Wins Best Picture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The spectacular epic film Ben-Hur saved the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio from bankruptcy and earned an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards, including the award for Best Picture. It influenced the trend of the Hollywood studios to focus their energies on a few expensive blockbusters, rather than a greater number of more modestly successful productions.

Summary of Event

The early 1950’s saw the Hollywood studios Hollywood studio system;epics scrambling to create projects that would attract what had become a rapidly declining audience base. Biblical epics proved a reliable genre, with Paramount’s Samson and Delilah Samson and Delilah (DeMille) (1949) and Twentieth Century-Fox’s David and Bathsheba David and Bathsheba (King) (1951) topping the domestic box office in their respective years of release. In 1952, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer] (MGM) attained a second-place financial ranking with Quo Vadis, Quo Vadis (LeRoy) a film that combined opulent Roman settings with a Christian conversion narrative. Fox repeated that potent combination and upped the ante—and the profits—with The Robe Robe, The (Koster) (1953), which introduced the studio’s wide-screen process, CinemaScope. In addition to thrilling international movie audiences, Hollywood movies set in ancient Rome built on and encouraged the surge in post-World War II American tourism to Italy. Ben-Hur (Wyler)[BenHur (Wyler)] Academy Awards;Best Picture Epic films [kw]Ben-Hur Wins Best Picture (Apr. 4, 1960)[BenHur] [kw]Best Picture, Ben-Hur Wins (Apr. 4, 1960) Ben-Hur (Wyler)[BenHur (Wyler)] Academy Awards;Best Picture Epic films [g]North America;Apr. 4, 1960: Ben-Hur Wins Best Picture[06480] [g]United States;Apr. 4, 1960: Ben-Hur Wins Best Picture[06480] [c]Motion pictures and video;Apr. 4, 1960: Ben-Hur Wins Best Picture[06480] Wyler, William Heston, Charlton Wallace, Lewis Zimbalist, Sam Boyd, Stephen Surtees, Robert

These movies of the 1950’s were certainly not original in their recognition of the popular appeal of placing a story of Christian faith and conversion in pagan Rome. “Toga plays”—melodramas centered on the conflicts between the earliest Christians and their Roman oppressors—were a staple of Victorian theater. In the late 1890’s, filmed versions of famous Passion plays were combined with magic lantern slides to form some of the first feature-length cinematic presentations. Many of the late Victorian plays had been influenced by the 1880 publication of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ Ben-Hur (Wallace)[BenHur (Wallace)] by the American writer Lewis Wallace. Wallace’s novel became a best seller and, in 1899, was converted into a play that ran for twenty-one years on stages in the United States and Great Britain. It was successfully adapted to the movie screen four times, in 1907, in 1925, in 1959, and (in animated form) in 1980.

The third and most memorable filmed Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Ben-Hur[BenHur] version of Wallace’s novel—and the second version to be produced by MGM—was in production for eleven months, shot largely in Italy, in Anzio and Foggio and at the Cinecittà studio outside Rome, on a reported budget of fifteen million dollars, making it at the time the most expensive film ever produced. Ben-Hur (1959) was one of only two films shot in the MGM Camera 65 Camera 65 film process[Camera sixty five] Wide-screen cinema[Wide screen cinema] process, an anamorphic system similar to Fox’s CinemaScope in that it squeezed the film image by 10 percent. The outstanding cinematographer Robert Surtees directed the film’s camera units, whose most challenging task was photographing the spectacular chariot race. The race took three months to film, under the supervision of second-unit director Andrew Marton Marton, Andrew . It lasted twenty minutes in the final film, featured remarkable stunt work by Yakima Canutt Canutt, Yakima , and ultimately became the signature sequence of Ben-Hur.

In 1958, William Wyler, one of Hollywood’s most admired and award-winning directors, returned to Rome, where he had directed the delightful romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953), to oversee the massive production of a new adaptation of Ben-Hur. Wyler supported the new nation of Israel and told his biographer that Wallace’s story appealed to the Jewishness in him. Displeased with the screenplay produced by Karl Tunberg Tunberg, Karl , Wyler obtained uncredited revisions from playwrights Maxwell Anderson Anderson, Maxwell , S. N. Behrman Behrman, S. N. , and Gore Vidal Vidal, Gore ; another writer, the poet-playwright Christopher Fry Fry, Christopher , continued to make script changes throughout the production and successfully strengthened the drama of the intimate scenes within the epic.

