Charlton Heston is more closely associated with this role than any other in his celebrated career. The part of Judah Ben-Hur was originally offered to Burt Lancaster, but Lancaster was an atheist who didn’t want to appear in a film that “promoted” Christianity. So Heston got the part. The religious sections of the film didn’t bother director William Wyler, who was Jewish. Wyler had been an assistant director on the silent version of Ben-Hur back in 1925.
The sheer scale of the movie’s production is mind-boggling. The film used more than a million props, and more than 300 sets were constructed. It had the largest crew ever for a film, and the most extras – 15,000 for the chariot scene alone. Most of that would now be computer-generated, and wouldn’t have the wonderful reality created for Ben-Hur.
Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ provided the source for the movie, which stayed basically true to the novel. One significant difference is that the movie ends shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, while the book continues on with Ben-Hur helping Christians to worship during the period of persecution under Emperor Nero.
Opera singer Claude Heater performed the part of Jesus, the only film appearance he ever made. Jesus appears most prominently early in the film, giving water to a suffering Ben-Hur, and of course during scenes leading up to and including his crucifixion.
You can’t feature this movie without discussing the chariot scene, one of the most famous in the history of film. It took five weeks to shoot, and took place on a specially built set that covered an incredible 18 acres. Even now, with virtually anything possible in the era of computer graphics, this is still considered one of the most spectacular productions of all time.
Ben-Hur was the top-grossing movie of 1960, and won 11 Academy Awards, a feat that’s only been equaled twice since. In the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, Ben-Hur ranked number 72, and was the number two in the epic category…