The story of Ben-Hur has been a popular one since the 19th century.
- “Ben-Hur” was first published in the United States in 1880 by Lew Wallace, a Civil War Union General and Governor of the New Mexico Territory, and became the number one best-selling work of fiction of that century. The first movie adaptation was released in 1907, followed by a longer version in 1925.
- The most well-known adaptation was the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston, premiering on November 18 of that year, nearly seven years after it was first announced. It’s the story of a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur, who is betrayed by a Roman friend and forced into slavery. When Ben-Hur regains his freedom, he returns for revenge.
- Filming in Rome began before the script was finished. The shooting schedule was brutal, with 12-hr to 14-hr days, six days a week lasting from May of 1958 until January 1959. Six months of editing followed. More than 1.1 million feet of film was shot, and the editors’ first cut was more 4 ½ hours long. By the time the project was finished, the final film included 19,000 feet of film and was 213 minutes long.
- More than 300 sets were built, requiring one million pounds of plaster, 40,000 cubic feet of lumber and more than a million props. Upwards of 10,000 extras were hired, with 7,500 of them used to fill the stadium during the film’s nine-minute chariot race.
- Danesi Brothers, a Roman chariot maker, built 18 chariots, each weighing 900 lbs. . Charlton Heston took three-hour chariot driving lessons every day after arriving in Rome.
- The chariot scene was the film’s focal point, taking place in what was then the biggest movie set ever constructed. Covering 18 acres, the arena was a duplicate of an actual Roman stadium outside Jerusalem that was five stories tall housing a 2,000-ft-long track. Forty thousand tons of white sand were imported from Mexico to overlay the surface. The cost of construction was $1 million in 1958.
- A staff of 100 wardrobe fabricators began working on the costumes for the movie a year before the filming even started, in order to complete more than 100,000 costumes and 1,000 suits of armor. Costume making was an international event as leather workers hand-tooled items in the United Kingdom, while Italian shoemakers worked on boots and shoes. Silk was imported from Thailand, with West Germany contributing the armor. Woolens were manufactured and costumes embroidered in the United Kingdom, and lace came from France. Italian women donated more than 400 lbs. of hair to produce wigs and beards.
- Six months into the filming, producer Sam Zimbalist complained of chest pains on the set, and left for the day. He passed away 40 minutes later from a heart attack.
- The budget was originally set at $7 million, then raised to $10 million three months before shooting began, escalating to $15.175 million by the time they started, the most expensive film ever produced to date. Its initial theater run yielded $147 million in revenue, saving MGM Studios, which was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, the film nabbed 11 of them, making it the most Oscars ever won by a single film. The record still holds today, although it has been tied by “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings.”