Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Ben-Hur’: William Wyler Whips Up a Spectacle

9/20/2022
Updated:
9/28/2022

G | 3h 32min | Drama, Epic | 1959

Imagine you’re a 23-year-old Jewish assistant director and production manager to 51-year-old director Fred Niblo. The year is 1925. You’re in Rome, shooting an MGM epic about a Jewish prince based on a screenplay by one of the most influential women in Hollywood at the time, June Mathis.

That’s how it starts for a young William Wyler. Over 30 years later, based on Karl Tunberg’s screenplay and work by skilled writers Gore Vidal, S.N. Behrman and Christopher Fry, Wyler remakes the original and his film wins 11 Oscars. Wyler’s film is, of course, “Ben-Hur,” the epic of epics, inspired by Lew Wallace’s book “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”

(L–R) Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, and director William Wyler on the set of "Ben-Hur." (MovieStillsDB)
(L–R) Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, and director William Wyler on the set of "Ben-Hur." (MovieStillsDB)

Under the dark clouds of the Roman Empire, a carpenter’s son, Jesus the Nazarene, shapes the fates of two men. Wealthy Jew Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) reunites after several years with Messala (Stephen Boyd), his childhood friend, who’s a Roman. But as Rome crushes Judean resistance, their friendship fractures, then breaks.

When Judah’s sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), accidentally cracks a roof tile, you hear its fateful fall on the Roman parade below and suspect that it’s not just their roof that’s falling apart. And it’s true: The falling tile injures a high-ranking Roman official and spiteful Messala tears into their family and their world. Judah ends up a galley slave, and Tirzah and their mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), are thrown into secret dungeons. Judah comes back for revenge and bides his time.

Feast for the Senses

Decades before CGI appeared in movies, production, set, costume, and art design teams sweated it out. Here, they mobilized over 100,000 costumes, 10,000 extras, thousands of suits of armor, and hundreds of camels, horses, donkeys, and sheep, and that Judeo-Roman world comes alive: the march of a legion, the roar of a crowd, the sweltering heat of a Roman-occupied village, the bestiality of the arena.

You hear every sound: the rattle of a soldier’s sword against his belt, the rustle of a governor’s tunic, or the rusty turn of a key in a dungeon gate. And you almost smell the stench from a concealed prison cell.

As the galley master growls at slaves, his drumbeat dictates the pace at which they must row: raise oars, down oars, strike oars, battle speed, attack speed, ramming speed!

You lose yourself in the splendor of a Roman palace. You flinch at seeing the Valley of the Lepers almost as much as at the forbidding scarves that lepers use to shield their blighted features.

The Race

The famed chariot race is a filmmaking masterclass but mirrors excellence throughout the film.

Wyler takes his time, showing us as many as nine charioteers in a solemn parade. Horses bearing charioteer standards ride yards ahead; their ceremonial hoof marks are the first you see on the smooth sand before racing-wheel and racing-hoof marks ravage every inch. You almost feel the hot breath of horses on your face, and their edginess at the starting block. As excited crowds spill over arena stands, trumpeters herald the arrival of Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring), who presides.

Wyler and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees cannily swivel cameras between spots of fierce pace (two chariots astride or several together) and utter stillness (a mountainous statue staring up into the Roman sky). They mix this up with fleeting focus on the flow of pace; from time to time, the camera stares at upright dolphin figurines, inverted in sequence to mark the end of each lap.

Unit directors, led principally by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, use car-mounted cameras to stay ahead of the horses. Yet repeatedly, over that third-of-a-mile stretch, the horses outrun the cars. Canutt then brings race cars in and gives them a head start. The horses outrun them too.

Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in the chariot race that kept audiences on the edge of their seats in "Ben-Hur." (MovieStillsDB)
Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in the chariot race that kept audiences on the edge of their seats in "Ben-Hur." (MovieStillsDB)

Perhaps it’s for the best. Wyler secures breathtaking footage: four fiery manes charging past a beleaguered chariot or eight manes turning the giant corner, in unison. The horses themselves, all European, are a sight to behold either standing or speeding. Milk-white Andalusians at Judah’s chariot and Lipizzans at others, including gorgeous glossy blacks at Messala’s.

Franklin Milton’s sound engineering and recording team switch every few seconds between relative silence in one spot—say, ground handlers clearing an injured charioteer or a broken chariot—and deafening galloping-wheeling in another. John Dunning’s editing “storyboards” the action so seamlessly that you forget the entire sequence took at least a year to plan and as long as three months to shoot. And Miklos Rozsa’s score is as majestic as it is moving.

