Golden Glory With 11 Academy Awards, William Wyler’s 1959 biblical epic “Ben-Hur” is tied (with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Titanic”) for the distinction of most honored Oscar film of all time. Sixty years later, the film’s famed chariot-race sequence is included in virtually every clip reel of the greatest action sequences ever put on film. And there’s a happy non-ending for Rome’s famed Cinecitta Studios, which housed the production: It’s in the 2019 Oscar race with Fernando Meirelles’ stunning Vatican-set pic, “The Two Popes.”

June 9, 1958
“BUON GIORNO or GOOD MORNING from Rome: The sets which have been built for “Ben-Hur” are absolutely beyond belief — and description. Both interiors and exteriors are so magnificent they should be preserved along with the Rome of the past! … The Circus Maximus built for the famous chariot race is fantastic. This sequence alone will cost one million bucks. The arena covers 18 acres … Giant statues four stories high, and covered with gold paint, have been created by Edward Carfagno of MGM. They form an island in the middle of the track, around which the chariots tear… The stands for spectators are five stories high … It makes the true ruins of Rome’s Ancient Circus, where their chariot races were held, look picayune by comparison … Standing in the middle of the Circus is like standing in the middle of L.A.’s Coliseum (sans Dodgers, of course) … It is truly a breath-taking sight … Especially when the chariots whizz around the track and thousands of Italian extras drown the air with their screaming! … Funny to watch the Italian extras, in togas, returning to the stadium eating American hot dogs — in Italian hard rolls. … On the first day of the “Ben-Hur” chariot race, standing by to watch the truly overpowering scene of the chariots entering the Circus were such Hollywoodians as Audrey Hepburn, husband Mel Ferrer, Richard Basehart and wife Valentina Cortese, and Agnes Moorehead … Metro’s casting department here worked straight through the first night … Next day, when only 1,500 extras were used against 6,000 the first day, a near-riot ensued and extra police were called. There is a separate police force (40 soldiers) to handle the extras who are kept behind barbed wire enclosures when not working! … A special restaurant has been built for ‘em, plus a hospital, etc. What an operation, all under Henry Henigson’s skilled hand … First day, the production department feared trouble when a red flag appeared in the middle of the spectators. A studio crew was rushed over, only to find that the flag was put there by Metro’s sound department as a marker! …The stages are like Hollywood’s. The prop, plaster and special effects buildings, the same — but no air conditioning. And brother can it get hot in Rome in August.”

(See a larger version of the below PDF here.)