Charlton Heston and Stephen Boy race chariots in ‘Ben-Hur,’ 1959

Everett Collection

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The Miracle of ‘Ben-Hur,’ Hollywood’s Tastiest Christo-Zionist Epic

A story of unabashed Jewish pride and human depth that honors Christians and Jews alike, with a sly gay subplot courtesy of Gore Vidal

Thomas Doherty
March 29, 2024
Charlton Heston and Stephen Boy race chariots in ‘Ben-Hur,’ 1959

Everett Collection

In the American Masters documentary Directed by William Wyler (1986), Charlton Heston tells the kind of story that gives actors night terrors. He is starring in the title role of MGM’s $15 million epic Ben-Hur. The dailies are coming back and director William Wyler is not happy. Heston can take criticism, he can work with a director, he appreciates guidance. What do you need? he asks.

“Better,” snaps Wyler.

Heston got better of course. Ben-Hur went on to win 11 Academy Awards, save MGM from insolvency, and imprint itself on the popular imagination. A successful roadshow reissue in 1969 solidified its status and television made it a yearly ritual beginning on Feb. 14, 1971, when CBS devoted a long Sunday night to the first telecast, with a pan-and-scanned version interrupted, lamented one critic, by an “unmerciful number of commercials.” (No matter: It drew an estimated 86 million viewers, more than any film yet broadcast on television.) In a line-up of bloated and overlong biblical epics (see Demetrius and the Gladiators [1954], The Ten Commandments [1956], and The Bible: In the Beginning [1966]), it remains a compulsively watchable exception in a genre that has dated badly. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, usually the scourge of grandiose Hollywood religiosity, called Ben-Hur “by far the most stirring and respectable of the Bible-fiction pictures ever made ... grippingly conveyed in some of the most forceful personal conflicts ever played in costume on a giant screen.” (Spartacus [1960] is not a biblical epic.)

Before its definitive rendering, however, Ben-Hur had already passed through a series of hugely popular iterations on what were not yet called media platforms: a bestselling book, a hit stage play, a one-reel short from the dawn of cinema, and an equally spectacular feature film from the silent era. Each version reflected its distinct cultural milieu and media moment, with the two major film versions serving as convenient bookends for the rise and fall of classical Hollywood cinema. The first version in 1925 launched Hollywood into its vaunted “golden age,” when the machine works of the studio system proved that the art of cinema could depict most any landscape conjured by a writer’s imagination; the second arrived when the studio system was on a downward slide but not yet out for the count.

Filmed on location in Italy, the first major film version of ‘Ben-Hur’ was a notorious runaway production and money pit that served forever after as a cautionary tale that kept the major studios close to the backlot.

The origin story of Ben-Hur begins not in Hollywood or Rome but in Santa Fe, in the territory of New Mexico, where territorial Governor General Lew Wallace—lawyer, Civil War hero, and diplomat—wanted to add novelist to his list of accomplishments. In 1876, he began work on the one he would be remembered for, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880. Teleporting readers back to Judea and Rome at the time of Christ, the book caught the retro zeitgeist of a nation transformed by industrialization (the essential skill set in the novel, horsemanship, was already something of a throwback). Within a decade, the novel had sold 250,000 copies. Ben-Hur has been called “the most influential Christian book written in the nineteenth century”—that’s wrong, the correct answer is Uncle Tom’s Cabin—but it ranks a close second. 

The book’s subtitle is a bit of a cover story: Ben-Hur is not a Christian conversion narrative, but an American tale of class fluidity and identity-shifting. In Jerusalem circa 27 CE where the Jewish people suffer under the yoke of Roman occupation, the Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur lives with his widowed mother, Amrah, and beloved sister Tirzah, their business affairs overseen by their dedicated steward Simonides and his comely daughter Esther. In boyhood, Ben-Hur had bonded with the son of the Roman governor, Messala, who has returned to the backwater garrison town as the Roman tribune. When a loose tile from the house of Hur beans the new Roman governor, Messala condemns his former friend to the death-in-life of a galley slave. Amrah and Tirzah are locked away in the bowels of a dungeon and forgotten. At dramatically parceled-out beats, the life of Ben-Hur intersects with the life of Christ.

