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  • Writer's pictureThomas Bonifield

60 Years Since Ben-Hur Hit the Silver Screen

The blockbuster featured a fictional plot played out against the backdrop of the life of Christ and delivered at the box office and the Academy Awards.

Poster art for the 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer version of "Ben-Hur."

Neither the first nor the last Ben-Hur movie, this 1959 version certainly was the best and most successful big-screen telling of the tale. Adapted from the hugely popular 1880 novel by Lew Wallace - Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ - the film was an epic in every sense of the term.

Directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, it was in production for nearly eight months, with shooting lasting 12-plus hours a day, six days a week, which is little surprise when you consider that 10,000 extras, 2,500 horses and 200 camels were used in the film. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio behind the picture, spent $15 million to make it and nearly as much to market it.

Charlton Heston in a scene from "Ben-Hur." Image: "Ben-Hur"/MGM.

But the movie was a sensation as soon as it hit the big screen on November 18th, going on to become the box office champ for the year - it brought in $147 million - and the second highest grossing film ever to that point, behind only Gone with the Wind. It also topped all comers at the Academy Awards, taking home 11 Oscars, including best picture, best director for Wyler and best lead actor for Heston.

In the film, his eponymous character is a fictional Hebrew prince, Judah Ben-Hur, who at first is friend to the governing Romans before turning into an implacable foe. The piece is set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ and Ben-Hur has chance interactions with the Savior throughout the story, though he does not recognize Jesus as such in those instances.

Our own love of this classic stems not only from it's epic scale, gritty action and top-notch performances - though there is plenty of all of that - but for the approach to the portrayal of the Jesus character. Played by American opera singer Claude Heater - who was uncredited - the role is a peripheral one, used to punctuate Ben-Hur's personal journey with brief, seemingly chance encounters that involve no direct dialogue from or prominent visual images of Heater, his on-screen moments largely confined to long shots, over-the-shoulder shots or shots of him from behind.

Though certainly an unorthodox approach, Christian Film Blog has long felt this is the most effective film portrayal of Christ because we simply do not buy anyone in that role when played in a more traditional manner. And that includes Jim Caviezel - whom we really like as an actor and Christian - in his magnum opus as the Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ...and, yes, we realize millions of paying customers disagree with our view on this point.

At any rate, this is an all-timer of a movie in the Christian genre, which is where we place it because of its faithful telling of the Gospel story. We have never seen the 1925 silent version and chose not to watch the 2016 remake, which was a $100,000,000 flop, so we can't say how they stack up. But if you haven't seen this 1959 edition, we highly recommend it. And what better time to check it out than on its 60th anniversary!


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