Theatrical release: November 18, 1959.
Shot on location in Fiuggia, Folliano, Nettuno, and Rome, Italy.
Upon its release, it was the third longest movie and most expensive movie (at $16 million) ever made. It was a spectacular success at the box office, grossing almost five times its cost in its initial run and subsequently taking more than twice its cost in video rentals.
On November 4, 1958, five months into the movie's seven-month-long shoot, BEN-HUR's producer Sam Zimbalist collapsed and died. Director William Wyler said, "It was as if the roof had fallen in on me. I felt alone. I'd never felt alone with Sam around." The MGM studio executives asked Wyler to take over as producer as well as director of the mammoth undertaking.
The script went through many hands. After Wyler read the first version by Karl Tunberg, the director said it was "very primitive, elementary." He was still unhappy after the playwrights S. N. Behrman and Maxwell Anderson had worked on the dialogue. Novelist Gore Vidal was on hand for the first month and a half of location shooting; he contributed the idea of motivating the conflict between Messala and Judah--and providing a spine to the movie--by suggesting there was an emotional bond between Messala and Judah that was broken when Judah refused to help Messala against his countrymen. (Years later Vidal admitted that there were serious homosexual undertones to the relationship, a fact that the cast and crew purposely never discussed with Heston.) English playwright Christopher Fry was on location for the last six months of the shoot. He acted as dialogue doctor--providing the formality that suggested earlier times--and undertook overnight revisions of the script. Wyler wanted to add Fry's name to Tunberg's on the script. Fry suggested Vidal should be credited as well. But, after arbitration by the Writers Guild of America, Tunberg alone received credit.
It is well known that the chariot race--which cost one million dollars alone--was created by second-unit directors Andrew Marton, Yakima Canutt, and Mario Soldati. It is less well known that the slave-galley action sequences were directed (uncredited) by Hollywood veteran Richard Thorpe (1896-1991). Thorpe made 180 movies in his long career, but it was the series of costume dramas that he made early in the 1950s--IVANHOE (1952, with Robert Taylor), THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1952 with Stewart Granger), KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE (1953, with Taylor), ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT (1953, with Taylor and Granger), and, best of all, THE ADVENTURES OF QUENTIN DURWARD (1955, with Taylor), that showed he was the right person to help Wyler in his epic undertaking.
BEN-HUR was nominated for 12 Academy Award and won a record 11 Oscars--including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), and Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith). This record was tied 40 years later by TITANIC.
There were many marketing tie-ins for BEN-HUR. In addition to new editions of General Lew Wallace's novel, there were BEN-HUR jewels and perfumes, neckties and T-shirts, candy bars, toys, and chariot scooters, and, even, Ben-His and Ben-Hers towels.
Mort Sahl's brief sardonic review of BEN-HUR was "Loved him, hated Hur."
Academy Awards Best Art Direction - Set Decoration (Color) 1959
Academy Awards Best Costume Design (Color) 1959
Academy Awards Best Picture 1959
Academy Awards Best Sound 1959
Academy Awards Best Sound Effects 1959
Academy Awards Best Special Effects 1959
Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor 1959 Hugh Griffith British Actor
Academy Awards Best Actor 1959 Charlton Heston Oscar-winning American actor, BEN HUR (1959)
Academy Awards Best Director 1959 William Wyler Acclaimed Director
Academy Awards Best Film Editing 1959 John D. Dunning Editor