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Description Edit

Ben hur
Ben-Hur is a 1959 historical American Sword and Sandal film. It was based on the novel Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ written by General Lew Wallace. The 1959 film was directed by William Wyler, delivered by Sam Zimbalist for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and featuring Charlton Heston as the main character. Ben Hur was an extremely successful film that grossed over $80 million worldwide, and was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning eleven awards: Best picture, Director, Lead actor (Heston) Supporting Actor (Griffith), Musical Score, film editing, cinematography, Art Direction/Set decoration, Sound, Costume Design and Special effects. Even though it was a huge success, the film represented a huge financial risk for the studio: at a cost of over $15 Million, filmed almost entirely on location in Italy, Ben Hur was the most expensive movie ever made to date(3).

Synopsis Edit

Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy prince living in Judea during the beginning of Christianity in AD 26. The oppressive nature of the Roman Empire has the people of Judea in talks of revolt. Troops are sent in order to quell the potential uprising of the Judean people. The Tribune, Messala, lived in Judea as a boys and Ben-Hur was a childhood friend of his. He aims to rekindle his friendship with Ben-Hur. Messala asks Ben-Hur to help him with identifying the local dissenters, Messala leaves in anger over Ben-Hurs refusal to comply. A few days later a Roman parade takes place and Ben-Hur’s sister leans over a balcony in order to get a better view. She dislodges some tiles by mistake which fall on to the new Governor as he passes by. Using the opportunity, Messala arrests Ben-Hur along with his family and throws them all into a prison. Ben-Hur learns that he is being condemned without trial and without a hearing and goes into a fit of rage. He soon breaks free from his jailers and finds his way into Messala’s chambers and demands to know why Messala would do such a thing to him and his family. Messala proclaims that it would make him feared among the Judean people. He dismisses Ben-Hur to suffer the death of a slave in the galleys, and leaves his mother and sister in prison. Ben-Hur is chained to a group of criminals and is marched through the desert. He struggles to remain conscious as he passes through Nazareth. A compassionate young man aids him during his time of need. Ben-Hur catches a glimpse of the young man and is amazed by his gaze. Years pass and Ben-Hur is shown rowing his life away in the galleys. The centurion Quintas Arrius comes aboard the ship and puts the slaves through a test of endurance. It is not long before the fleet engages in battle and through the chaos Arrius is cast overboard. He is eventually rescued by Ben-Hur. Arrius’s fleet emerges vicorious and he heads home with Ben-Hur by his side and eventually adopts him as his son. Ben-Hur decides to head back to Judea in order to gain vengeance for what Messala had done to him and his family. On the road to Judea, Ben-Hur meets Arab Sheik and Balthasar, a man that followed the star of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. He befriends Ben-Hur and sees that he is a good man, but he also senses the need for vengeance in him. The Sheik notices the talents of Ben-Hur and his knowledge for chariot racing. Sheik coaches Ben-Hur to ride his team of white-horses in a race against Messala and his team. Soon Ben-Hur meets Messala in the arena. Ben-Hur is able to win the chariot race and Messala is mortally wounded after he is dragged and trampled in the race. Ben-Hur finds Messala and is told by him that his family is not dead, but they are living among the lepers. Messala dies from his wounds. Ben-Hur encounters Balthasar who encourages him to listen to the Christ that he was seeking. Ben-Hur refuses to stay and worries about his family and their suffering in the valley of the lepers. He finds them and takes them to the city in hopes of finding Christ, who had been known for his miracles and his compassion.  They find that Christ is being led to his crucifixion. Ben-Hur realizes that Christ is the young man that helped him during his time in Nazareth. Ben-Hur tries to help him, but to no avail. At the site of the Crucifixion, Ben-Hur and Balthasar weep at the horror that they are witnessing. The sky turns dark and a storm had appeared. Ben-Hur’s family takes shelter in a nearby cave from the storm as the Earth shakes. It is soon revealed that the leprosy of Ben Hur’s family has been healed. Ben-Hur returns to his home now that his family is in good health and finds that the sacrifice of Christ had relinquished him of the hatred that filled his soul. He had been saved from his own vengeful ways. 

