By now, everyone has gotten all of their Christmas shopping done, gifts all wrapped and put under the tree, cards sent, cards received, and feast preparations begun. The guests (those who can make it to Grandma’s (or Grandpa’s) house, will look forward to visits with family and friends, and the hostsess and hosts will try and plan activities for those who come to visit.

What better way to relax, unwind, rest and recuperate from the season’s holiday shopping, giving and receiving presents, and filling oneself up with delicious food, than to sit down to view a great classic movie.

Yep, that great classic. . . .

Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. Ben-Hur (or Benhur) is a 1959 epic film directed by William Wyler. It premiered at Loew’s State Theatre in New York City on November 18, 1959. This year, Ben Hur celebrates its 50TH Anniversary.

Running at 212 minutes, the film was the most expensive ever made at the time, and its sets were the largest yet built for a film.


  • Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur
  • Stephen Boyd as Messala
  • Martha Scott as Miriam
  • Cathy O’Donnell as Tirzah Bat-Hur
  • Haya Harareet as Esther Bat-Simonides
  • Sam Jaffe as Simonides
  • Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius
  • Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim
  • Claude Heater (uncredited) as Jesus Christ
  • Finlay Currie as Balthasar/Narrator


The movie is  the third film version of an 1880 fictional novel, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which was written by General Lewis “Lew” Wallace, a Union general of the Civil War.

File:Lew Wallace - Brady-Handy.jpg

The movie was filmed in a process known as “MGM Camera 65“, 65 mm negative stock from which was made a 70 mm anamorphic print with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, one of the widest prints ever made, having a width of almost three times its height. An anamorphic lens which produced a 1.25X compression was used along with a 65 mm negative (whose normal aspect ratio was 2.20:1) to produce this extremely wide aspect ratio. This allowed for spectacular panoramic shots in addition to six-channel audio. In practice, however, “Camera 65” prints were shown in an aspect ratio of 2.5:1 on most screens, so that theaters were not required to install new, wider screens or use less than the full height of screens already installed.

At the time of filming, in casting for the role of Ben-Hur,  many other men were offered the role before Charlton Heston. Burt Lancaster claimed he turned down the role of Ben-Hur because he “didn’t like the violent morals in the story”. Paul Newman turned it down because he said he didn’t have the legs to wear a tunic. Rock Hudson and Leslie Nielsen were also offered the role. (Leslie Neilsen as Ben Hur. Hmm. Just can’t picture him in my mind, especially after the many comedy films he has starred in, even though he started out in drama roles.) Anyway, after Charlton Heston’s performance on the silver screen, he owned that role.

Out of respect, and consistent with Lew Wallace’s stated preference, the face of Jesus is never shown nor do we hear Him speak. (Which was as it should be.) Jesus was played by opera singer Claude Heater, who received no credit for his only film role.

The chariot race in Ben Hur  was directed by Andrew Martin. Even by current standards, it is considered to be one of the most spectacular action sequences ever filmed. Filmed at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome way before the coming of computer-generated fx, it took over three months to complete, using 15,000 extras for the spectators on the largest film set ever built. Eighteen chariots were  built, with half used for practice. The race took five weeks to film.

The section in the middle of the circus, the spina, is a known feature of circi. The golden dolphins, that counted down the number of turns the chariots had to make, was the lap counter, a feature of the Circus Maximus in Rome.

The galley sequence is purely fictional, as the Roman navy, in contrast to its early modern counterparts, did not employ galley slaves.


The film means many things to many different people.

It is a Tale of the Christ, where at the film’s beginning, the birth of Jesus (the Nativity) occurs, the Sermon on the Mount, the Passion of Christ, and the Crucifixtion, and throughout the film His impact on the lives of those who cross paths with Him, especially Ben Hur.

The film follows Judah Ben Hur through the turbulent times in life when he suffers a falling out with his best friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), his family sent to prison for an unjust crime they were accused of, Ben Hur’s search for them, his attacking Messala for his treachery, his being sent to the galleys as a slave who was one of many slaves rowing Roman vessals, his rescue from slavery, his meeting with Messala to get his family back from the leper colony they now lived in, and finally, his dramatic meeting with Messala in the chariot race.

Who can forget that famous chariot race that would have been held in the ancient Circus Maximus? Never before has a scene so full of drama, excitement and cinematic choreography been filmed before……or since:

Not to be forgotten, nor slighted, is the beautiful music score composed by Miklos Rozsa, one of the most lovely soundtracks created for a movie:


The movie addresses loss, faith, revenge, redemption, and salvation.

It is a movie that stands the test of time, and a true example of Hollywood at its finest.

Ben Hur went on to win a record of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a record that stood for decades until those other films , Titanic (1998) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2004) came along.

So, relax, pull up a chair, and put on Ben Hur.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

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