TMP Reads: The Story of the Making of Ben-Hur

The Story of the Making of Ben-Hur was released by Random House in 1959 in promotion of William Wyler’s epic film.

(Photo by Lindsey for TMP)
(Photo by Lindsey for TMP)

The book comes with a couple of removable posters: one featuring a still from the chariot race scene, and in the back of the book a collection of paintings of scenes from the film by American artist Ben Stahl. They’re attached just inside the front and back covers, and can be cut out along a perforated line. (Luckily, all posters are intact in my copy of the book, and I don’t plan on tearing them out, as beautiful as they’d be to display!) Though the book is short, what comes between these posters is a plethora of information about all aspects of the film’s production.

It all begins with “A fabulous story… An immortal hero… A fantastic author.” Before any discussion can be had about the movie, the reader gets a sense of the story’s background with details about the author of the source material and its publication. General Lew Wallace decided to write the book that eventually became MGM’s Ben-Hur not because he knew it would bring him riches or because he had a passion for writing, but because he was struck with inspiration. Wallace was admittedly “not a great writer,” according to The Story of the Making of Ben-Hur. He thought he might make $100 or in royalties, when all was said and done. Little did he know, his book would stay in publication for decades, become a best-seller and spawn multiple stage and film adaptations.

Cast biographies (Photo by Lindsey for TMP)
Cast biographies (Photo by Lindsey for TMP)

After learning about Wallace and his book, the reader is given a four-page overview of the film’s characters, and of the actors filling those roles. Single sentence descriptions are given of each character: “Prince of Judea, who challenged the evil might of pagan Rome” and “The Beautiful, whose love was stronger than the bonds of slavery,” for example. Full paragraphs are devoted to each of the film’s stars, offering short biographies that detail where each actor is from and how their careers had progressed prior to Ben-Hur.

Next up, there’s a section titled “Random Revelations” which is a full page of fun-facts, including…

  • The wigs and beards for the film were made from 400 pounds of hair sold to the production by Italian women.
  • Protestant, Catholic and Jewish consultants were hired to the film’s research team.
  • A twenty-bed infirmary was maintained during the filming of the race scene in case of tragedy. Luckily, no serious injuries were incurred during the filming of this scene, but the two doctors and two nurses staffing the infirmary treated many cases of heat stroke in the scene’s extras.
  • The village of Arcinazzo was used to portray Nazareth, and every single resident of Arcinazzo was hired by the production to play residents of Nazareth.

After these and other facts there are 16 pages of gorgeous stills from the film, appearing in order as they do in the film itself, with captions to explain the story’s action — kind of like a Cliffs Notes version of the film.

Wyler at work (Photo by Lindsey for TMP)
Wyler at work (Photo by Lindsey for TMP)

The real meat of this book comes after the stills. A section called “The Wyler Touch” is followed by detailed essays about all aspects of production, from location-scouting to set-building to wardrobe to music. “The Wyler Touch” details William Wyler’s creative process and his reputation “as one of the most painstaking and meticulous directors in the business.” Ben-Hur is described as “the pinnacle of his genius,” though the essay acknowledges his previous successes as well, including his Oscar wins.

Reading about the production process is fascinating for such an epic film. The scale of work that went into this film was clearly immense. An enormous gaggle of local extras had to be broken into groups of thirty, led by the supervision of more experienced Hollywood extras, as a form of crowd control. Construction of the sets began two full years before filming (supervised by “veteran Hollywood production genius” Henry Heningson) and the sets were so vast that they became a magnet for tourism. The wardrobe staff was made up of 100 people, who spent a whole year constructing the film’s costumes. In order to transform the Italian hills into historic Rome, “It took three hundred sets, five years of research and fourteen months of labor.” Those are some impressive numbers!

(Image via Amazon Canada)
(Image via Amazon Canada)

Also impressive is the effort that went into truly making the film the best that it could be. Wyler, a stickler for accents that wouldn’t clash or distract the viewer, ensured that only British actors were cast for Roman roles, and American actors cast for Hebrew roles. Dr. Miklos Rozsa constructed the film’s score in twelve recording sessions after two whole years of researching period-appropriate music. New photographic technology was even brought in, with six “Camera 65” machines shipped across the ocean “to have the most exciting photography obtainable.” This camera used 65mm film rather than 35 and each machine was worth a cool $100,000.

The Story of the Making of Ben-Hur is a great read for fans of the film or for people who are just interested in the movie-making process in general. If you’re interested in reading it, some copies can be found on eBay, or you may run across it at your local antique store/library sale like I did!

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