June 2008 Ranked #2 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Epic".
MGM acquired over 40 scripts for the film.
MGM wanted an authentic-looking Roman boat for the live battle scenes. To design the boats, they hired a person who had spent his whole career studying Roman naval architecture. When he presented his designs to the MGM engineers, Mauro Zambuto (set engineer) exclaimed, "But this is top heavy! It will sink!" They built the boat anyway and launched it in the ocean, and at first it seemed to float. Then, however, a little wave came along, a wake from another boat, splashed against the highly unstable boat, and tipped it over. MGM then put the boat in a large pond with a huge painted sky backdrop. To steady the boat, they ran cables from the bottom of the boat to anchors on the bottom of the pond.
MGM was unsatisfied with the script even as the film was shooting, and hired Ben Hecht to "polish" it. They flew him to Rome, set him up in a house and paid him approximately $15,000 for a week's work. It's not known if any of Hecht's dialogue made it into the final film.
One of only two films shot in the MGM Camera 65 cinematographic process (the other being Raintree County, which was only released in 35mm prints). The MGM Camera 65 process used 65mm negative stock, but the 70mm prints intended for projection contained additional space for a stereophonic track that was printed in magnetic stripes directly on the film in the sprocket-hole area. Magnetic stripes were superior to optical soundtracks in that they could provide four channels of sound (six in the Todd-AO process) compared to the single sound channel of optical prints. The MGM Camera 65 used an anamorphic lens akin to CinemaScope that squeezed the image by 10%. Exhibitors rejected the new system as they had already made huge capital outlays of money to equip their theaters with CinemaScope lenses, stereophonic sound systems and 70mm projectors.
One of the very few (and very expensive) 65mm cameras in the world was wrecked during the filming of the chariot race.
One thing William Wyler was completely unable to do was get his leading man to cry on-screen. You'll note in Ben-Hur's crying scenes that Charlton Heston covers his eyes.
Originally William Wyler had planned only to film the first unit and leave the second unit duties to producer Sam Zimbalist. These plans were scuppered by Zimbalist's premature death. MGM persuaded Wyler to see the film through to completion by offering him a sizable amount of money.
Producer Sam Zimbalist died two months before production ended, with William Wyler handling his duties afterward.
Producer Sam Zimbalist offered William Wyler $1,000,000 to direct this film. This was the highest director's fee ever paid up to that time.
Producer Sam Zimbalist originally intended for the chariot race to be shot in Cinerama. This proved to be too expensive and unwieldy an idea.
Shot over a period of nine months at Rome's Cinecitta studio. The outdoor sets built for the chariot race were the largest built at the time.
Stuntman Cliff Lyons worked as a stuntman/chariot driver in both Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and the remake Ben-Hur.
Such was the expense of the film, nervous studio executives flew out to Rome on a weekly basis to check on the progress of the production.
The 10 square block set that represents Jerusalem is an historically accurate one.
The chariot race has a 263-to-1 cutting ratio (263 feet of film for every one foot kept), probably the highest for any 65mm sequence ever filmed.
The chariot race required 15,000 extras, on a set constructed on 18 acres of backlot at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome. Tour buses visited the set every hour. Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film.
The chariot race segment was directed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. Joe Canutt (Yak's son) doubled for Charlton Heston. During one of the crashes, in which Judah Ben-Hur's horses jump over a crashed chariot, the younger Canutt was thrown from his chariot onto the tongue of his chariot. He managed to climb back into his chariot and bring it back under control. The sequence looked so good that it was included in the film, with a close-up of Heston climbing back into the chariot. Canutt got a slight cut on his chin, but it was the only injury in the incredibly dangerous sequence. Stuntman Nosher Powell, who worked on the film, states in his biography, that Yakima Canutt went pale as a ghost when the chariot crashed. The crash was not planned, and everybody - including Yakima Canutt - believed that Joe Canutt had died.
The chariot race was shot without sound. This was added in post-production when the decision was also made to not have any music throughout the sequence.
The desert sequences were all set to be filmed in Libya until the Muslim Libyan authorities realized that the film was promoting Christianity. The unit was ordered out of the country, only to show up in Israel.