Saturday, July 22, 2023



Continuing a look at the events and people in Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.

Each two lines represent a year.

Relevant verse:

Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac
Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, "Bridge on the River Kwai"
Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle, California baseball
Starkweather homicide, children of thalidomide
Buddy Holly, "Ben Hur", space monkey, Mafia
Hula hoops, Castro, Edsel is a no-go
U-2, Syngman Rhee, payola and Kennedy
Chubby Checker, "Psycho", Belgians in the Congo



The 1959 flick Ben-Hur collected 11 Oscars, including the biggies: Best Pic, Best Director and Best Actor.

Some facts and trivia . . .

(Sorry people, I have not converted the imperial figures to metric)

At $15m, it was the most expensive film made to that date.

MGM first announced it was planning a remake of the 1925 silent classic "Ben-Hur" (based, in turn, on Lew Wallace's best-selling 1880 novel) in late 1952. Over the next few years, the studio continued to float possible versions of the project but development didn't kick into gear until 1956, when Paramount's "The Ten Commandments" proved the profitability of a massive Biblical epic.

It is the only Hollywood production to be included in the list of films approved by the Vatican in the category of religion.

During the filming, director William Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He made a request to the makeup department to build him a prosthesis that has a false bone sticking out to cover the man's stump for the scene in which a pirate ship. He did the same thing with another actor who was missing a foot.

Paul Newman was offered the role of Ben-Hur, but he turned it down because he had already made a biblical film, The Silver Chalice (1954), and he hated the experience. He also said that he “did not have legs to wear a tunic”.

The 300 sets that were built for the film required five years of research and 14 months of work.

Out of reverence, the face of Jesus Christ is never shown on screen during "Ben-Hur," and the actor playing him is not credited in the film. It was opera singer Claude Heater, an American tenor the filmmakers had discovered during a concert in Rome.

At first, director William Wyler (pictured, far right) turned down "Ben-Hur" because he didn't think much of the script, but he ultimately decided that the story was interesting enough, and the Biblical epic genre offered him a chance to one-up "Ten Commandments" director Cecil B. DeMille. (Apparently, the two Hollywood titans hated each other.) Plus, MGM offered him the biggest payday a Hollywood director had ever earned up to that time: $350,000 plus 8 percent of the gross or 3 percent of the net profits, whichever was greater.

With 2 hours, 1 minute and 23 seconds, the protagonist's performance in this film is the longest ever to win an Academy Award for Best Actor and the second longest to win in any category.

Actor Stephen Boyd (Messala, Roman tribune) used platforms on his shoes to make his height more like that of Charlton Heston.

Originally, the film was intended to be made in 1956 with Marlon Brando in the title role.

The chariot race required 15,000 extras on a set constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. Tour buses visited the set every hour. Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film.

During the 18-day auction of MGM props, costumes and memorabilia that took place in May 1970 when new studio owner Kirk Kerkorian was liquidating the studio's assets, a Sacramento restaurateur paid $4,000 for a chariot used in the film. Three years later, during the energy crisis, he was arrested for driving the chariot on the highway.

The chariot race has a 263-to-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every one foot used), probably the highest for any 65mm sequence ever filmed.

Kirk Douglas was offered the role of Messala but turned it down, because he didn't want to play a "second-rate baddie". Douglas wanted to play Judah Ben-Hur, whose Jewishness appealed to him, but he was too old and Charlton Heston had already been cast. The experience motivated Douglas to develop his own epic, Spartacus (1960), which was partially designed to compete against this film.

Wyler had been thinking of Heston to play the villain Messala. But when he moved into the lead, and Kirk Douglas and Stewart Granger turned down the role of Judah's Roman friend-turned-rival, it fell to Irish actor Stephen Boyd, then all-but-unknown in Hollywood. Since both stars had blue eyes, Wyler had Boyd wear brown contact lenses for the sake of contrast.

Burt Lancaster turned the part of Judah Ben-Hur down because he found the script dull and disparaging toward Christianity.

Gore Vidal, one of several high-profile script doctors who revised Karl Tunberg's screenplay, claimed he'd inserted a homoerotic subtext into the friendship between Judah and Messala, and that Messala's motivation when he turns against Judah is that of a spurned lover. Vidal claimed he broached the idea to Wyler, who thought about it a while and then agreed but told Vidal not to mention it to Heston because "Chuck will fall apart."

In his memoir, Heston disputed Vidal's claims about the possible homoerotic feelings of Messala towards Judah and dismissed his contributions to the script. Vidal's response to Heston's denial was, more or less, "He would, wouldn't he?" (MDRA – Mandy Rice Davies applies). Scholars continue to argue over the claims, but watch Boyd and Heston's scenes together and decide for yourself.

The production design included 1 million props, 100,000 costumes, and 300 sets that were built out of 1 million pounds of plaster and 40,000 cubic feet of lumber.

For the movie's centerpiece sequence, the chariot race, the producers built what was then the biggest movie set ever constructed. The arena, an accurate duplicate of an actual Roman stadium outside Jerusalem, was five stories tall and big enough to enclose a track 2000 feet long and 65 feet wide. There were actually two such tracks, one built outside of camera range for the horses and riders to train and rehearse. For the track surface, some 40,000 tons of white sand were imported from Mexico. The arena cost $1 million to build and spanned 18 acres on the Cinecittà lot.

Heston and Boyd spent weeks training to steer the four-horse chariot teams; in most of the shots, that's really the two stars at the reins. In the Roman summer heat, the horses could complete only about eight laps per day, and the sequence took five weeks to shoot over the course of three months.

Wyler left oversight of the chariot race sequence to second unit director Andrew Marton and legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. (An assistant director on the sequence was future spaghetti-western maestro Sergio Leone.) Joe Canutt, the stunt coordinator's son, was Heston's double. During a notorious, heart-stopping moment, Joe was thrown forward out of the chariot, onto its lip. Yakima was certain that his son had been killed, but Joe managed to climb back into the chariot and retake the reins, suffering only a deep cut on his chin. The footage remains in the completed film.

During the shoot, Boyd married Italian-born studio executive Mariella Di Sarzana. But they separated after three weeks and divorced in early 1959.

The filmmakers felt the usual roaring-lion opening that preceded all MGM movies didn't fit the reverent tone of the nativity scene that begins "Ben-Hur." Studio brass agreed and permitted Leo to roar silently for the first time.

The epic proved an instant hit, grossing an incredible $147 million worldwide during its initial run. At the time, that made it the second-highest grossing film ever, behind only "Gone With the Wind." It was also more than profitable enough to rescue the troubled MGM from looming bankruptcy.

"Ben-Hur" generated another $20 million from merchandising, including books, toys, candy, perfume, neckties, jewellery, gowns, chariot-shaped tricycles, and "Ben-Her" and "Ben-His" bathroom towels. Apparently, the reverence that hid Jesus's face and hushed Leo's roar went only so far.

Executive producer Sam Zimbalist died in Rome of a heart attack during the shoot. He was 54. He is the only producer ever to win Oscar's top prize posthumously.

No film has ever won more Oscars than "Ben-Hur," though "Titanic" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" have tied it.

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