There are certain classic movies that should only be seen on the big screen, among them the William Wyler-directed Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston. Lucky for fans, they’ll be able to do just that very soon. Thanks to Fathom Events, the film is returning to theaters in celebration of its 60th anniversary on Sunday, April 14, and Wednesday, April 17.
Released in 1959, Ben-Hur is an epic drama set at the time of Christ. Charlton plays a wealthy Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur, who incurs the wrath of a childhood friend who is now a Roman official and is forced into slavery on a galley as his family is persecuted. Though he swears vengeance, his life — and view — is deeply affected by encounters with Jesus of Nazareth. Sandwiched in the middle, though, is a battle at sea and a stunning chariot race that has to be seen to be believed — especially when you realize that this was done live. That’s right, there was no CG at the time.
Observes Turner Classic Movies: “Ben-Hur was the biggest and most complex undertaking of Wyler’s career (with the biggest pay-off, setting him up financially for life). It was also the grandest, most expensive production the motion picture industry had seen up to that point, using more people, bigger sets and inspiring more news stories and publicity hype than ever before. And, of course, there is that justly famous chariot race. Coupled with its reputation as a thinking man’s epic, a big picture with a personal drama at its core, Ben-Hur displaced the more superficial standard for the genre to that time, the DeMille-directed The Ten Commandments (1956), to achieve lasting fame as the quintessential costume epic.”
Ben-Hur won 11 Academy Awards — including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It is tied for the most Oscar wins in history with two other films, 1997’s Titanic and 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
In an interview with Indiewire, Charlton’s son, Fraser, remembered how the film affected his family, saying: “I think Ben-Hur affected us profoundly and to the good, obviously. Dad felt that he had not quite achieved a level of the sophisticated actor that is taken seriously as an artist — not just as a blockbuster hero like someone who does a Cecil B. DeMille epic, and he loved Ten Commandments and was thrilled to work with Cecil B. DeMille, by the way, and that’s a marvelous film, but Ben-Hur was a different thing entirely. It was probably the first modern epic. And, of course, going into it, Dad had no idea whether it was going to succeed or whether he was going to be any good in it. There were doubts and fears and second thoughts. William Wyler came to him halfway through the show and said, ‘Chuck, you need to be better in this part. I don’t know how to tell you to do that, but you need to dig down deep and find that character within you and bring that out.’ And Chuck went, ‘Wow, that’s scary!’ But it was the right thing to say to him at that time. And it got him motivated, and he did dig down deep and, of course, both he and Wyler won an Academy Award.”
William Wyler’s daughter, Catherine, spoke about what it meant for her father in an interview with jesusfreakhideout.com, saying: “Once it was done and it was successful, it meant that he could make a big epic and make it good. He’d always been interested in making all kinds of movies, but he hadn’t made an epic yet. And this was far outside the realm of the kinds of movies he was usually interested in. It meant great success in Hollywood, but at the same time it also meant that his standing among the critical community took a nose-dive, because he was kind of written off as just a commercial director and not really serious anymore. I think he was really hurt by that treatment, but that seems to have dissipated over the years.”
At the time of the film’s release in 1959, Charlton had done an interview with the Christian Science Monitor in which he commented on the previously-mentioned chariot race. “I had ridden before,” he said, “but handling four powerful horses while standing erect in a half-ton chariot was something entirely foreign to me. The toughest part was learning to skid around the turns, and if you looked back there was always a horse at your shoulder. At first I couldn’t believe it when Bill Wyler, our director, told me it was impossible to overturn — that the chariots had been designed not to lift. But he knew what he was talking about and those that do flip in the picture had to be specially rigged with a powder charge.”
“Actually,” he added, “the stance I assume when I’m driving is almost like that of a skier. It gets pretty crowded, too, with nine of us racing and the wheel hubs of most of the chariots equipped with steel knives. When a rival driver puts his hub against your oak spokes, even though they are three inches thick, it takes only about half a lap to break through. Back in those days the boys really played for keeps.”
It obviously paid off.
Catch Ben-Hur on the big screen April 14 and April 17. To find your local theater, go to Fathomevents.com.
Be sure to check out and subscribe to our Classic TV & Film Podcast for interviews with your favorite stars!