Ben-HurBen-Hur is the fictional story of Judah ben-Hur, a Judean man who, during the reign of the emperor Augustus, is enslaved through the betrayal of his friend Messala. Embittered and vengeful after regaining his freedom, he is redeemed after encountering Jesus Christ and witnessing his crucifixion.
The story originated as a novel by General Lew Wallace which was published on November 12, 1880, by Harper and Brothers. Wallace's work is part of an important sub-genre of historical fiction set among the characters of the New Testament. The novel was a phenomenal best-seller; it soon surpassed Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) as the best selling American novel and held on to this distinction until the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. In 1912, Sears Roebuck published one million copies to sell for thirty nine cents apiece; the largest single year print edition in American history.
The novel was quickly adapted into numerous stage productions, including one which recreated the climatic chariot race on stage using live horses, full size chariots, and a series of treadmills.
The novel was later adapted into three motion pictures.
The second version appeared in 1925, and starred Ramon Novarro in the title role; Francis X. Bushman played his friend Messala. It was one of the most lavish and spectacular Hollywood productions of the silent movie era, costing a then unprecedented 3.9 million dollars. Some of the crowd scenes were reported to use up to 125,000 extras! Several big Hollywood stars of the time appeared as uncredited crowd extras during the chariot race. The great chariot race scene is still regarded as a triumph of exciting film making and was much imitated, (even so recently as the "pod race scene" in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace almost 75 years later), although seldom so well as in the original. Some scenes were in 2-strip Technicolor. The film was directed by Charles Brabin, J.J. Cohn, and Fred Niblo, and was produced and distributed by MGM; the film made MGM's reputation as a heavyweight force in Hollwood.
The film won a stunning 11 Academy Awards:
- Academy Award for Best Picture - Sam Zimbalist, producer
- Academy Award for Best Actor - Charlton Heston
- Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor - Hugh Griffith
- Academy Award for Directing - William Wyler
- Academy Award for Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Color - Edward C. Carfagno, William A. Horning, and Hugh Hunt
- Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color - Robert Surtees
- Academy Award for Costume Design, Color - Elizabeth Haffenden
- Best Effects, Special Effects - A. Arnold Gillespie (visual), Milo B. Lory (audible), and Robert MacDonald (visual)
- Best Film Editing - John D. Dunning, and Ralph E. Winters
- Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Miklós Rózsa
- Best Sound - Franklin Milton
- Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium - Karl Tunberg