Oscar: Best Picture–Ben-Hur (1959)

ben_hur_heston_posterThe historical epic “Ben-Hur,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1959, boasted achievements in a number of departments. It was the most expensive film ever made to date, with a budget of $15 million, one fifth of which was allocated for promotion and advertisement. The film was produced in Rome by Sam Zimablist, who reportedly constructed 3,000 sets and employed over 50,000 people.


The highly anticipated movie world-premiered at the Egyptian, on Hollywood Boulevard, on November 24, 1959, and soon after became a movie event, the most-talked about picture of the year–for a variety of reasons.


“Ben-Hur” is still the first remake to ever win Best Picture Oscar. Back in 1959, it won the largest number of awards to date: eleven out of its twelve nominations. The only category in which the film lost was screenplay, credited to Karl Tunberg, though at least four distinguished writers contributed to its writing: Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman, Christopher Frye, and Gore Vidal, which might have been the reason for its loss; the well-deserved winner was Neil Paterson for “Room at the Top.”

ben_hur_heston_5“Ben-Hur” was the only historical spectacle in the Best Picture contest, up against small, intimate movies, such as Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” George Stevens’s Holocaust drama “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Fred Zinnemann’s morality tale “The Nun’s Story,” and Jack Clayton’s UK realistic drama “Room at the Top.”
Based on Lew Wallace’s popular novel about the rise of Christianity, “Ben-Hur” features spectacular visual effects. The stunning chariot race, choreographed by Hollywood’s top second unit directors, headed by Yakima Canutt. Its acting, by contrast, is not spectacular and Charlton Heston, who was cast after Universal refused to loan out Rock Hudson, is reasonably good in the title role of a converted Christian, in conflict with Massalla (Stephen Boyd), the Roman commander and his former childhood friend.

ben_hur_heston_4But the film’s shortcoming did not matter much, since “Ben-Hur” was marked by a then new visual sweep and enough pageantry to entertain audiences for its epic length, 217 minutes.

ben_hur_heston_3Overcoming MGM’s initial fears, “Ben-Hur” was such an instant commercial success that its grosses were weekly reported to the public to make it seem as “a must-see” movie, which it became, with the assistance of mostly good reviews and word of mouth. Playing for months, the movie grossed over $80 million in worldwide rentals.

Detailed Synopsis

Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy merchant in Jerusalem, circa AD 26. His childhood friend, the Roman Messala (Stephen Boyd), is now a tribune. After several years away, Messala returns as the new commander of the Roman garrison. Messala believes in the glory of imperial power, while Ben-Hur is devoted to faith and freedom of the Jews. Messala asks Ben-Hur to name the Jews who criticize the Romans,  but Ben-Hur refuses.

ben_hur_heston_2Ben-Hur lives with his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), and sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell). Their loyal slave Simonides (Sam Jaffe) is preparing for the arranged marriage of his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet). Ben-Hur and Esther are in love, though she is promised to another man.

During the parade for Judea’s new governor, Valerius Gratus, a tile falls from the roof of Ben-Hur’s house, and Gratus is thrown from his horse. Although Messala knows it was an accident, he condemns Ben-Hur to the galleys and imprisons Miriam and Tirzah. By punishing a known friend and prominent citizen, he hopes to intimidate the Jewish populace. Overcome by thirst when his slave gang arrives at Nazareth, Ben-Hur collapses. A local carpenter (later Jesus) then gives him water.

After three years as a slave, Ben-Hur is assigned to the flagship of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), charged with destroying Macedonian pirates. Arrius admires Ben-Hur’s self-discipline and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer. Ben-Hur declines the offer, declaring that God will aid him in his quest for vengeance.

Arrius orders all the rowers except Ben-Hur to be chained to their benches. Arrius’ galley is rammed and sunk, but Ben-Hur unchains the other rowers and rescues Arrius from sinking wreckage. Arrius wrongly believes the battle ended in defeat and atones by “falling on his sword,” but Ben-Hur prevents him from suicide. Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet’s victory. The consul successfully petitions Emperor Tiberius (George Relph) to free Ben-Hur, and adopts him as his son. A year later, Ben-Hur becomes a champion charioteer but longs for his family and homeland.

Along the way to Judea, he meets Balthasar (Finlay Currie) and the Arab sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who has heard of Ben-Hur’s prowess.  He asks him to drive his quadriga in a race before the new Judean governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring). Ben-Hur declines, even after learning that Messala will also compete.

Upon return to his home in Jerusalem, Ben-Hur meets Esther, and learns her arranged marriage did not occur.  Visiting Messala, he demands that his mother and sister be free. But the Romans discover that Miriam and Tirzah contracted leprosy in prison, and expel them from the city. The women beg Esther to conceal their condition from Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur decides to seek vengeance on Messala by competing against him in the chariot race.

ben_hur_1During the chariot race, Messala drives a chariot with blades on the hubs to tear apart the other vehicles. In the grueling race, Messala attempts to destroy Ben-Hur’s chariot but destroys his own instead. Messala is fatally injured, while Ben-Hur wins the race. Before dying, Messala tells Ben-Hur that “the race is not over,” and that  his family is in the Valley of the Lepers. Ben-Hur visits the nearby leper colony, where he sees his mother and sister.

Esther hears Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, and tells Ben-Hur about the message of peace and forgiveness. Blaming the Romans for his family’s fate, Ben-Hur rejects his patrimony and Roman citizenship. Learning that Tirzah is dying, Ben-Hur and Esther take her and Miriam to see Jesus, but the trial of Jesus has begun. Jesus begins his march to Calvary and stumbles before Ben-Hur. Recognizing Jesus from their earlier encounter, Ben-Hur attempts to give him water but guards separate them.

Ben-Hur witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus, but Miriam and Tirzah are miraculously healed by the rainstorm which follows the crucifixion. Ben-Hur tells Esther that he heard Jesus talk of forgiveness while on the cross: “I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.”  With his hatred gone, he is reunited with his mother and sister.


Budget: $15 million
Running time: 212 Minutes

Oscar Nominations: 12


Picture, produced by Sam Zimbalist

Director: William Wyler

Screenplay (Adapted): Karl Tunberg

Actor: Charlton Heston

Supporting Actor: Hugh Griffith

Cinematography (color): Robert L. Surtees

Art Direction-Set Decoration (color: William A. Horning and Edward Carfagno; Hugh Hunt

Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters

Costume Design (color): Elizabeth Haffenden

Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Miklos Rozsa

Sound: Franklin F. Milton

Special Effects: A. Arnold Gillespie and Robert MacDonald, visual; Milo Lory, audible


Oscar Awards: 11





Supporting Actor


Art Direction-Set Decoration

Film Editing

Costume Design



Special Effects



Oscar Context


In 1959, “Ben-Hur” won over Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder,” which lost in each of its 7 categories; the Holocaust drama, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which received 7 nominations and won 3; Fred Zinnemann’s morality tale “The Nun’s Story,” which also lost in each of its 7 nominations, and the superb British drama “Room at the Top,” which won 2 out of its 6 nominations.



Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur

Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius

Haya Harareet as Esther

Stephen Boyd as Messala

Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim

Martha Scott as Miriam

Cathy O’Donnell as Tirzah

Sam Jaffe as Simonides

Finlay Currie as Balthasar and the narrator

Frank Thring as Pontius Pilate

Terence Longdon as Drusus

George Relph as Tiberius Caesar

André Morell as Sextus

Claude Heater as Jesus