Miklós Rózsa wrote the musical score in eight weeks.
According to Gore Vidal, as recounted in The Celluloid Closet one of the script elements he was brought in to re-write was the relationship between Messala and Ben-Hur. Director William Wyler was concerned that two men who had been close friends as youths would not simply hate one another as a result of disagreeing over politics. Thus, Vidal devised a thinly veiled subtext suggesting the Messala and Ben-Hur had been lovers as teenagers, and their fighting was a result of Ben-Hur spurning Messala. Wyler was initially hesitant to implement the subtext, but agreed on the conditions that no direct reference ever be made to the characters' sexuality in the script, that Vidal personally discuss the idea with Stephen Boyd, and not mention the subtext to Charlton Heston who, Wyler feared, would panic at the idea. After Vidal admitted to adding the homosexual subtext in public, Heston denied the claim, going so far as to suggest Vidal had little input into the final script, and his lack of screen credit was a result of his being fired for trying to add gay innuendo. Vidal rebutted by citing passages from Heston's 1978 autobiography, where the actor admitted that Vidal had aut
According to his memoirs Stewart Granger was offered the role of Messala but claimed that he turned it down on the advice of his agent who recommended Granger not to play a supporting role to Charlton Heston.
Although William Wyler was Jewish, he particularly wanted to make a film that would appeal to all religious faiths.
Although there were presumably white horses in Italy, the white horses used in the film were brought in from Lipica, Slovenia, the original home of the snow-white "Lipizzaner" horse breed. Glenn H. Randall Sr. trained 78 horses for the film, starting months before photography began.
An infirmary was created especially for the filming of the dangerous chariot race scenes. However, in the end, very few injuries were actually sustained, most of them being sunburns.
Another problem concerned the color of the water in the pond holding the boat; it was too brown and murky. They hired a chemist to develop a dye to color the water Azure Mediterranean blue. The chemist dumped a huge sack of some powder into the pond, which, instead of turning the water blue, formed a hard crust on the surface of the water, which had to be chiselled off the boat at great expense. They finally found some dye that would make the water blue. During one of the battle scenes, an extra who fell into the water and spent a bit too much time there turned blue, and was kept on the MGM payroll until it wore off.
Besides Burt Lancaster, Rock Hudson was also offered the role of Ben Hur. Hudson seriously considered accepting the part until his agent explained to him that the film's gay subtext was too much of a risk to his career.
By the time filming had finished, MGM's London laboratories had processed over 1,250,000 feet of 65mm Eastman Color film, at the cost of $1 a foot.
Christ was played by opera singer Claude Heater, who went uncredited for his only film role.
Director William Wyler decided that the Romans should have British accents, and that the four Americans in the cast would play Hebrews. This was a technique later used in Masada.
Director William Wyler had previous experience with Ben-Hur. He served as an assistant director under action specialist Breezy Eason (B. Reeves Eason) who was one of the directors for the chariot race in MGM's mammoth silent version of the story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
During filming, director William Wyler noticed that one of the extras was missing a hand. He had the man's stump covered in blood with a false bone protruding from it for the scene where the galley was rammed by another ship. Wyler made similar use of an extra who was missing a foot.
During the 18-day auction of MGM props, costumes, and memorabilia that took place in May 1970 when new owner Kirk Kerkorian was liquidating the studio's assets, a Sacramento restaurateur paid $4,000 for a chariot used in the film. Three years later, during the energy crisis, he was arrested for driving the chariot on the highway.
For some sequences in the chariot race, some of the chariots had three horses instead of four. This enabled the camera car to move in closer.
In the original novel, Ben-Hur's mother does not have a name; she is referred to as Mother of Hur. For the film, she was called Miriam.
In the Roman galley scenes, Ben-Hur is referred to as "number 41." In the original General Lew Wallace novel, he is "number 60" (Book 3, Chapter 3, page 123, Harper Brothers 1922). In the Dell Movie Classic comic book, he is referred to as "number 40" (Dell Comics #1052-5911, 1959, pages 15 and 16). And in both Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and the 1958 Classics Illustrated comic book there is no reference to any number, either by scene decor, dialogue, or intertitle.
Initially there were queries over whether William Wyler was the right director for the job, as he'd never tackled a film of this scale before. One of the doubters was Wyler himself.
It was the first "remake" to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The Departed became the second "remake" to do so, 47 years later.