Ben-Hur is still one of the most epic and thrilling movies to ever come out of Hollywood. It was a marvel of technical filmmaking and grand storytelling, and it’s now held up as one of those movies they just don't make any more. But that level of spectacle always comes at a price, and in many ways, this iconic movie was a nightmare to make. Here are 40 jaw-dropping secrets about Ben-Hur, "the entertainment experience of a lifetime."
1. The chariot race required its own director
William Wyler may be the director credited with bringing Ben-Hur to the big screen, but he didn't do the job all on his own. The filmmakers enlisted the help of Andrew Marton to take charge of the still-talked-about-today chariot-race sequence.
Given the mammoth effort involved in pulling off one of cinema's most dynamic races, it's understandable that Marton was hurt that he didn't get a suitable on-screen credit. He was listed as a second-unit director for the film, while he felt he should have been explicitly credited as the director of the chariot race.
2. The chariot arena was truly something else
It took about 1,000 people to build the set for the arena that would eventually host the famous chariot race. The finished set sprawled across 18 acres; it was roughly 2,000 feet long and 65 feet wide.
This made that one set of Ben-Hur the biggest one to have ever been made for the movies up to that point. And it reportedly took 40,000 tons of imported sand to fill it up. It's a good job that final sequence was so memorable!
3. A famous stuntman put together the chariot race
The chariot race sequence was a monumental undertaking, and it took months of work to bring it all together. To help pull it off, the filmmakers turned to stuntman Yakima Canutt, who was famous for a dramatic stunt in John Ford's Stagecoach.
It was Canutt's job to figure out the stunts for the chariot race and train all the drivers. He also trained actor Charlton Heston to drive the chariots and do his own stunt work. Heston made himself available months before the cameras started to roll to get in shape.
4. Heston was handy in a chariot
Weirdly, Heston had come to the set of Ben-Hur having already had experience driving a chariot. He'd had to take charge of a two-horse cart for The Ten Commandments, which had been released just three years before Ben-Hur.
But even though Heston had the skill and the experience to pull off the stunts in Ben-Hur, he was still worried about the scale of the task ahead. Stunt coordinator Canutt told him, "You just stay in the chariot; I guarantee you'll win the damn race."
5. There were dozens of animals needed for the shoot
Each chariot in the race sequence is drawn by four horses, meaning a total of 36 horses get time to shine in front of the cameras. But in order to pull the sequence off in a timely manner, the filmmakers needed a lot more animals.
It's thought that 82 animals were shipped to Rome from Yugoslavia for the movie. The surplus creatures were there to give all the stunt horses time to rest, and to be replacements should any of them get injured.
6. A quarter of the entire budget went on the chariot race
The total budget for Ben-Hur was a then-unprecedented $15 million, making it the most expensive movie ever made at the time. That's about $157 million in today's money, But perhaps even more incredibly, much of that budget was put aside for the chariot race.
The staggering sequence took ten weeks and an impressive $4 million to capture on film. This included time to allow actor Stephen Boyd to recover after his hands and wrists became blistered.
7 The chariot scene was a headache from the ground up
Second-unit director Marton and stunt coordinator Canutt had to figure out how to make the ground of their chariot race set safe for the dozens of horses using it. Their first scheme involved laying flattened ground rock covered by 10 inches of ground lava, 8 inches of ground yellow rock, and sand.
But when this surface proved too slow to recreate an exciting, fast race, the filmmakers had to think again. They ended up taking off the yellow rock and sand and letting the horses go Hell for leather on the ground lava.
8. The large cameras used put the crew in harm's way
The filmmakers behind Ben-Hur made the pioneering decision to capture the action in a larger widescreen format than ever before. But the new 65mm cameras proved to be a problem on the shoot.
While filming the chariot race, second-unit director Marton found that the crew couldn't get the cameras to focus on the action correctly. This meant they'd have to move the cameras themselves, putting everybody much closer to the thunderous race than initially anticipated.
9. A chariot crash caused a disastrous delay
Marton revealed in the January 1960 issue of Films in Review that a seemingly straightforward shot of the chariots had ended in disaster. He'd positioned two of his fragile cameras to film the chariots coming out of a curve.
"Once, two chariots smashed into two of our cameras when they came out of the turn too fast," Marton wrote. "Fortunately, no horses were lost, or even lamed, and the crew and cameras were only bruised." The cameras did require repairs, though, and that resulted in days' worth of delays.
10. The action for the chariot race was filmed in one-take shots
It was hot in Rome when the filmmakers were shooting Ben-Hur, and the intense heat caused a raft of problems. For the chariot race scene, it meant that the horses could only do eight runs a day at the very most.
