1959’s Ben-Hur is an epic movie in almost every way. At the time of its production, it demanded the biggest budget in movie history (over $15 million), the biggest set (including a 300-acre replica of ancient Jerusalem), and more extras than ever before (over 10,000 were hired for the film). Here are some more extraordinary stories from the set of one of Hollywood’s most extraordinary films.
Legendary British designer Elizabeth Haffenden was hired to provide the costumes for Ben-Hur—and to say she had her work cut out would be something of an understatement. During preproduction, some 8,000 preliminary drawings and ideas for the movie’s costumes were sketched out, and the producers’ budget accounted for a staggering 100,000 individual costumes, including 1,000 suits of armor. Haffenden personally oversaw a staff of 100 seamstresses, who produced costumes almost continuously throughout the shoot. Perhaps for good reason, Haffenden went on to be awarded the Academy Award for Costume Design in 1960.
Haffenden’s Oscar was just one of a record 11 Academy Awards—from 12 nominations—that Ben-Hur went on to win. As well as Best Picture, William Wyler took Best Director; Charlton Heston and Hugh Griffith won Best Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively; and composer Miklós Rózsa won the third of his three Oscars for the film’s score. The only one of its nominations the film failed to capitalize on was Best Screenplay, which many commentators attributed to a bitter dispute that had erupted over which of the movie’s many writers would receive on-screen credit. In the end, the dispute became so fraught that the Screen Writers’ Guild was forced to intervene and deem that the script should be credited to Karl Tunberg—leaving contributions from the likes of Gore Vidal and British playwright Christopher Fry overlooked.
Despite making the role his own (and winning the Oscar to prove it) Charlton Heston wasn’t the producers’ first choice for the title role in Ben-Hur. Several actors were offered the role before it was sent to Heston, including Burt Lancaster (who claimed he turned it down because the script was boring) and Paul Newman (who claimed he “didn’t have the legs to wear a tunic”). Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and even Leslie Nielsen were all offered the role too before Heston was finally cast.
A ROMAN MYTH
Hollywood legend claims that a stuntman was killed during the filming of the central chariot race scene in Ben-Hur and that the director was so focused on Charlton Heston that he kept the death in the final cut. Fans of the movie have examined it frame by frame in the many years since the rumor first emerged, and countless different versions and freeze-frames of the stuntman’s apparent demise have been suggested. In truth, there’s no record or published account whatsoever of any death (or, for that matter, even a serious injury) during the movie’s production. The only crew member who sadly did die during filming was producer Sam Zimbalist, who suffered a heart attack while on set in Rome. When the movie picked up the Best Picture Oscar in 1960, Zimbalist’s widow Mary accepted the award on her late husband’s behalf. His was only the fifth posthumous Academy Award win in the awards’ history.
YOUR CHARIOT AWAITS
MGM held onto many of the props used in the movie until 1970 when an enormous three-week auction of decades’ worth of memorabilia was held in Los Angeles. As well as the statuette from The Maltese Falcon, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Julie Andrews’ guitar from The Sound of Music, one of the lots that went up for sale was an original chariot from the set of Ben-Hur. The anonymous winning bidder—who paid just $4,000 for it—went on to be arrested in 1973 for driving the chariot down a highway in California in an attempt to save on gas!