After years of upper body exercise chained to the oars of a Roman trireme, Ben-Hur is fit, muscular, and burning with the vengeful rage that has kept him alive. When the Roman armada is attacked by pirates, he saves the life of the Roman commander Quintus Arrius, who adopts him as his heir. In Rome, Ben-Hur becomes the most famous charioteer in the empire, but he has not forgotten his roots, his family, or the imperative to pay back Messala.

Ben-Hur leaves the life of a sports celebrity in Rome to return to Judea, where he is reunited with the faithful Simonides and, after being briefly distracted by the hot Egyptian temptress Iras, embraces Esther as his true love. At the Super Bowl of chariot races held in the Circus Maximus in Antioch, Ben-Hur exacts vengeance against Messala, whom he leaves in his dust trampled underfoot. Ben-Hur has one more race to finish, though: to find Amrah and Tirzah, now lepers who will be cured by divine intervention.

In its time, Wallace’s “intermingling of so many chapters of fiction with the sacred history” was considered a near-blasphemous appropriation of the Gospels, but the balance in tone between reverence and revenge placated the religious while satisfying the bloodthirsty. Wallace could assume a normative Christianity in his readership, but he also forged a sympathetic identification with his flinty Jewish hero—a fierce Zionist years before Theodor Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress in 1897. 

Knowing a sure-fire hit with a pre-sold title, theatrical impresarios approached Wallace for the stage rights, but he refused to sell the property until assured, first of all, that the figure of Christ would not be depicted on stage; and second, that the stagecraft would do justice to the two great action set pieces in the novel—the naval battle and the chariot race. The firm of Klaw and Erlinger, veterans in orchestrating elaborate stage productions, persuaded Wallace of their sincerity and mechanical competence; they got the contract. William Young, a playwright experienced in telescoping the action of novels for the stage, compressed the action into six acts and 15 scenes.

On Nov. 25, 1889, Ben-Hur debuted as a play at the Broadway Theater in New York. Featuring a cast of hundreds, full orchestra, choir, and a marvel of stagecraft engineering, the show was mounted on a scale no theatrical production had heretofore approached. The depiction of the naval battle was merely impressive (waving drapes as the ocean); the staging of the chariot race was astonishing. Two full-sized chariots were locked in place on stage as two teams of horses galloped on treadmills in front of them. The wheels of the chariots whirred; clouds of dust blew in from offstage. “The most thrilling stage picture ever shown within the four walls of a playhouse,” gasped a critic who watched from the wings, expecting to be trampled at any moment. The audience, he said, “was at first stunned and then torn into a perfect paroxysm of cheers.” Christ was easier to render: His presence was suggested by a shaft of light. For the next 30 years, roadshow productions of Ben-Hur were mounted continuously across the U.S. and overseas in venues sturdy enough to support the special effects. “No other dramatic work has been seen by so many persons—hundreds of thousands witnessing the wonderful spectacle,” Billboard later reported.

In 1907 the Kalem Company, a pioneering motion picture production outfit, released the first film version, Ben Hur, a one-reel, 14-minute costume drama composed of “sixteen magnificent scenes with illustrative titles.” Brazenly advertised as “adapted from General Lew Wallace’s famous book,” the film elides the Christianity to mesmerize moviegoers with period pageantry. The sets and painted backdrops were borrowed from Henry J. Pain’s Fire Works Company, an outfit renowned for staging pyrotechnic shows drawn from the explosive annals of history (“Last Days of Pompeii,” “The Siege of Sevastopol”); the costumes were rented from the Metropolitan Opera. All in all, not a bad show for five cents. The film ripped off everything but the hyphen from the Wallace book, but in the wildcat days of early cinema, motion picture rights to a book or stage property were in a zone of uncertainty copyright-wise.

