Clocking in at three hours and 32 minutes, William Wyler’s Technicolor epic Ben-Hur is the behemoth entry at the 32nd annual Academy Awards ceremony, held on this day in 1960, at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Setting an Oscar record, the film swept 11 of the 12 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Charlton Heston).
Wyler’s 1959 film was the latest dramatic adaptation of the mega-bestselling novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880 by Lew Wallace. Wallace, a former general in the American Civil War, wrote his most successful novel after experiencing a new awakening of his Christian faith. The book told the story of a young Jewish aristocrat, Judah Ben Hur, who chafes against the repressive Roman rule in Judea, loses his fortune and his family, but eventually triumphs over obstacles (thanks partially to the intervention of Jesus Christ).
After Wallace’s novel was adopted into a long-running stage play in 1899 and a short film in 1907, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the film rights and produced a major motion-picture version, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, in 1925. After DeMille scored a hit with a remake of his own 1923 biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956), MGM decided to revive Ben-Hur as well. Wyler had worked on the set of DeMille’s 1925 version and the square-jawed Heston played Moses in The Ten Commandments.
Filmed on location in Italy, on a budget of some $15 million, Ben-Hur was the most expensive movie ever made up to that point. The film’s famous chariot race scene alone took three weeks to shoot and used some 15,000 extras. The setting for the race was constructed on 18 acres of back-lot space at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. Aside from a few of the most daredevil stunts, Heston and Stephen Boyd (who played Messala, Judah Ben-Hur’s boyhood friend turned bitter enemy) did most of their own chariot driving. The payoff was big: Writing in his review of the film for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther called the scene a “stunning complex of mighty setting, thrilling action by horses and men, panoramic observation and overwhelming dramatic use of sound.”
At the 1960 Oscars, Ben-Hur swept 11 categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith, playing an Arab sheik who befriends Ben-Hur), Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Direction, Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best Color Costume Design and Best Special Effects. It was also nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Ben-Hur’s record number of Oscars still stands, although two films (1997’s Titanic and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) have matched it.