Hollywood Flashback: 'Ben-Hur' First Conquered Hollywood in 1959

Eric Carpenter/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Photofest
'Ben-Hur' (1959)

As a remake heads to theaters Aug. 19, THR looks back at the film starring Charlton Heston as a Jewish prince-turned-slave-turned-chariot racer: "When a horse went down, there was no room for mistakes. It wasn't digital. All those wrecks were real," says the actor's stunt double.

As far as The Hollywood Reporter was concerned, the film industry reached creative and commercial perfection with 1959's Ben-Hur. MGM's sword-and-sandal epic — a remake of which lands in theaters Aug. 19 — was "more spectacular than any of the previous spectacles … a highly rewarding dramatic experience … the $15 million production cost [$125 million today] is all there on the screen." And that's just in the review.

In a front-page editorial, THR founder and editor Willie Wilkerson called it "the greatest gamble any company ever made. … It is a GREAT GREAT picture that will return a GREAT income to MGM for years and years." He was right: The $74 million domestic gross would be $613 million today. The plot centers on wealthy Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (the late Charlton Heston, then 35), who is thrown into slavery, regains his freedom and becomes a top-notch chariot racer. While the film does hit some biblical talking points ("A Tale of the Christ" is an opening subtitle), that's like saying audiences were drawn to Ghostbusters II for the paranormal science. The 212-minute drama really is all about the 10-minute chariot race.

"It was the only real action in the whole picture," says Joe Canutt, 79, Heston's stunt double. "When a horse went down, there was no room for mistakes. It wasn't digital. All those wrecks were real." Ben-Hur received 11 Oscars, a record that stood until Titanic equaled it in 1998. 

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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