Not for long. General Wallace’s son Henry and the producers of the stage version sued Kalem for copyright infringement. Kalem argued that their Ben Hur was “merely a series of photographs” and, besides, the film was good advertising for the book and play. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and issued a landmark decision holding that a book or stage property could not be made into a movie without permission from the copyright holder. Kalem was ordered to pay $25,000 and cease distribution. Novelists and playwrights rejoiced at the lucrative new revenue stream.

By the next decade, the art and technology of moviemaking had advanced exponentially. The emerging studio infrastructure—and the examples of maestros like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille—meant that the great set pieces in Ben-Hur would no longer be constrained by the floorboards of the proscenium stage or a single camera bolted to the floor. In 1921, producer Sam Goldwyn conscientiously secured the rights to Ben-Hur and cut a mutually profitable deal with the copyright holders. By the time the cameras got rolling on the project, Sam Goldwyn Pictures had merged with Louis B. Mayer Pictures and Loews-Metro to become MGM.

Filmed on location in Italy, the first major film version of Ben-Hur was a notorious runaway production and money pit that served forever after as a cautionary tale that kept the major studios close to the backlot. The silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, who chronicled the devil’s-candy-like production travails in his history of the silent film era, The Parade’s Gone By ..., called it “a heroic fiasco.”

Rudolph Valentino, the original matinee idol, was considered perfect for the role of Ben-Hur, but Famous Players Lasky owned his contract. A relative unknown—George Walsh, brother of director Raoul Walsh—was initially cast, only to be replaced mid-production by Mexican American actor Ramon Novarro, plucked from the silent era’s roster of Latin lovers. The burly Francis X. Bushman sank his teeth into the role of the villainous Messala. The diminutive ingenue May McAvoy played Esther (she would also play the love interest of another famous screen Jew, Al Jolson, in The Jazz Singer [1927]).

Cecil B. DeMille, of course, was mentioned as a possible director, but the job went to a relatively untested Englishman named Charles Brabin. Above him in the pecking order was screenwriter June Mathis, who adapted the Wallace novel. Mathis was a serious power broker in Hollywood, credited with discovering Valentino and grooming his persona with her adaptations of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922). In September 1924, cast, crew, and cameras abandoned the relative serenity of California and went on location in Italy.

Brabin and Mathis soon proved overwhelmed by the scale of the enterprise: wrangling thousands of non-English speaking extras and constructing nearly life-size replicas of Roman triremes, the Jaffa Gate for the Jerusalem set, and the Circus Maximus for the chariot race. They were shaken down by fascist dictator and self-styled Caesar Benito Mussolini and delayed by lackadaisical Italian workmen who were reluctant to finish a job that would end their ride on the Hollywood gravy train.

With the production stalled for weeks on end, the cast shopped and toured. Novarro visited the Vatican and received the blessings of Pope Pius XI, which may or may not have contributed to his survival from a near lethal chariot pile-up. Besides millions of 1920s dollars wasted (the total price tag would ultimately be put at $4 million), the location shoot in Italy cost the lives of a stuntman charioteer and three galley slave extras who jumped in panic off a Roman trireme and drowned (or at least they never returned to the costume department to retrieve their street clothes). An estimated 100 horses were euthanized. “If it limped, it was shot,” recalled Bushman.

Hemorrhaging money, MGM cashiered Brabin and Mathis and dispatched director Fred Niblo to take the reins. Niblo was experienced with large-scale costume dramas, having worked with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the inevitable Valentino.

In January 1925, Irving Thalberg, MGM’s hands-on head of production, finally pulled the plug and called the company back to the real land of bread and circuses. The centerpiece chariot race still needed to be filmed, so a second replica of the Circus Maximus was built outside the MGM plant in Culver City. Twelve chariots drawn by four horses raced around the enormous arena, the stands packed with 3,500 costumed extras. To make sure the mob behaved, plainclothes LA cops—clad in togas over their uniforms—were planted among the extras. Forty-two cameras were placed strategically around the arena to catch the action.

