‘Ben-Hur’ is back April 17 for 60th anniversary! Widescreen epic won record 11 Oscars

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Director William Wyler and Claude Heater, as Jesus, on set in 1958.

Ben-Hur is back! Not the anemic remake of several years ago that belly-flopped at the box office. Not the 1924 spectacular that secured Mexican actor Ramón Navarro’s  status as a silent screen superstar and ensured the success of spanking brand new studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Ben-Hur is back. That Ben-Hur.

It’s been 60 years since the Prince of Widescreen Motion Pictures, the Thinking Man’s Epic, was first unspooled before the movie-going public.  Winner of a record 11 Academy Awards, the second highest-grossing movie of its time after Gone With the Wind, the 1959 Ben-Hur remains a singular cinematic experience.

No widescreen epic, with the exception of David Lean’s CinemaScope masterpieces The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, used “letter box” widescreen so well. Ben-Hur sports the greatest action scene in movie history, the famous chariot race, which many film historians rank as the most superior use of widescreen cinema, ever. (More on that in Part 2 of this epic Epic Movie review).

Cold War With the Tube

The Tube was Hollywood’s mortal enemy in the 1950s.  After the failure of 3-Dimensional movies, widescreen became the motion picture industry’s own Manhattan Project, with which it planned to win the Cold War with television over the hearts and minds of Americans.

Truth be told, the widescreen weapon was launched to insure the movie industry’s survival during the opening epoch of the Atomic Age. Something had to be done to put Americans’ fannies back in place on movie palace seats.

Staggered by the steep decline in attendance caused by TV, M-G-M was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1958. Desperate for a box office-grazing cash cow, Metro’s studio brass gave producer Sam Zimbalist the green light to remake its silent smash, Ben Hur- A Tale of the Christ.

The chariot race always had been the big reason to buy a ticket to see Ben-Hur, since Civil War General Lew Wallace’s bestseller was turned into a play at the turn of the previous century. Judah Ben-Hur, a Hebrew prince in Roman occupied Judea, and his childhood friend turned nemesis, the Roman patrician Messala, would race in chariots pulled by real horses, trotting on treadmills set up on the theater’s stage.

The chariot race was the highlight of the silent Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Jazz Age audiences thrilled to the travails of saintly charioteer Ramón Navarro, tormented by the brutish Francis X. Bushman. Giving a performance that was a thick slice of over-acting cut straight from the hambone, Bushman sneered at his hated rival when he wasn’t horsewhipping him. Audiences loved it when Bushman’s Messala finally got his silver screen comeuppance, the Wheel of Fate having turned against him.

The chariot race climax was the one scene everybody remembered from the 1924 Ben-Hur.

A seasoned producer, Sam Zimbalist understood there was a more than the chariot race in Ben-Hur, which like other spectaculars of the time, was slated for a three-hour running time. The relationship between Judah and Messala, the dedicated friends who became deadly enemies, could be portrayed simply in the old days. Good vs. Evil.  Black hat vs. White. A team of white steeds for our hero, racing against the villain’s black chargers.

Sigmund Freud was around in 1924, but after the Second World War, Freud was “Boffo B.O.!” as a Daily Variety headline might screech in the vernacular of the flickers’ flacks, movie studio PR men.  While the relationship between Judah and Messala took up less than an hour of total screen time in the projected three-hour-plus opus, it was the key to the entire enterprise.

Americans were more sophisticated in the decade after the Second World War than they had been after the First. The end of the war brought the revelation of the unspeakable horror of the Nazi death camps, a war that was brought to its end by The Bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the new Atomic Age where isolationism was a thing of the past. Everyone lived in far of annihilation, not just those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of a Hitler, a Tojo, or a Stalin.

To stop moviegoers from isolating themselves in he sanctuary of their own homes, Zimbalist needed to give them something not only bigger, but better. Not only better than The Tube that dominated the American family’s after-dinner hours, but better than other Big Movies that had drawn the deserters back into neighborhood movie houses.

What drove these two characters, before they wound up hopping aboard their war wagons for a frenzied drive around the track to get movie audiences’ hearts racing in tandem with Judah and Messala’s pell-mell dash towards the finish line? What was needed was “Motivation,” as a Method Actor of that time might say.

That was for the screenwriters.

Producer Sam Zimbalist needed a Big Picture with psychologically sound dramatic scenes between the big action sequences. The Ben-Hur remake needed a director who could get top-notch performances out of actors, who could create a sense of intimacy in the dialogue scenes, to balance the spectacle.

Sam Zimbalist wanted William Wyler. He needed William Wyler.

Enter William Wyler

This was the William Wyler, who ranked with John Ford at the top as most-respected director in the business. The William Wyler, two-time Oscar-winner for Best Picture Oscar-laureates Mrs. Minniver (1942) and The Best Years of Our Lives, (1946). The William Wyler known for his skill at eliciting great performances from actors and actresses of the caliber of Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Frederic March, and lesser lights.  The Hollywood master of whom Laurence Olivier, directed to the first of 10 acting Oscar nods by Wyler, said, “He taught me how to act on film.”

Sam Zimbalist wanted William Wyler as he not only was a first-rate director of actors, he was a master craftsmen when it came to shooting a film.