So second-unit director Marton absolutely had to capture all of the shots in the first take. In fact, he said he only ever filmed one sequence twice — and that was just because there had been an obvious mistake.
11. Heston and Boyd really did do all their driving
Actors Heston and Boyd did take charge of their chariots, only ever relinquishing the reins for two stunts. The most famous stunt they didn't do was when Judah's ride jumped over a fallen chariot.
For this dangerous feat, stunt choreographer Canutt asked his son Joe to take the lead. The stunt actually very nearly went wrong and it was only Joe's experience and instincts that saved his life. He was taken to the E.R. after being dragged by the horses, but only needed four stitches.
12. Boyd was bruised by one brave stunt
One stunt during the race is particularly hair-raising: when Boyd is dragged along by a chariot. The filmmakers first tried the stunt with a dummy, but the inert stand-in ended up "ripped and torn."
That's when Boyd stepped in to perform the stunt himself. "We protected him with some steel coverings here and there on his body, but he still was bruised and abrased," second-unit director Marton said in Films in Review. Most importantly, though, they got the shot.
13. "One simple shot turned into a nightmare"
Chariot sequence director Marton said a "simple shot" where the camera — mounted in a vehicle in front of the action — follows the full-speed chariots nearly ended in disaster, too. "We were in the middle of the fastest run when suddenly the motor of the camera car backfired, stuttered, and died," he wrote in Films in Review in 1960.
Luckily, he said, "The fine Yugoslavian horses saved the day. They swerved and missed us — and all nine chariots. If any of those horses had split opinions, two going one way and two the other — but they didn’t."
14. Heston took a tumble off a chariot
The filming of the chariot race seemingly went about as well as it could have, with no horses or men losing their lives. But not everybody escaped entirely without injury. Even lead actor Heston had a close call.
While Heston held the reins, somebody shouted "Giddy-up!" to the horses. And when the horses kicked into gear, Heston was thrown off the back of the chariot. He was seemingly unharmed in the accident, though.
15. The director would rather not have had a chariot race
In a 1967 issue of Cinema magazine, director Wyler argued that his film was no "more pretentious than the story dictates." Yet he also hinted that if he hadn't been forced by his source material to include a chariot race, he could've come up with something more cost-effective.
"We would have much preferred to have a cross-country chariot race," he said, "it would have been much cheaper. We could have gone across the hills of Rome and down dirt roads and along beaches, and we could have saved a couple of million dollars."
16. The boat they used was not practical
If you don't think of the chariot race when you think of Ben-Hur, you probably think of the spectacular scenes filmed on boats. But while these sequences turned out great for the time, the Roman ship they built for the production was far from practical.
This was despite getting the boat designed by an expert in Roman naval architecture! The filmmakers' first attempt to launch the boat saw it capsize, so they ended up anchoring the ship in a pond and using cables to keep it upright.
17. The rowing was done on a sound stage
The widescreen cameras used to film Ben-Hur proved too big to get inside the production's Roman boat. The answer? The crew had to remove the boat from its pond, slice it in half, and then set it up on a stage in Italy. But even this didn't solve all their problems.
The stage didn't leave any room for the actors' oars, so the filmmakers had to cut the oars down to size, too. Then they even had to create a special mechanism to add resistance and make the rowing appear more realistic.
18. The color of the water was faked
Because the crew couldn't keep their Roman boat afloat in the ocean, they had to film it in a murky pond made to look like the color of the Mediterranean Sea. But this is not as easy as it sounds.
A chemist tried dying the water with powder, but only succeeded in creating a crust on the pond that caused significant damage to the boat. And even after they managed to find the right kind of dye, an extra ended up falling into the pond — and turning a shade of blue! Don't worry, though, MGM paid him until he returned to his correct color.
19. The script went through a lot of rewrites
Director Wyler wasn't happy with the script when he signed on to make Ben-Hur. The screenplay he started with was written by Karl Tunberg, who ended up with the final screen credit. But many other writers had a go at cracking the story.
These included Gore Vidal, S. N. Behrman, Maxwell Anderson, and Christopher Fry. It was Fry who apparently turned the script into one with which Wyler was happy, giving it the classical dialog the director had been seeking. The resulting debate around who should've got credit for the final movie likely led to Ben-Hur missing out on an Oscar for its screenplay.
20. Ben-Hur could have had other leading actors
It seems impossible to imagine Ben-Hur without Heston, but he wasn't the only big star touted for the role of Judah. The other above-the-title names in the mix included Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, and Rock Hudson.
Burt Lancaster allegedly dismissed the script for being too religious, and Paul Newman apparently wasn't interested in doing another toga movie after The Silver Chalice. And another casting what-if saw Naked Gun's Leslie Nielsen tested for the role of Messala.
21. The cast is strictly divided between Americans and Brits
Director Wyler approached the casting of his 45 central characters with a distinct idea in mind. He wanted only British actors to play the parts of the Romans and only Americans to play the Jews. And he mostly achieved it.
The only two actors not cast in this way are the Israeli performer Haya Harareet, who played Esther, and the American Martha Scott, who played Judah's mother. But Scott only got the role after the British Marie Ney had to be replaced during filming.
22. Heston got a big payday
MGM knew this was going to be a big movie, and it was prepared to spend the money to make it big. The similarly epic Quo Vadis was produced for about $7.6 million, so Ben-Hur was budgeted at $7 million while still in preproduction, although this would prove optimistic.
The studio didn't skimp when it came to paying its cast, either. Star Heston revealed in his production diaries that he was paid the princely sum of $250,000 for 30 weeks of work. And if the production ran over? Heston would pocket even more.
23. One actor cost the movie $15,000 in delays
Wyler wanted a specific actor to play the Roman soldier who says, "No water for him!" in one pivotal scene. And when that actor didn't show up on set, Wyler insisted the production go out and get him.
Star Heston later revealed that this delay set the production back $15,000. Heston also said it was this particular actor's only film and that he went on to run a restaurant. So at least the story has a happy ending!
24. The film angered some religious groups
When you base a movie on a book called Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ, you can safely assume that you're going to pique the interest of certain religious groups. And fortunately, Ben-Hur found fans at the Catholic Legion of Decency.
But unfortunately, Jesuit critics didn't hold the Biblical epic in such high esteem. They especially felt that it was unfair that the Romans were seen to be so detestable. Protestants also reportedly disliked the film's "promotion of lurid distortions of the Bible."
25. It was make-or-break for Heston
Heston was already a star when he made Ben-Hur, thanks to movies such as The Ten Commandments. But for the A-lister, it was Ben-Hur that was going to be the true test of his superstardom.
He wrote in his 1958 production diary, "[This year] I made the picture that may or may not be the best I'll ever make, but it'll certainly either press me into the thin, airless reaches where the supernovas drift or demonstrate conclusively that my orbit is a different one."
26. It was a production unlike any other
Here are some numbers for you to try and digest. For Ben-Hur, the crew constructed over 300 sets in Rome. These took up 340 acres' worth of space, with the Jerusalem set alone filling ten square blocks.
All this construction required 40,000 cubic feet of lumber, 250 miles of metal tubing, and over 1 million pounds of plaster. And to finish it all off, sculptors were brought in to cast over 200 original statues to add to the grandeur of the thousands of props already in place.
27. The shoot started as it meant to go on
Cameras started rolling on Ben-Hur on May 20, 1958. The filmmakers seemingly opted to ease people into its massive production with a simple scene between Heston and actor Hugh Griffith. But it didn't take long before things started to get, well, epic.
On just day five of the shoot, the crew began work on capturing the famous chariots entering the impressive arena. There were an incredible 8,000 extras required for the scene that day.
28. Heston wasn't always happy with the director
Heston noted in his production diary that director Wyler would often change scenes during filming, much to his chagrin. "I doubt [Wyler] likes actors very much," Heston wrote. "He doesn't empathize with them: they irritate him on the set."
Heston also commented that Wyler would get "very impatient" with his actors while shooting. But the star did concede that th movie maestro always made his actors look good. "The only answer I have is that his taste is impeccable and every actor knows it," said Heston.
29. Heston quickly got on the director's bad side
Star Heston admitted that he got on the wrong side of director Wyler almost from the beginning. The actor said he wrote a long memo about his take on one of the earliest scenes in the film; Wyler hadn't liked that at all.
Heston felt his memo could have been part of the reason why Wyler seemingly gave him a hard time on the shoot. But then Heston also revealed that the director had once said that "you can't make a good picture" being a nice person.
30. Boyd doesn't actually have dark eyes
In real life, actor Boyd had blue eyes, but this was not what the director wanted for the role. After all, Heston had blue eyes, and he was the star of the film!
So Boyd was forced to wear contact lenses to darken his peepers. Yet the lenses started to hurt his eyes as the production wore on, and eventually, he had to reschedule some scenes to give the soreness a chance to ease.
