With a legendary director like William Wyler, a 15 million dollar budget, full production support from MGM and an acting sensation such as Charleton Heston, its easy to see why 1959’s Ben-Hur galloped out of the Academy Awards with 11 Oscars. Over the course of the nine month production, 300 man-made sets, thousands of costumed extras and one epic chariot race meshed together under the direction of Wyler to create a stunning, historically accurate portrayal of the life of the Jewish merchant prince, Judah Ben-Hur during the last moments of Christ’s life.
“Where’s the emperor?” is the first question that a history buff may ask themselves while watching this film. Many Hollywood Roman epics feature the emperor as a main character in the film. They exploit stories that historian and gossip hound, Suetonius, crafted about the lavish, hedonistic and often ridiculous tendencies of power hungry, sex-crazed violent emperors. The emperor is not shown in this movie and I think it is because he would take away from the story, after all, Ben-Hur is supposed to be about the life of Christ and the absurd antics of a cocky demigod emperor would only distract from the story and not allow it to focus on central characters such as Judah Ben-Hur and his faceless friend, Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ face is never shown in this film and after theorizing why this could be, I read that his face was deliberately shielded at the request of the author of the novel from which the movie was based. By only showing the back of Jesus’ head, Wyler managed to capture the power and influence of Christ by documenting the visceral reactions that wash over Heston’s face when he interacts with Christ. It makes Jesus more of a respected every-man type character that still has the power to cleanse the lingering hate that Hur kept in his heart. It was a bold but effective stylistic choice.
The sets in Ben-Hur allow the audience to image a rich, hulking Rome paved with dirt and speckled with varying cultural venues from busy market places to private royal bed-quarters. All of the costumes were manicured and detailed to appropriate time-period accuracy but they still flossed a Golden Age of Hollywood-esque varnish that made them appear cleaner and shinier than they would actually be if worn by Romans in the filthy city.
They production crew used many props that seemed like they took a long time to acquire or create for very short sequences-a true sign of a large budget. An example of the aforementioned props are the golden nose diving dolphins lap counters during the chariot race, the golden serpentine horns blown at Ben-Hur’s parade to power and the large, ostentatious finger rings worn by the Christ-committed merchant, Balthasar. Such accessories are true testimonies to attention to historical detail found in this film.
The exciting and quite climatic chariot race in Ben-Hur was filmed in basically a full sized Circus Maximus that was split open to allow the crew to move freely while filming the sequence. The entire scene took three weeks to film and everything about it from the glistening leather armor to the cracking of Messala’s whip to the ornately decorated chariots leap alive off the screen and command the viewer to come enjoy the entertainment in Rome. Historically accurate as it may be, it is easy to imagine what an event like that could have actually looked like back then and it is evident that the production designers and researches used factual text to conjure this recreation with splendor.
The most impressive and historically accurate scene in the film is the infamous naval battle. The ships were constructed perfectly to match the period of Rome in which they were sailed. When the ships ram each other and the soldiers board the opposing deck, that’s when the production’s credibility skyrockets because they knew how actual naval battles played out during that time. The fire pits used to light the ballista’s massive arrows and the metal pointed front of the battle ship tempered to ram at full speed all came together to portray a very historically accurate sea battle that would be fought in ancient Rome.
The tremendous budget, appropriate acting and dead-on historical details really raised Ben-Hur from a typical “sword and sandal” picture to a movie held to legendary status even by current standards. Colorful costumes and monolithic sets allowed director, William Wyler to shape the movie into a Roman epic that held such a sense of place and time due to its historical accuracy.