A Tale of the Christ (2 Min Read)

365 Tours
2 min readDec 19, 2020

Ben-Hur (1959)- One of the greatest epics in film history. Some interesting trivia on this masterpiece.

Lew Wallace was a General from Indiana who fought for the Union side during the US civil war. He wrote his very popular novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in 1880. During his lifetime, he saw his book become a very popular stage hit, but never saw it come to life in the cinema. He died in 1907.

MGM commissioned over 40 scripts, the film shot over a period of 9 months, over 1 million props and 300 + sets that were used required 5 years of research and planning. The production cost MGM a massive US$ 15 million, a gamble by the studio to save itself from bankruptcy. The gamble eventually paid off, with the film earning close to US$ 150 million. Final running time-212 minutes.

The desert sequences were all set to be filmed in Libya until the authorities realized that the film was promoting Christianity. The government ordered the MGM out of the country, forcing the studio to shift filming to ‘Desierto de Tabernas’ in Spain, which is the only mainland desert in Europe.

Jesus Christ was played by American Opera Singer Claude Heater, who went uncredited in his only feature film role because he never spoke. It is the only Hollywood film to make the Vatican- approved film list in the category of religion.

One of only four MGM films in which studio’s trademark Leo the Lion did not roar at the beginning of the opening credits because of the religious theme in the film.

Producer Sam Zimbalist offered William Wyler US$ 1 million to direct this film. This was the highest Director’s fee ever paid up to that time. William Wyler was a renowned stickler for detail kept 16-hours- a day, six-days-a-week schedule and missed just 2 days of the lengthy shoot, due to influenza. He later coined the famous joke that it took “a Jew to make a good film about Jesus”.

Setting an Oscar record the film swept 11 of the 12 categories which it was nominated: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Production Design, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Original Score and Costume Design. Surprisingly it did not win for the Best Screenplay, the category in which it was nominated. Ben-Hur is currently, the last MGM film to win the Academy Award for the Best Picture.

Ironically, the movie was banned in China under the regime of Mao Zedong for containing ‘propaganda of superstitious beliefs, namely Christianity’.

The chariot race required 15,000 extras on a set constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. For track’s surface more than 40,000 tons of white sand were shipped from Mexico.

The chariot race was shot without sound. At the post-production the decision was made not to have any music throughout the sequence. For the race, 78 horses were imported from Sicily and Yugoslavia.

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