The filming of the chariot race was “my most harrowing experience,” Niblo recalled. “I lived sleepless nights dreaming of possible catastrophe.” There was one heart-stopping moment: Six chariots piled up, but both human and equine life emerged unscathed. (The crash was left in the final film.) Novarro and Bushman actually drove their chariots, with Bushman becoming quite proficient—you can see Niblo favoring him in the medium shots, which are not backscreen projection. Bushman later boasted, probably correctly, that he had done more chariot racing than any man alive.

On Dec. 30, 1925, Ben-Hur was rolled out with a gala premiere at the 1,000-seat George M. Cohan theater. Besides the usual swells and stars, the opening night crowd included a procession of “bishops, priests, and ministers representing all the denominations in the metropolitan district of New York City,” including the Rev. Dr. Stephen S. Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress and, like Judah Ben-Hur, a staunch Zionist. Civilians paid a top price of $2.20 for tickets (about $40 today).

Enthralled by the massive sets, color tinting, and throngs of costumed extras, audiences applauded throughout the film. During the chariot race, they cheered as if they were in the coliseum. When the house lights went up, director Niblo was greeted with an ovation worthy of an emperor. “It is the industry’s crowning achievement,” wrote Martin J. Quigley, editor of Exhibitor’s Herald. “The production of Ben-Hur will continue for years to be the greatest ambassador the industry has ever had.” Yet not all critics gave the film a thumbs up. According to Kevin Brownlow, Mussolini was furious when he saw that Messala, whom he thought was the hero, was defeated by Ben-Hur. He banned the film as “Christian propaganda” which “must not be tolerated in the present age of revolutionary enlightenment.”

Ben-Hur played for over a year in New York and was a successful roadshow presentation across the nation, but the production expenses were too high to recoup the film’s negative costs. It ended its commercial run in the red. The picture of the year was not Ben-Hur but King Vidor’s antiwar epic The Big Parade (1925), which outgrossed it, outplayed it, and outlived it. In 1931, a synchronized sound version of Ben-Hur was released and promptly flopped.

For decades afterward, the very name remained a cautionary watchword and punchline. In 1949, screenwriter Francis Marion joked that she was going to call her memoir Bigger Than Ben-Hur. (She went with Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood, published in 1972. The title was eventually nicked for Bigger Than Ben-Hur: The Book, Its Adaptations, and Their Audiences, a collection of essays by Barbara Ryan and Milette Shamir, published in 2016.)

In 1952, with memories of the 1925 fiasco fading, MGM figured to take another bite at the apple. The revival of the property was an act of desperation and opportunity. In an age in which television was siphoning away the mass audience for theatrical cinema, the introduction of widescreen formats held out the promise of luring back lapsed moviegoers. “Probably no yarn now in studio hands cries for big treatment (or can be enhanced by such values) more than the MGM spectacle,” wrote Billy Wilkerson in the Hollywood Reporter. The new version of Ben-Hur was originally slated to be shot in CinemaScope, and then Todd AO, but in the end it was filmed in MGM’s ultra-high definition Camera 65 process, in Technicolor, and projected in 70 mm.

To helm the project, the studio turned to a seasoned pro with a mantel of Oscars, William Wyler. In 1925, Wyler had been on the Circus Maximus set in Culver City working crowd control in the original Ben-Hur. Paul Newman and Marlon Brando were both considered for the role of Ben-Hur, but Charlton Heston, who had a biblically intertextual backstory, won out. Black Irish actor Stephen Boyd was cast as Messala, and Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther (her presence would get the film banned in Jordan).

The film was shot outside Rome at Cinecittà Studios, an enormous plant built in 1937 by Mussolini, who had bedeviled the original production. This time around, the full expertise of the genius of the Hollywood system was in play: years of careful pre-production planning, on-site oversight by MGM executives Eddie Mannix and Joe Vogel, and the day-to-day supervision of veteran producer Sam Zimbalist. (Not that the genius of the system was always a guarantee of streamlined competence, as Twentieth Century-Fox learned a few years later with Cleopatra [1963].)

Knowing the task was too daunting for any one director, Wyler delegated lines of authority to trusted lieutenants: Richard Thorpe oversaw the galley and battle scenes in the largest artificial pool in all of Italy; and second unit director Andrew Marton and Italian cinematographer Piero Portalupi coordinated filming the chariot race, with legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt choreographing the vehicles. Director of photography Robert Surtees estimated that over 1 million feet of Eastman Color 65 mm negative was shot on six Panavision 65 mm cameras, most of which were simultaneously in use for coverage of the most spectacular scenes. Surtees took painstaking care with the focus and lighting because the exceptionally sharp resolution picked up any flaw in fabric or makeup. Three editors, including MGM veteran Margaret Booth, handled the herculean task of stitching the footage together. The construction of the Circus Maximus set took up 18 acres (“the largest set every built”) packed with 6,800 extras in full costume. The result was arguably the most thrilling chase scene ever committed to celluloid—though on second thought, scratch the arguably.

Compared to the 1925 version, the 10-month-long production went off without a hitch. Ben-Hur experienced only a single notable casualty, but not under the wheels of a chariot: producer Sam Zimbalist, who died of a heart attack in Rome just as the film was nearing completion.

Wyler’s director’s cut clocked in at 3 hours and 50 minutes, which would have made it the longest U.S. film ever sent into release. (Gone with the Wind [1939], the record holder, ran 3 hours and 41 minutes.) MGM trimmed the final release print to a running time of 3 hours and 33 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. Variety wondered if perhaps “four hours within doors” with Ben-Hur was pushing the limits of audience attention—and bladders—too far. The joke going around town was “I couldn’t sit for four hours—even if they made The Last Supper with the original cast.”

It was a minority opinion. After premieres in New York (Nov. 18, 1959) and London (Dec. 16), Ben-Hur broke box office records everywhere, selling out roadshow engagements weeks in advance. The box office was helped by the all-important imprimatur of the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency which gave Ben-Hur its all clear A-1 classification (“morally unobjectionable for general patronage”) and a blurb for good measure: “As wholesome entertainment on an unusually high level of achievement, this film is recommended to the patronage of the entire family.”

Indeed, unlike the biblical epics of Cecil B. DeMille, which revel in the pagan shenanigans while paying lip service to Mosaic law, Ben-Hur is authentically reverent about both the Jewish and Christian traditions. A detail that went over the heads of many gentiles was the mezuzah at the entranceway to the House of Hur; in accordance with Orthodox practice, Ben-Hur kisses his fingers and touches it before entering. But it is the presence of Christ—never heard, barely glimpsed—that invests the film with its spiritual power. When a parched Ben-Hur, being led to the galleys across a sun-baked desert, comes to a well, a sadistic centurion denies him water. Ben-Hur collapses, insensible, and Christ kneels down to wash his face and quench his thirst. Enraged, the centurion raises his whip to lash the stranger. Seeing His face, the centurion lowers the whip, surprising himself, and then his face fills with shame. Ben-Hur will return the favor on the road to Calvary. “My father used to joke it took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ,” recalls Wyler’s daughter Catherine.

The Catholics and the critics in 1959 overlooked a transgressive undercurrent that seems obvious to modern viewers. As has been widely commented on, the real love story in Ben-Hur is not between Ben-Hur and Esther but Ben-Hur and Messala. To call the relationship homoerotic is to slight the intensity of the attraction. Novelist Gore Vidal, an uncredited script doctor on the film, insinuated a backstory in which the pair, as young boys, did more than hunt together. Hence the intensity of the break-up, with Messala responding like a jilted lover when Judea refuses to inform on his fellow Jews (a not insignificant detail in the Hollywood blacklist era).

In the years since, Ben-Hur has inspired a 2010 television mini-series and a 2016 feature film version, but both the 1925 and 1959 versions are impossible acts to follow—quite literally. Never again will a motion picture be able to command thousands of real people in full costume, fabricate life-size sets, and risk so much human and horseflesh—not in the age of CGI and PETA.

Fortunately, both films are readily available on physical media. Kevin Brownlow, predictably, prefers the silent Niblo version, but for anyone like me, whose primal movie memory begins with the Wyler version unspooling on a 50-foot screen, it’s no contest.

Thomas Doherty, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 and Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century.