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Trivia / Ben-Hur

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    Ben-Hur (1959) 
  • Ability over Appearance: When casting the roles, William Wyler heavily emphasized characterization as opposed to looks or acting history.
  • Acting in the Dark: Director William Wyler and co-screenwriter Gore Vidal told Stephen Boyd, the actor portraying Messala, to play him as if he and Judah had been lovers as youths and that his vindictiveness is therefore motivated by a sexual and romantic rejection as much as a political one. They did not, however, tell Charlton Heston, who found out years later and was not pleased. This did add an interesting dynamic to the scenes between Judah and Messala, since Heston's uncomfortable reactions to some of Boyd's behavior came off as reluctance towards his former lover.
  • AFI's 100 Years... Series:
  • Author Existence Failure: While the film was in production, producer Sam Zimbalist suffered a fatal heart attack in November 1958. Wyler and Joseph Judson "J.J." Cohn consequently assumed Zimbalist's position at MGM's request.
  • Cast the Runner-Up: Charlton Heston was initially offered the role of Messala.
  • Disabled Character, Disabled Actor: The galley slave escaping with a bloodied stump where his hand used to be in the naval battle scene. William Wyler noticed the man had only one hand, had it splashed with fake blood, and reshot the scene with him.
  • Doing It for the Art:
    • Before MGM began production of the film, they made sure that the 1925 version wouldn't be re-released.
    • When Sam Zimbalist approached William Wyler to direct, he had him read the novel and the script.
  • Dyeing for Your Art: Wyler had Stephen Boyd wear brown contact lenses to differentiate with the blue-eyed Charlton Heston.
  • Enforced Method Acting:
    • The stunt coordinator was the legendary veteran stuntman/director Yakima Canutt; his son Joe was one of the stunt charioteers standing in for Heston. Joe is the one you see driving — and nearly flipped right out of the chariot — as the horses jump some wreckage in their path. Glenn Randallnote , who worked closely with all the horses, taught the four Lipizzaners of Ben-Hur's chariot to jump over the wreckage over a period of weeks, so they were okay doing it. But Joe's terrifying flip was unplanned, and Wyler kept it in, putting in a shot of Heston climbing back into place. Joe was unharmed.
    • William Wyler and Gore Vidal came up with the idea that Messala and Ben-Hur had genuine Foe Yay to provide motivation for their rivalry. Wyler told Vidal (after confirming Have You Told Anyone Else?) to tell Stephen Boyd to deliberately dial up the Ho Yay between Mesalla and Ben Hur, while ensuring that Charlton Heston be kept in the dark. Years later, when Vidal revealed this, Heston repeatedly spoke out against it, even saying that Vidal had little involvement, which the writer promptly debunked.
  • Executive Meddling:
    • Sam Zimbalist and William Wyler were dissatisfied with Karl Tunberg's script. So, Zimbalist hired S. N. Behrman and then playwright Maxwell Anderson to help rewrite the drafts.
    • During the early stages of production, Zimbalist and MGM decided to make the film widescreen. Despite Wyler's initial objections, he and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees helped to overcome these issues.
    • According to Charlton Heston, Christopher Fry was Wyler's first choice as screenwriter, but Zimbalist requested Wyler to hire Vidal to rewrite the script. Fry would eventually return to rewrite most of the film's dialogue.
  • Extremely Lengthy Creation: MGM began development of a film adaptation in 1952. However, it wasn't until 1957 that production would finally take place.
  • Fake Nationality: Practically everybody. The film featured non-Jewish Americans primarily playing the Jewish people and British actors playing the Romans. However, it's averted with Haya Harareet, who, like her character Esther, is Jewish and comes from Israel.
  • Follow the Leader: Joseph Vogel was inspired by Paramount's recent success story with The Ten Commandments to the point where he would announce that MGM would produce the film to save the studio. Charlton Heston and Martha Scott were also recycled in similar roles as the leading man and his mother.
  • Network to the Rescue: During the Fall of the Studio System, MGM president Joseph Vogel, inspired by the success of Paramount's The Ten Commandments, announced that MGM would produce the film in a desperate gamble to save his studio. It ultimately worked in Vogel's favor.
  • The Other Marty: Marie Ney was originally cast as Miriam, only to be dismissed from the production two days later because she was unable to cry on cue. Martha Scott subsequently replaced her.
  • Playing Against Type: Claude Heater was an opera singer, and therefore used to performing loudly in front of an audience. For his portrayal of Jesus, however, he is completely silent and his face is never seen.
  • Playing Gertrude: Martha Scott, who portrayed Miriam, was 11 years older than Charlton Heston.
  • Posthumous Credit: Despite his fatal heart attack, Sam Zimbalist was still given a credit as producer.
  • Real-Life Relative:
    • Cathy O'Donnell, the sister-in-law of William Wyler, played Tirzah. It would turn out to be her last film role before her death in 1970.
    • Also, chariot race sequence director Yakima Canutt's son Joe was a stunt double for Ben-Hur.
    • French hornist Arthur Maebe Jr. played on the film score along with his violinist father, Arthur Sr.
  • Scully Box: Stephen Boyd wore lifts in his shoes to make his height more on a par with Charlton Heston's.
  • Throw It In!:
    • During the post-race celebration, the guy who picks up Messala's helmet and runs off with it did so spontaneously. The extras had been told to do whatever they wanted.
