|Table of contents|
2 1907 Film
3 1925 Film
4 1959 Film
The story originated as a novel by General Lew Wallace which was published on November 12, 1880, by Harper and Brothers. Wallace's work is part of an important sub-genre of historical fiction set among the characters of the New Testament. The novel was a phenomenal best-seller; it soon surpassed Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) as the best selling American novel and held on to this distinction until the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. In 1912, Sears Roebuck published one million copies to sell for thirty nine cents apiece; the largest single year print edition in American history.
The novel was quickly adapted into numerous stage productions, including one which recreated the climatic chariot race on stage using live horses, full size chariots, and a series of treadmills.
The novel was later adapted into three motion pictures of the peplum genre.
The second version appeared in 1925, and starred Ramon Novarro in the title role; Francis X. Bushman played his friend Messala. It was one of the most lavish and spectacular Hollywood productions of the silent movie era, costing a then unprecedented 3.9 million dollars. Some of the crowd scenes were reported to use up to 125,000 extras! Several big Hollywood stars of the time appeared as uncredited crowd extras during the chariot race. The great chariot race scene is still regarded as a triumph of exciting film making and was much imitated, (even so recently as the "pod race scene" in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace almost 75 years later), although seldom so well as in the original. Some scenes were in 2-strip Technicolor. The film was directed by Charles Brabin, J.J. Cohn, and Fred Niblo, and was produced and distributed by MGM; the film made MGM's reputation as a heavyweight force in Hollwood.
The movie version of the story directed by William Wyler is the best-known today. It was done in the spectacular block buster style, and featured Charlton Heston as Judah ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as Messala. It premiered at Loew's Theater in New York City on November 18, 1959.
This version won a stunning 11 Academy Awards: