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Gronvold: Ben-Hur, done that

By Staff | Aug 26, 2016

A much-ballyhooed remake of the 1959 film classic Ben-Hur is in the news these days, so I’d like to add my considerable weight to the issue. Spoiler alert: There will never be a successful remake of Ben-Hur. Not unless Academy Award winner Charlton Heston (Best Actor as Ben-Hur) and other key production personnel could reprise their respective roles. The 1959 Ben Hur would eventually become the second-highest grossing film of its era, behind Gone with the Wind. Just imagine if Gone with the Wind had charged 8 to 10 bucks a head back when it was released in 1939, instead of 25-50 cents, plus tax, tag and taffy.

Ben-Hur is based on the book “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, written in 1880 by Civil War Union general Lewis ‘Lew’ Wallace. A silent 15-minute one-reel film was made and released in 1907 without the permission of the Wallace heirs, a not uncommon practice in the film industry’s infancy. In 1922, after a 25-year run as a stage play, MGM purchased the rights to produce Ben-Hur as a motion picture (silent, b&w), released in 1925. The film featured Hollywood heartthrob Jose Ramon Gil Samaniego, better known as Ramon Novarro, whose parents had fled to Tinsel Town from the Mexican Revolution in 1913. The 1925 version featured a classic chariot race that became a key ingredient of the 1959 remake.

MGM bet the farm on the 1959 Ben-Hur, spending over $122 million in today’s dollars on the project. The chariot race sequence took a year to plan, develop and film. One of the Second Unit directors was top stuntman and former rodeo world champion Yakima Canutt, who doubled for lead characters in many classic Westerns going back to the silent era. All of the chariot racing footage was genuine, real-life, non-animated action. The athletic Heston did many of his own stunts.

I was eleven and paid 35 cents admission when Ben-Hur was shown on the Lyric Theater’s newly-widened screen. Most of us had been introduced to Charlton Heston three years earlier when he played a convincing Moses in The Ten Commandments, a 1956 bladder-buster (3 hours 40 minutes, including intermission) which also introduced us to Yul Brynner as an equally convincing Pharaoh.

In Ben-Hur, Heston was back and even more impressive. He was blessed with movie star good looks, which is probably why he became such a big star. Pierce County has been blessed in that its good-looking residents forsook Hollywood for a regular life on the prairies and chose to stay home and be solid citizens. You know who you are.

The 1964 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had six months’ worth of stunt action film already “in the can” before any of the speaking actors showed up. After seeing the rushes of the classic car chases, airborne acrobatics and other comedic action, the actor Buddy Hackett was heard to remark, “What do they need us for?”

MGM was desperate for a hit in 1959. Their executives had seriously underestimated the impact that the new medium of television would have on movie box office receipts. MGM countered with big screen, Technicolor, stereo, even Cinerama, all without success. So, ten years later, they re-released Ben-Hur in select cities. The first “world premiere” was in Miami Beach in February, 1969. And, of course, yours truly was there.

My ROTC Pershing Rifles drill team was hired to be ushers for the event, which was held at the Lincoln Theater, an aging Art Deco edifice on Lincoln Road. This was 20 years before the shabby tenements that were home to thousands of elderly, mostly Jewish New York pensioners were razed on South Beach in favor of the Botox Generation’s glitzy watering holes.

We cadets wore our Class A uniforms with spit-shone combat boots and snazzy red ascots and berets and we lined the velvet-roped red carpet that led from curbside into the theater’s massive lobby. MGM made it a quasi-Hollywood event, complete with searchlights. All that was missing were the hand- and footprints in the cement sidewalk. A few passers-by did ask for handouts, which was as close as we came that night.

Soon a fleet of shiny limousines pulled up, disgorging the film’s co-stars Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins and others, along with director William Wyler. Wyler had won Best Director for 1959, one of 11 Oscars won by the film. Then, the star of the show (and of the night) Charlton Heston emerged, with his lovely wife Lydia. At 6-3, he was the prototypical leading man and gracefully breezed past us gawking collegians as the crowd clapped and cheered and the paparazzi popped their flashbulbs.

You had to be there.

Bill is a 1966 RHS grad and has never, to his knowledge, had a speaking role in a major motion picture.

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