Enduring Power and Life

Wyler’s film overflows with symbols. A respectful crown on Judah and a shameful one on Jesus signifies Rome’s frivolity. Water here doesn’t just quench thirst; it heals as well.

The film argues that temporal power is no less real because it’s fleeting: a master’s power over his slave, a ruler’s over his subjects, an army’s over its rivals. It has real and lasting consequences. It hurts, it enslaves, and it kills. But there’s a power that transcends it: the power to love and to forgive without regret or rancor. It, too, has consequences. It heals, it sets free, it gives new life.

The narrator’s opening lines talk of Judea longing for a redeemer who’ll deliver “perfect” freedom, hinting at “imperfect” freedoms all around. As soldiers march by a Jewish village, some Jews line up in awe, others in fear. A customer asks the carpenter Joseph (Jesus’s father), still at work, why he isn’t watching, too. Joseph answers, “We’ve seen Romans before.” The man nods wearily, “Yes, and we will see them again.”

The film doesn’t promise the disappearance of persecution but the appearance of a new strength and a renewed faith. It also shows how often we mistake life for death, or how frequently we misread forgiveness as loss when it’s actually victory.

(L–R) Cathy O'Donnell as Tirzah, Haya Harareet as Esther, Martha Scott as Miriam, Sam Jaffe as Simonides (Esther's father), and Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur on a lobby card for "Ben-Hur." (MovieStillsDB)
(L–R) Cathy O'Donnell as Tirzah, Haya Harareet as Esther, Martha Scott as Miriam, Sam Jaffe as Simonides (Esther's father), and Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur on a lobby card for "Ben-Hur." (MovieStillsDB)

Wyler’s women characters are scarce but strong. Judah loves Esther (Haya Harareet), who doesn’t hesitate to lose his affection if he won’t give up vengeance and join her on a Christ-inspired path of forgiveness. Miriam and Tirzah would rather linger in agony and have Judah believe they’re dead than have him find them wretched outcasts.

Leprosy here is a metaphor for the grip of sin; those who contract it are as good as “dead” to others. Those who break free of it gain “new life.” Judah’s spirit of vengeance is a leprosy of sorts, hence Esther’s insistence that he break free of it to find “new life.”

As usual, Heston brings acting “presence” rather than “prowess” to the screen, and on this score, he delivers as few actors do. That said, he carries a princely bearing with more ease than he does an air of revenge. Boyd, however, carries Messala’s malice effortlessly. Even when he’s oozing charm, you suspect that he isn’t in it all the way. There’s a part of him that’s held back, even from Tirzah whom he fancies, almost like he’s waiting for something ominous to happen—or to cause it, if it doesn’t.

In one of the most rivetingly written and enacted scenes, the two men recall their days as boyhood friends in Judah’s sprawling estate. Suddenly, Rome’s ambition rears its head and Messala confronts Judah, hoping to win an influential ally who’ll expose Jewish rebels plotting against Rome.

On this lobby card, Messala (Stephen Boyd, L) meets his boyhood friend Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) in a tense conversation while confirming their friendship. (MovieStillsDB)
On this lobby card, Messala (Stephen Boyd, L) meets his boyhood friend Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) in a tense conversation while confirming their friendship. (MovieStillsDB)

It’s a four-minute scene, every second of it gripping. Watch their eyes hunting for weakness, their shoulders set in resolve, their hands raised in warning, their jaws clenched in contempt, the veins on their necks bursting with rage, their powerful voices booming in the peaceful courtyard. Wyler didn’t need to bring lions in for his Roman epic. He already had them.

Another Wyler masterstroke is the way he reveals Jesus—by hiding him. He shows us the man, never his face. Wyler knows his audience. Whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish, he knows that the “faith-conscious” won’t see his religious narrative as a “waste of time.” So he goes ahead with his Old and New Testament references and makes a nearly four-hour movie.

Wyler’s single-mindedness helps him tell the story he wants to tell, with the nuance he intends, free of the self-consciousness that plagues other filmmakers who’ve handled biblical films. His unsparing intensity creates an overtly religious world sympathetically that still astonishes audiences, “believers” or not.

Promotional ad for "Ben-Hur," which tells how a carpenter’s son, Jesus the Nazarene, shapes the fates of two men. (MovieStillsDB)
Promotional ad for "Ben-Hur," which tells how a carpenter’s son, Jesus the Nazarene, shapes the fates of two men. (MovieStillsDB)
‘Ben-Hur’ Director: William Wyler Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell MPAA Rating: G Running Time: 3 hours, 32 minutes Release Date: Nov. 18, 1959 Rated: 5 stars out of 5
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz