there is one available at Walmart for just under 20.00.

William H Pratt
  Oct 04, 2011
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Yes this is a wonderful article.

" As most of today's younger generation don't know actors from 50 years ago"

Well MAYBE these young viewers of today should pay more attention to GREAT films like this.

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