Ben-Hur (M-G-M). "My God!" gasped Major General Lew Wallace. "Did I set all this in motion?" In 1899, the hard-riding, hard-writing Civil War commander was already appalled by the smashing success of his first historical novel, Ben-Hur, which in 19 years had sold 400,000 copies. And that, though the general did not live to see it, was only the beginning. By 1920, a stage version of the general's work had been running 21 years, had been seen by 20 million fans, had grossed $10 million. In 1926, M-G-M turned it into the first of the cinemammoths, a $4,000,000, two-hour spectacle starring Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. By 1936, the film had grossed almost $10 million, and the book had become the biggest bestseller (more than 2,000,000 copies) in U.S. history, not counting the Bible.
Last week, after five years of preparation, 6½ months of shooting in Italy, nine months of editing in Hollywood, and a massive publicity campaign, M-G-M displayed a new version of Ben-Hur that is far and away the most expensive movie ever madeit cost $15 million to produce, $1,500,000 more than The Ten Commandmentsand also one of the longest3 hr. 37 min., not including a 15-minute intermission. Only Gone With the Wind (3 hr. 42 min.) and The Ten Commandments (3 hr. 39 min.) ran longer.
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. 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. Three months before the shooting stopped, Production Manager Henry Henigson had a serious heart attack, and two weeks later Producer Sam Zimbalist had a fatal one. By the time the cameras had finally stopped rolling, MGM's London laboratories had processed, at a cost of $1 a foot, some 1,250,000 feet of special, 65-mm. Eastman Color film.