History Edit

Ben Hur: A tale of the Christ, the religious novel Edit

Ben Hur is based on the novel written in 1880 by Civil War General Lew Wallis. It was most notably known to be hit sensation in the 19th century, coming second to the bible. General Lew Wallis was appointed governor of the territory of New Mexico when he began writing his novel. During his time spent in New Mexico, he tried his best to keep peace during Lincoln County Range wars of 1871-81. There were conflicts between Spanish-Mexican landowners and white-Anglo ranchers disputing over rival parties, calling for justice over criminal acts, and ethnic cultures striving to fight for their rights in the rocky desert landscape. His experiences in New Mexico heavily influenced the creation of the Novel. General Lew Wallace shows the audience that the Spanish Mexican landowners can be viewed as Jews fighting for their rights and lands, and The White-Anglo Americans as Strong Romans, viewing America as a growing power. The novel describes the Story of Judah Ben Hur , A wealthy Jewish Prince who is best friends with a Roman tribune, later Ben Hur is falsely accused of harming the General, then enslaved under his Best friend the Roman Tribune Messala, then over comes his adversity through series of events the lead him to challenge Messala in a chariot race. This story of Judah seeking friendship, then revenge and finally salvation reflects the Christianity ideals. Such as Judah rejecting violence and revenge only to accept Christianity from within and merciful forgiveness toward Mescal(3).

1899 - Staged theatrically Edit

The novel was such a success that it immediately drew the attention of theater owners and playwrights wanting to adapt the novel into screenplays. At first Wallace was resistant to the offers because of the idea of having Jesus portrayed on stage. Eventually he granted permission to Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, on the condition that Jesus was to remain a Divine presence as a beam of bright light. the Screenplay adaption opened on Broadway in 1899 to an instant fame. The play had many amazing features including the ship battles of Quintus Arrius's ship sinking under blue cloth, and the famous Chariot scene with live horses on a 12,000 foot treadmill(3).

1925 - Screen adaptation Edit

The screen adaptations of Ben-Hur had already been established by this time with iterations of the story being produced in 1907 and 1925 respectively. The first in 1907 was a short one-reel screen adaptation depicting a chariot race. The film in 1925 was the first feature-length adaptation of the novel. Due to the overwhelming success of the novel and the eventual success of the stage adaptation a purchase for the film rights was made by the Goldwyn Company in order to make their feature film. The film would go on to become the most expensive silent film of the silent film era.

1959 - Ben Hur film Edit

The 1959 adaptation of Ben-Hur is the best known and is considered to be legendary for its multitude of success as well as the size and scope of the film. The film directed by William Wyler, who had previously worked on the silent film in 1925, had the largest budgets as well as a large amount of set building produced at the time. It would go on to be the highest-grossing film of 1959, and became the second highest grossing of all-time behind Gone with the Wind.

A large effort was made in order to create a script out of a highly condensed version of the novels and more than 12 different writers at different times were responsible for coming up with a script that could accomplish this. The final script ran 230 pages, and the screenplay would differ more from the original novel than did the 1925 silent film.

Modern HistoryEdit

Post-WWII Edit

Ben-Hur has great significance in the modern historical context considering that it had followed World War II. Many critics put Ben-Hur into the same tradition of other Hollywood epics of the 1950s. People saw the portrayal of the Roman Empire as a way to describe militaristic and totalitarian regimes. Some scholars argue that Wyler consistently reimagines the plot of Ben-Hur in contemporary terms to make the Roman Empire comparable in particular to Hitler’s Germany. The character of Messala becomes a symbol of the “master race” in his dialogue and actions, and some of his lines harken back to the same sentiments that were present in the violent intolerance of Nazism.

Gilded Age Edit

A popular idea during the Gilded age was the idea of achieving prosperity through piety. In Ben-Hur this is portrayed through Judah's rise from poverty to great wealth, the challenges he faces to his virtuous nature, and the rich rewards he receives, both materially and spiritually, for his efforts. The Gilded Age was a tremendous growth economically and industrially. Immigrants engulfed the country as the production of iron and steel rose in the country. The immersion of the railroad was a major success from this era. The Gilded Age gets its name from many great fortunes created during this period (1). The novel helped to define this era during which the American economy was relatively healthy, while other aspects of society were not.


Christianity Edit

The film’s Christianity theme showcases spiritual forgiveness that includes redemption and events in the life of Christ. The film begins with Christ’s birth in a stable where the three kings bring gifts. The film also shows Christ carrying the cross in Jerusalem on the way to his crucifixion. After he dies for the sins of others, a miracle embraces the sick and the poor with their cure. Ben-Hur was a wealthy Jew at the beginning of the film. After his family is healed and restored to him at the end of the film, he realizes that the sacrifice of Christ has taken the hatred and vengeance out of his heart and has healed his soul. He finds Christ and accepts him into his life. 

