Ben-Hur is a 1959 American epic religious drama film, directed by William Wyler, produced by Sam Zimbalist for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and starring Charlton Heston as the title character. A remake of the 1925 silent film with the same title, Ben-Hur was adapted from Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The screenplay is credited to Karl Tunberg, but includes contributions from Maxwell Anderson, S. N. Behrman, Gore Vidal, and Christopher Fry.
Ben-Hur had the largest budget ($15.175 million), as well as the largest sets built, of any film produced at the time. Costume designer Elizabeth Haffenden oversaw a staff of 100 wardrobe fabricators to make the costumes, and a workshop employing 200 artists and workmen provided the hundreds of friezes and statues needed in the film. Filming commenced on May 18, 1958, and wrapped on January 7, 1959, with shooting lasting for 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Pre-production began in Italy at Cinecittà around October 1957, and post-production took six months. Under cinematographer Robert L. Surtees, MGM executives made the decision to film the picture in a widescreen format, which Wyler strongly disliked. More than 200 camels and 2,500 horses were used in the shooting of the film, with some 10,000 extras. The sea battle was filmed using miniatures in a huge tank on the back lot at the MGM Studios in Culver City, California. The nine-minute chariot race has become one of cinema’s most famous sequences, and the film score, composed and conducted by Miklós Rózsa, is the longest ever composed for a film and was highly influential on cinema for more than 15 years.
Following a $14.7 million marketing effort, Ben-Hur premiered at Loew’s State Theatre in New York City on November 18, 1959. It was the fastest-grossing, as well as the highest-grossing film of 1959, in the process becoming the second highest-grossing film in history at the time after Gone with the Wind. It won a record 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Heston), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Griffith), and Best Cinematography – Color (Surtees). Ben-Hur also won three Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture for Stephen Boyd.
Today, Ben-Hur is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, and in 1998 the American Film Institute ranked it the 72nd best American film and the 2nd best American epic film in the AFI’s 10 Top 10. In 2004, the National Film Preservation Board selected Ben-Hur for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” motion picture.