Restoring Ben-Hur: Catherine Wyler Reminisces About her Father’s Biggest Film

A million-dollar restoration will help introduce the Oscar-winning film to a new audience

The famous chariot race form Ben-Hur before and after the restoration.
The famous chariot race form Ben-Hur before and after the restoration. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers

General Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was not an immediate hit when it was first published in 1880. But within a decade it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, inspiring a stage adaptation by William Young that the famous theatrical team of Klaw & Erlanger produced in 1889. An unauthorized 1907 film version written by Gene Gauntier and directed by Sidney Olcott led to considerable legal problems, and in the process helped extend copyright protection to motion pictures. The second film adaptation, a troubled production that stretched from Rome to Hollywood, was an enormous hit for MGM when it was released in 1925. One of the many assistant directors on the project was William Wyler, who worked on the famous chariot sequence.

When MGM initiated a remake some 30 years later, Wyler took on the project in part as a dare, to see if he could “out DeMille DeMille,” a master of Biblical melodrama. Wyler also relished a return to Rome, where he and his family had lived while he was making Roman Holiday. Released in 1959, Wyler’s Ben-Hur was an epic blockbuster that went on to win 11 Oscars, a record at the time.

For its 50th anniversary, Warner Home Video prepared a new restoration, released on Blu-ray and DVD earlier this week. And lucky New Yorkers who were able to score tickets will see the movie on the big screen tomorrow at the New York Film Festival.

Ben-Hur has always been marked by excess. It was the largest, most expensive production of its time—on stage, in 1925, and in 1959. Statistics overwhelm artistry: Wyler’s crew went through a million pounds of plaster, 100,000 costumes, 15,000 extras, and 40,000 tons of white sand from Mediterranean beaches, data trumpeted to the world by MGM publicists.

Even the renovation work was epic, costing Warner Brothers $1 million. “We have been working on this extensive restoration for several years, hoping we could be ready with a 2009 release for the actual 50th,” Warner Brothers executive Jeff Baker explained in a press release. After attending a screening, Fraser Heston, actor Charlton’s son and a director in his own right, said, “It was an extraordinary, life-changing experience, like sitting next to Wyler in his answer print screening, only better.”

Wyler’s daughter Catherine was one of the many celebrities and dignitaries who visited the set, and she spoke to me about the impact the film had on her. A college student at the time, she spent the summer and vacations in Rome during the shoot and was well aware of the problems her father encountered during the production. “From having read the script and been on the set and listened to my father talk about it for a couple of years, I knew a fair amount about the film before I saw it,” she said. “I was prepared for it to be large-scale, for the acting to be terrific. But it doesn’t matter what your expectations are, the film was so much bigger and more epic and more outstanding than anything we had seen before.”

Ms. Wyler admits to a slight ambivalence about Ben-Hur, worried because it tends to overshadow the rest of her father’s career, and for the critical response he received. “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film,” she said. “He was someone who was interested in making all kinds of movies, in giving himself challenges, and it wasn’t something that critics were willing to consider. But they should have asked themselves why Ben-Hur succeeded so much better than the other epics of the time. The impact of the chariot race is undiminished, but look at how well the intimate scenes work.”

She added, “My father spent so much time thinking about the project, how to portray Christ, how to portray the crucifixion, being aware that so many great minds through the centuries had taken this on. He used to joke that, ‘It took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ.’”

Ms. Wyler, who directed a 1986 documentary about her father, Directed by William Wyler, hopes that the publicity for Ben-Hur will help introduce viewers, “especially younger people,” to his earlier movies, including such outstanding titles as Dodsworth, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Heiress.

Wyler had a reputation as a difficult personality, something his daughter attributes to his perfectionist streak. “It’s true that actresses found him difficult,” she admitted. “But he wanted them to come to work with their own ideas. It they didn’t, he could be short-tempered. Some called him inarticulate. But I think he wasn’t inarticulate at all, he just didn’t want to tell actresses, or actors, what to do. He wanted them to figure it out for themselves, show him their ideas. If he didn’t like those ideas he could always offer his own, but he always hoped there might be a better way.”

The perfectionism carried over to Wyler’s home life as well. “He expected a lot of himself and his kids,” Wyler said. But her memories of her father are warm: “He was full of humor and adventure, he was really fun to be with. He was also politically involved, he cared about the world and put his beliefs out there. He was madly in love with his wife. He was just a great guy.”

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