This William Wyler was renowned for his film technique wizardry, the director who enabled the flourishing of the great and revolutionary cameraman Gregg Toland. Wyler and Toland pioneered and perfected deep-focus cinematography on such masterworks as Dead End (1938).

This was the William Wyler to whom Orson Welles owed all of his technique, according to the celebrated French cinemaphile Alfred Bazin. Gregg Toland shot Welles’ Citizen Kane, which wowed audiences then and forever after with its deep focus compositions, the likes of which he first created under Wyler’s direction.

There was a problem. William Wyler didn’t want to direct Ben-Hur.

Wyler didn’t like widescreen, though he was using it to shoot The Big Country (1958), an epic Western starring Heston and Gregory Peck, that featured a Best Supporting Oscar-winning turn by Burl Ives. He was, however, intrigued by the possibilities of filming the chariot race.

As an assistant director, Wyler had worked on the set of the 1924 version. But he didn’t want to go off to Rome for a year, to shoot another action film. He had other projects in mind.

Sam Zimbalist managed to inveigle William Wyler with a record-breaking contract of $350,000 and a hefty percentage of the gross. The reluctant director, reluctant no more, left The Big Country before shooting was completed. Two years later, he was awarded his third Best Director Academy Award for Ben-Hur, when the picture won its record 11 Oscars.

William Wyler’s third directing Oscar didn’t top the record books, those his career 12 Best Director nominations does. John Ford had won his fourth directing tchotchke from the Academy for The Quiet Man (1952). But no other director since Wyler pulled off his hat trick in 1960 has won more than two.

William Wyler peers through Panavision camera.

Telling a Tale of The Christ

Ben-Hur would be the last in a cycle of 1950s religious-themed epics that started with M-G-M’s own Quo Vadis? (1952). Shot in standard screen, but featuring remarkable special effects including the burning of, Quo Vadis? was a huge hit.  The following year, 20th Century Fox’s The Robe spun the thirty pieces of silver leading to Christ’s crucifixion into box office gold.  The Robe was the first movie made in Fox’s widescreen CinemaScope process.

Cecil B. DeMille topped them all mid-decade with his remake of his own silent The Ten Commandments. Starring Charlton Heston as Moses and shot in widescreen VistaVision, the 1956 Ten Commandments not only was a cinema spectacular, it was one of the all-time box office blockbusters, freeing Paramount Pictures from the bondage of immanent insolvency.

William Wyler hadn’t wanted to do a religious picture, but he loathed the greatly successful director known colloquially as “C.B.” The idea of topping C.B. at his own game was intriguing.

A veteran of World War II, Lt. Col. William Wyler and his military film crew had flown with the Army Air Force, making the classic documentary Memphis Belle about the eponymous B-17 bomber.  Exploding flack had made him deaf in one year.

Wyler’s friend George Stevens, himself a two-time Best Director Oscar-winner, also served as an Army officer in charge of a crew documenting the war. Lt. Col. Stevens had filmed the Nazi death camps.

William Wyler was a Jew, born in Alsace-Lorraine, the possession of which had moved back and forth between Germany and France in three major wars. He had lost family in The Holocaust.

Like Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, The Robe took place during the Ministry and Passion of Jesus Christ, and at the end of both stories, the heroes converted to Christianity, as had the hero at the end of Quo Vadis? After the Final Solution and the post-war creation of the state of Israel, ending a film with a Hebrew Prince converting to Christianity was problematical.

Wyler was quoted as saying, “I guess it takes a Jew to tell a tale of The Christ.”

Judah Ben-Hur is deeply moved by his meeting Christ during the course of the film. Judah’s mother and sister are blessed with a miracle from being in the presence of Jesus. But in William Wyler’s Ben-Hur of 1959, Judah does not convert during the running time of the motion picture.

It didn’t matter. Ben-Hur converted TV audiences into fans, and it out-grossed C.B.’s Ten Commandments.  

Ironically, the chariot scene that so intrigued Wyler would be shot by Assistant Director Andrew Marton. Wyler didn’t have the time. Helming the mammoth project required month upon month of monstrous stress-inducing planning, scripting, shooting, re-planning, re-scripting, and re-shooting.

Wyler with the Thalberg Award in 1966.

Wyler’s work repaid the faith his producer had in him. Sam Zimbalist died during the long production, but his name graced the Best Picture Oscar won by  Ben-Hur at the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony.

Ben-Hur paid off for Wyler via his percentage of the gross, making him wealthy enough so he could work on his own projects. He was awarded the Academy’s Irving Thalberg Award in 1966. The “Boy Wonder,” Thalberg had been head of production at Universal, where Wyler had been given a job by his uncle, the studio’s owner.

For audiences, Ben-Hur paid off as the greatest widescreen action movie of its time, equaled by a few films, but never surpassed. It offered a night to remember at the movie theater, a sanctuary away from Baby Boom domestic dramas of home and hearth dominated by The Tube.

Sixty years ago, Ben-Hur was The Movie Worth Seeing. It is again, for today’s audiences. Take a trip back in time, when movies were made by human hands, not computers.

Fathom Events: You can catch Ben-Hur on April 17 at one of three local theaters