In 1959, M-G-M’s future was riding on the success or failure of the studio’s $15 million remake of the 1925 silent classic, BEN-HUR. They needn’t have worried. Epics with biblical themes reaped big rewards at the box office in the 1950s and BEN-HUR was no exception. It turned into a colossal hit and became the number one movie of the year.
Based on General Lew Wallace’s bestselling novel, Charlton Heston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a proud Jew, whose friendship with the Roman sentry Messala (Stephen Boyd) eventually turns them into bitter enemies because of Messala’s blind allegiance to Rome. Judah is sent into slavery only to emerge as a “son of Rome.” Throw in some lepers and Christ and you’ve got a film of biblical proportions.
BEN-HUR was the kind of huge, sprawling religious epic (though it is now thought of as “the first intimate epic”) that Oscar loves. With its twelve nominations, the film slew the competition, winning eleven awards and beating the record set the year before with GIGI’s nine.
The film probably would have won all twelve except that director William Wyler raised a stink when screenwriter Karl Tunberg was the lone nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay of the five writers on the film, probably killing the film’s chances in the category. The record number of wins stood untouched for almost forty years until TITANIC tied with eleven awards of its own in 1997 (followed by THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING in 2003).
No matter what you feel about the film itself, there’s no denying the breadth and power of Miklós Rózsa’s score. In the words of fellow composer David Raksin, Rózsa’s music “came close to the soul of the movie.”
Rozsa was brought onto the film from the very beginning and the project involved a year and a half of his life. Not surprisingly, it is the composer’s longest score, including over two hours of musical cues played by a 100-piece orchestra. The power of Rózsa’s score was so great that Wyler even changed the editing in some sequences to fit the music.
One of the most impressive displays of Rózsa’s music is the scene in the galley of the Roman ship as Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) tests Ben-Hur’s strength as he forces the rowers to progress from battle speed to ramming speed. A model of tension, the music begins an amazingly sustained rhythmic accelerando with the relentless pounding of the timpani marking the time changes. With only minimal dialogue, every bit of drama is provided by Rozsa’s music.
Considered by many to be one of the finest film scores of all time, the score would have been unbeatable in almost any year but match it with the film’s juggernaut and you have an instant winner. Even fellow nominee Franz Waxman was in agreement with the win: “Rózsa is the best film composer anyway.”