The new movie version of Ben-Hur that’s about to land in theaters, featuring Morgan Freeman, isn’t just a reimagining of one classic movie. The hit 1880 Lew Wallace novel of that name has been adapted for the stage and screen several times—TIME noted that the 1925 version “reveals what seems to be more scenery and more people than in any recent spectacle.”
But, more than 100 years since the story was first told, there remains one version that stands above the rest, a version that would easily dwarf that “more” of 1925: the 1959 Charlton Heston epic, photos from the making of which can be seen here.
It was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made, by far, with a budget of $15 million. (That’s about $122 million today.) It was also, by TIME’s count, the third longest, ranking behind only Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments.
“Ben-Hur, 1959, by MGM’s statistics, is adorned with more than 400 speaking parts, about 10,000 extras, 100,000 costumes, at least 300 sets,” the magazine continued. “One of them, the circus built for the chariot race in Rome’s Cinecitta, was the largest ever made for any movie. It covered 18 acres, held 10,000 people and 40,000 tons of sand, took a year to complete, and cost $1,000,000. The race itself, which runs only nine minutes on the screen, ran three months before the cameras and cost another million.”
But, for all its gargantuan proportions, it was a gargantuan success. Though the “movie hero is pretty much an overgrown boy scout who never experiences the moral struggles that beset the hero of the book,” TIME’s critic declared, “the religious theme is handled with rare restraint and good taste.”
By the end of the year, the magazine had decided that Ben-Hur was one of 1959’s best films—”certainly the biggest and probably the best of all the big ones”—and at that year’s Oscars it racked up nearly a dozen trophies, including Best Picture.
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