31. The widescreen cameras brought widescreen problems
This is a bit technical, but because the crew was shooting Ben-Hur on new-fangled 65mm film, cinematographer Robert L. Surtees had a wealth of problems lighting the scenes. At one point, they even had to build scaffolding to get the bright lights the correct distance away from the cameras.
The lighting also had a knock-on effect on the actors. Heston complained in his production diary that the "blazing Sun, blazing reflectors, [and] equally blazing 10-K spots" all added to an environment in which it was tricky to act.
32. The studio head was not happy with the costs
The budget for Ben-Hur kept climbing throughout preproduction and production, and this obviously made the money men nervous. Joseph Vogel — president of MGM's parent company — even visited the set to express his concern.
Vogel watched director Wyler film a scene and spoke to him about offering some help. Then when Vogel returned to the set five weeks later, Wyler was re-shooting the same scene. Vogel panicked that they'd only shot this one scene in those five weeks!
33. Producer Sam Zimbalist died before the end of shooting
When Ben-Hur came out, MGM said in its publicity that the insane heat in Rome had caused the production to create a hospital complete with 20 beds and four staff. This didn't actually happen, but the heat did cause other problems.
For instance, the general manager of the film, Henry Henigson, was at one point forced to rest and recuperate for four days. The biggest loss, however, was producer Sam Zimbalist. The 54-year-old left the set because of chest pains and died of a heart attack just 40 minutes later.
34. Ben-Hur had a massive merchandising rollout
Everyone who is anyone in Hollywood these days has their own action figure, but it was perhaps not quite so common in 1959. Yet for Ben-Hur, the studio pulled out all the stops.
MGM spent $3 million promoting the movie, including creating deals for chariot race toys, children's costumes, and even a Ben-Hur candy bar. The company also made sure the original book was put out in various editions for people to collect.
35. The original book was allegedly blessed by the Pope
Ben-Hur, the 1959 Heston movie, is far from the only version of this story. The film was based on an immensely popular book by General Lew Wallace called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It was once the most-sold novel outside of the Bible.
The book was published in 1880, and the first stage production hit the boards in 1899. And 21 years later, the Ben-Hur show had grossed $10 million. So it was only a matter of time before the movies came calling.
36. This was the third Ben-Hur movie
The first 1907 Hollywood adaptation of Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ was hardly on the level. In fact, the production went ahead without first getting permission from author Lew Wallace. This inevitably led to a lawsuit.
Wallace's case went to the Supreme Court and eventually became a landmark in copyright history. But that disagreement didn't stop Hollywood, and in 1925 a new, lavish silent movie was released into the world. But while 1925's Ben-Hur avoided a lawsuit, it didn't exactly set the box office on fire.
37. The director took inspiration from the 1925 version
The 1925 version of Ben-Hur might not have captured the public's imagination, but it did have an effect on the 1959 movie. After all, director Wyler and producer Zimbalist both worked on the 1925 version before making it big in Hollywood.
It's also been noted by film historians that many of the celebrated scenes in 1959's Ben-Hur are strikingly similar to those in the 1925 movie. Audiences at the time wouldn't have known that, though, because the studio made sure nobody could watch the older version when the new one came out!
38. The director thought the job offer was a joke
Producer Zimbalist was the person who first came to director Wyler with the script for Ben-Hur. But Wyler dismissed the approach as nothing more than a joke. After all, Wyler's filmography to that point didn't exactly scream "epic."
Wyler was better known for human dramas such as The Best Years of Our Lives and Roman Holiday. The filmmaker even suggested Zimbalist would be better off getting Cecil B. DeMille to direct Ben-Hur. But Zimbalist was insistent and eventually got Wyler to change his mind.
39. MGM was on the verge of bankruptcy
The studio behind Ben-Hur was MGM: the one with the famous roaring-lion logo. But even though MGM is an instantly recognizable brand, the studio was actually in serious danger of going under in the 1950s.
Ben-Hur was one of the projects proposed by MGM's president Joseph Vogel to try to get them out of a financial hole. It was exactly the kind of epic costume drama that was popular at the time. Yet producer Zimbalist knew that if Ben-Hur failed, MGM would fail with it.
40. Roman Holiday is partly to thank for getting Ben-Hur made
When director Wyler was considering taking the job on Ben-Hur, the idea of filming in Rome's celebrated Cinecitta studios proved too much to resist. Wyler and his family knew the area well, because they'd not long finished shooting a movie in Italy.
The Wyler family apparently enjoyed filming Roman Holiday so much that they were happy to spend another year in Italy shooting Ben-Hur. It probably didn't hurt that Wyler also earned $350,000 as well as the use of a villa, staff, and a limousine!