Gender Roles Edit

The late 1950s, experienced a change in the ideas about masculine identity and gender roles. Gender roles are social expectations that dictate how each gender is to speak, think, act, and engage with each other (8). Ben-Hur follows a visual trend by focusing its erotic gaze on the male, rather than the female figure (3). The films objectify and sexualize the male physique for the audience' viewing pleasure. In the film, there is a scene with all of the soldiers lounging in the bathhouse while visited by the Sheikh. Messala is wearing a small towel in his lower section with a well-oiled complexion. According to Monica Cyrino's Big Screen Rome, "Messala's nakedness openly displays his masculine potency, but at the same time exposes a certain weakness: the undressed Messala is seduced, like a woman, by the Sheik's sugary compliments" (3). The male nudity shows contradictory portrayal of power and vulnerability.

Linguistic Paradigm Edit

The director followed the linguistic paradigm by intentionally casting actors with artistocratic-sounding accents in the Roman roles (3). America metaphorically takes the place of the Christians, Jews, slaves that are under the overwhelmingly powerful Roman Empire. These roles were fulfilled by Stephen Boyd as Messala and Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius. Stephen Boyd is known for his piercing blue eyes. However, for this role, Boyd wore brown contact lens to contrast from fellow blue-eyed costar Charlton Heston. The Jews were portrayed with by the broad American vocal tones of Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, Martha Scott as Miriam, and Cathy O’Donnnell as Tirzah.

Technical ElementsEdit

Cinema Scope Edit

This was the first film to shoot in 70 mm film rather than the traditional 35 mm. This was part of a decades long effort to expand the aspect ratio of film. Partially due to actual advantages of wider screens, but also part of an industry arms race. In 1954, in the midst of this rush to widescreen, Panavision started manufacturing anamorphic lenses for cameras and for projectionists to fill the shortage of lenses (4). The company developed the MGM 65 which used 70 mm film to capture the chariot race scene in the wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1 (5).

Matte Painting Edit

Matte Painting

A matte painting is a painted glass pane that is used to show a landscape or large set piece (2). Matte paintings are either filmed on set, or are combined with live footage in post production. Photographers began using double-exposure techniques to composite two distinct images into one photograph (6). In order to achieve the shot, a large plate of clear glass is placed in front of the motion picture camera. A landscape or scene was then painted on the glass. An area of the glass is left clear and unpainted for the actors. They are then photographed simultaneously with the matte painting onto the original negative shot. The result is a realistic composite image of the live action and the matte painting (7). The painting in Ben Hur was developed for the soldier processional scene. The matte painting in Ben Hur was created by artist Matthew Yuricich.

Chariot Race in Ben Hur Edit

Historically, Chariot races were used as entertainment for the masses, and was on the most popular sports in Rome. The casting office opened in Rome in 1957, enlisting almost fifty thousand extras for the Chariot scene within the film. The film covered 148 acres of Cinecitta Studios and 18 acres of the studio back lot was used for the arena chariot race scene, modeled after the ancient circus on Jerusalem and a built at a cost of $1 Million. It took hundreds of workmen more than a year to carve the oval out of a rock quarry, and with 1,500 foot straight-away on either side of the spina, or central island, this was by far the largest single movie set ever built The stands reached five stories high, sturdy enough to hold thousands of extras, with the top half filled in by indigenous matte painting shots. Forty thousand tons of sand were carted in from the Mediterranean beaches ad laid down along the track's surface. The chariot race sequence required a year of advanced planning, since seventy-eight thoroughbred horses from Yugoslavia and Sicily had to be collected, conditioned, and trained by Hollywood animal wranglers to pull chariots. Heston wanted to be a convincing charioteer, so the actor took three-hour lessons in driving the quadriga, the Roman four horse chariot. Second unit directors were brought in solely to direct the breathless race scene, and the director's son Joe Canutt, did Heston's most dangerous stunts , including the white team's famous leap over chariot wreckage that left a stuntman with a gash on his chin. A total of three months went into the actual filming of the chariot race, and it is still considered one of the most exhilarating sequences ever recorded on film(3).

References Edit

  1. America's Story from America's Library. Gilded Age (1878-1889). Retrieved December 13, 2016, from
  2. Cook, P. 2012, May 27. The 50 greatest matte paintings of all time. Retrieved December 8, 2016 from
  3. Cyrino, M. S. (2005). Big screen Rome. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. P. 71, 73,83, 84, 87.
  4. Filmmaker IQ. The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of Aspect Ratio. Retrieved December 8, 2016 from
  5. Hart, M. 1997, August. Solving The Mysteries of MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision 70. Retrieved December 8, 2016 from
  6. Rocketstock. 2015. Visual Effects: How Matte Paintings are Composited into Film. Retrieved December 8, 2016 from
  7. Roos, D. 7 October 2008. How Digital Matte Painters Work. Retrieved December 8, 2016 from
  8. White, D. Gender Roles in 1950s America. Retrieved December 8, 2016, from