Ben-Hur (1959): Impact of Wyler’s Historical Epic

William Wyler’s Ben-Hur was made in 1959 (at the end of the studio system), when Hollywood was struggling to survive in the face of strong competition from television.

Cinema attendance had slid from eighty to thirty-five million a week. In 1952, Hollywood began its own widescreen revolution, trying to offer in size and scale what television lacked.

In 1953, the new technology of 3-D was introduced.

At the same time, Hollywood sought epic subject matter in the pages of The Bible. What does the epic form have to do with the 1950s? It’s usually a conservative form, basically.

Ben-Hur was not just a film; it was a media and cultural event. News interest during the long shooting schedule was very high. A parade of newspeople and celebrities were allowed to visit the set to promote the film before its release. Every detail of the production made the papers.

Ben-Hur received a lot of flack from religious groups. Jesuits protested the film’s portrayal of Romans. The Christian Century complained about the “lurid distortions of the Bible.”

Ben-Hur also angered liberals overseas, who saw the epic form as essentially conservative. Wyler was seen as being a liberal director, but with Ben-Hur he fell from grace. He stooped to a conservative genre.