Ben-Hur (1959)

This mammoth widescreen entertainment delivers Christian piety on an expansive scale, but its exciting chariot race showdown remains the best-remembered highlight.

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Introduction

“The biggest and best of Hollywood’s super spectacles.”
Time magazine, 1959

MGM’s 1925 version of Lew Wallace’s hugely popular novel Ben-Hur was one of the biggest hits of the silent era, but they outdid themselves with this lavish 1959 remake. Recreating ancient Judea and Rome at Cinecittà studios in Italy involved over 10,000 extras and – for the famed chariot race – the largest film set ever constructed, exemplifying a grandiose approach to filmmaking since lost to modern digital technology.

With the drama anchored by Charlton Heston’s imposing presence as the wealthy Jew whose vengeance against Roman imperialism is tempered by the teachings of Christ, director William Wyler always keeps the moral issues centre stage, resonating – perhaps surprisingly – with the contemporary civil rights struggle in the US. The film won a then-unprecedented 11 Oscars.

Directors Ridley Scott (Gladiator) and George Lucas have both described the impact the film had on them, the latter paying homage to its chariot sequence in 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

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