    • William Wyler took a liking to the sound made by a piece of debris when Heston kicked it during the scene of Ben-Hur returning to his house after escaping and did several more takes trying to recapture it. When he told Heston what he wanted, Heston wondered why he hadn't just asked him to kick the thing again.
  • Troubled Production: The film had a lot of behind-the-scenes problems. MGM first developed the film in 1952, but it suspended production in 1956 after original director Sidney Franklin resigned; the Fall of the Studio System didn't help matters either. Then, in 1957, MGM president Joseph Vogel announced that the studio would finally begin production on the 1959 film in an effort to save it. That year, director William Wyler joined the project after producer Sam Zimbalist offered him to spend up to $10 million on the film and showed him the storyboards for the chariot race. While the initial budget was $7 million, it eventually increased to $15,000,000 by the summer of 1958, making it the largest budget of any film produced at the time. Wyler also had initial reservations with Zimbalist's decision to make the film widescreen. MGM planned to start filming in Libya on March 1, 1958, but the government canceled the production's film permit for religious reasons 11 days later. Even after principal photography began on May 15, 1958, numerous script rewrites were made and filming was often delayed. The intensity of the filming schedule was so great that a doctor was brought in to give a vitamin B complex injection to anyone who requested it. By November 1958, production was slowing down and Sam Zimbalist died of a heart attack that month. To speed the process up, Wyler often kept principal actors on standby to shoot pick-up scenes if the first unit slowed down. During post-production, the film's editing was complicated by the 70mm footage being printed; since there was no editing equipment at the time, the footage was thus reduced to 35mm and then cut. Fortunately, Vogel's gambit to save MGM from going bankrupt worked when the film was released.
  • Uncredited Role:
    • Sergio Leone was an uncredited second-unit director. In later years he claimed that he directed the chariot race scenes, but that is an apparently self-serving exaggeration (Leone had a reputation for stretching the truth).
    • While William Wyler and J.J. Cohn replaced Sam Zimbalist as the film's producers, they weren't credited for their work.
  • What Could Have Been:
    • Sidney Franklin was considered to direct it, but he fell ill and resigned in 1956. One year later, Sam Zimbalist hired William Wyler to direct the film.
    • Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson,note  Burt Lancaster,note  Paul Newmannote  and Leslie Nielsen were all considered to play Ben-Hur before Charlton Heston was cast.
    • Douglas was offered the role of Messala, but he didn't want to play a "second-rate baddie". Naturally, he wanted to play the lead, but that ship had sailed, so he made Spartacus instead. Nielsen and Robert Ryan were also considered, and Wyler initially wanted Heston to play the role.
    • Ava Gardner and Jean Simmons were considered for Esther.
    • The movie was originally going to be filmed in Libya, but the local government cancelled the film's permit over religious reasons about a week before filming began.
    • Also, several countries such as France, Mexico, Spain and the United Kingdom were considered as possible locations for shooting the film.
    • At one point, Sam Zimbalist considered William Walton to write the film's score, but eventually had Miklós Rózsa compose and conduct it instead.
    • Wyler was so impressed with David Lean's work on The Bridge on the River Kwai that he asked Lean to direct the famous chariot race sequence. Lean would have received full screen credit for the job—"Chariot Race directed by David Lean." He declined the offer, knowing that Wyler was a truly talented director and could certainly pull it off himself.
  • Word of Gay: According to Gore Vidal's interview in The Celluloid Closet, Ben-Hur and Messala were former lovers and Messala betrayed Ben-Hur because their relationship ended. According to Vidal, he discussed this with Stephen Boyd (Messala) ahead of shooting, but this information was hidden from Charlton Heston because it was felt that he could not handle it.
  • Writing by the Seat of Your Pants: The script was still being written by the time filming began.

    Ben-Hur (2016) 
  • Box Office Bomb: Budget, $100 million (not counting marketing costs). Box office, $26,410,477 (domestic), $94,061,311 (worldwide). One of the final bombs in the 2016 Summer Bomb Buster, a period that saw at least 10 other high-budget films fail either critically or commercially (or both) at the box office, a truly dreadful time for Paramount.
  • Creator Killer: Chipped in joint by Paramount and MGM.
    • This version of the film got caught up in a management feud at Paramount's parent company Viacom. The latter's CEO Philippe Dauman resigned in acrimony the day the movie opened.
    • 2016 aka the year of flops, of which only a few made more that $100 million domestically and none reached $200 million domestically, ended the job of Paramount president Brad Grey; he received a vote of confidence from the Redstones, though, but after other flops that extended into early 2017, Grey resigned and died of cancer a few months later.
  • Fake Nationality: Practically everyone but Ayelet Zurer (Naomi) and Sofia Black-D'Elia (Tirzah), who are both Jewish and play Jews. Bonus point to Zurer for being Israeli and playing a Judean.
  • What Could Have Been: Gal Gadot and Pedro Pascal were initially attached to the film.


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