American actor Charlton Heston was first considered for the part of the Roman commander Massala but was cast instead in the leading role of Ben-Hur, the Judean prince forced into exile by Massala, his boyhood friend, played by Stephen Boyd. Between 1950 and 1965, Heston would portray many heroic figures in historical dramas, including Moses, Michelangelo, John the Baptist, and Marc Antony (in three different films), but he is perhaps best remembered for his long-suffering, strong-willed Judah Ben-Hur, the only performance for which Heston won an Academy Award Academy Awards;Best Actor in a celebrated career that lasted more than five decades.

Subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” Ben-Hur is structured as the double narrative of the historical events in the life of Christ and the travails of the fictional Judah Ben-Hur, his mother, and his sister. Judah’s misfortunes and ultimate secular success and his conversion to Christianity parallel the suffering and transcendence of Christ; their paths literally cross at several key moments in the film. The climactic chariot race between Judah and his Roman rival Massala satisfies the demands of heroic victory for an adventure film, while the miraculous cure of Judah’s mother and sister of leprosy and Judah’s corresponding conversion at the hour of Christ’s death fulfill the demands of religious drama. The film confirmed 1950’s notions of the centrality of family through its portrayal of Judah’s devotion to his mother and sister. It also supported the Cold War philosophy of consensus politics when the protagonist restored the house of Hur without revolution.

Because of the huge financial investment in the project and the fact that the film was being shot in Italy, speculation about the production ran rampant, especially when producer Sam Zimbalist died in Rome of a heart attack that was supposedly induced by stress. He was replaced by J. J. Cohn Cohn, J. J. , and the production continued. The result was a 212-minute motion picture released on 70mm film with a six-track sound system. It included a musical overture and an intermission. In a word, the film’s release was an event. It premiered on November 18, 1959, in New York and six days later in Los Angeles. Audiences flocked to Ben-Hur; critics labeled it intelligent, thrilling, and inspiring. The true level of the film’s success was not apparent, however, until the Academy Awards ceremony took place on April 4, 1960. Ben-Hur won eleven Oscars, including the Academy Award for Best Picture, setting a record that would not be equaled for decades until the success of Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).


The phenomenal critical and commercial success of Ben-Hur encouraged Hollywood studios to continue a pattern of reducing routine productions and gambling on relatively few projects, mounted at great expense, to lure American audiences back to the movie theaters in a time of panic within the film industry. As the era of the classical studio system came to an end (an event generally dated around 1960), the studios changed their accounting models and assumptions. By the end of the 1970’s, they would come to rely heavily on blockbusters, rather than on a series of modestly successful films, to drive their profits. The historical epic form, however, proved artistically unwieldy and financially risky, producing several disasters, such as Cleopatra, which almost bankrupted Twentieth Century-Fox in 1963, and the infamous Heaven’s Gate (1980). Ben-Hur (Wyler)[BenHur (Wyler)] Academy Awards;Best Picture Epic films

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biskind, Peter. Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties. New York: Pantheon, 1983. Ideological readings of popular Hollywood movies of the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elley, Derek. The Epic Film: Myth and History. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. Survey of epic films produced worldwide, with a filmography of 596 films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Emmett John. “MGM: War Among the Lion Tamers.” In The Movies in Our Midst: Documents in the Cultural History of Film in America, edited by Gerald Mast. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Describes the struggle between East Coast finance and West Coast moviemaking; originally published in the August, 1957, issue of Fortune.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kern, Sharon. William Wyler: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Includes biographical information on Wyler, data on his films, writings about Wyler, writings by Wyler, and listings of archival sources and film distributors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, David. Playing Out Empire: Ben-Hur and Other Toga Plays and Films, 1883-1908: A Critical Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Scholarly analysis of the social, political, and cultural context of the Victorian-era toga genre. Includes the full text of the play Ben-Hur, discussion of the music of toga drama, a filmography, and related essays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morsberger, Robert Eustis. Lew Wallace: Militant Romantic. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Biography of the soldier, novelist, governor of New Mexico Territory, and ambassador to Turkey who wrote Ben-Hur and infused it with an ideology of manifest destiny.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Katherine. “Ugly Americans in Togas: Imperial Anxiety in the Cold War Hollywood Epic.” Journal of Film and Video 56, no. 3 (Fall, 2004): 3-19. Uses Ben-Hur and Spartacus (1951) as key texts to support the argument that Hollywood toga films of the Cold War era expressed the American anxiety of empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomon, Jon. The Ancient World in the Cinema. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An articulate genre survey with an appendix that lists films according to their chronological settings in Greco-Roman history; a second appendix arranges film titles according to books of the Old Testament and time period referenced.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, Lew. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. New York: Harper, 1959. First published in 1880, this popular historical novel inspired numerous adaptations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyke, Marie. Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History. New York: Routledge, 1997. Argues that Hollywood epics of the 1950’s and 1960’s implied comparisons of Romans to Nazis and Communists.

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Categories: History