Ben-Hur (1959)




Director:     William Wyler

Starring:     Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur),  Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius),  Haya Hararret (Esther),  Stephen Boyd (Messala),   Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim),  Martha Scott (Miriam),  Cathy O'Donnel (Tirzah),  Sam Jaffe (Simonides),  Finlay Currie (Balthasar/Narrator).

Oscars: 11 wins; Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Griffith), Cinematography (Robert L. Surtees), Best Music Score (Miklos Rozsa), Art Direction, Film Editing, Sound, Costume Design, and Special Effects.  

Based on General Lew Wallace's a "tale of the Christ."  Charlton Heston plays the part of a proud Jew named Ben-Hur and his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) who in adulthood become bitter enemies.  




Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Judea has been under the mastery of Rome for nearly a century.  In the seventh year of the reign of Augustus Caesar an imperial decree ordered every Judean to return to his place of birth to be counted and taxed.  Many head for Jerusalem.  The old city is dominated by the fortress of Antonia, the seat of Roman power, and by the great golden temple.  Joseph of Nazareth of the family of David of Bethlehem comes to be counted and is told that he will be counted and taxed in Bethelehem.

Three wise men watch the star shine like a spotlight on the place of the birth of Jesus. 

26 A.D.  Thousands of Romans are coming through Nazareth on their way to Jerusalem.  They will be in Jerusalem tomorrow night.  Joseph is there.  A customer of the carpenter says that Jesus neglectd his work, but Joseph assures the man that Jesus is working. 

In Jerusalem Messala comes in to relieve his predecessor Sextus.  Messala says now he will be commanding the garrison. Sextus complains about troublemakers such as John the Baptist and that Jesus who teaches that God is near in every man. 

Prince Judah Ben-Hur has arrived to see Messala.  As boys they were very close friends.  Messala asks his friend if his sister Tirzah is married?  No.  Judah says that his sister has been in love with Messala since she was five years old. But there are still barriers between the friends.  You are a Roman and I am a Jew, says Judah. Messala says he will be second in command to the new governor, Valerius Gratus.  He tells Judah to convince his people not to resist against Roman rule. 

Messala has brought Tirzah an expensive brooch.  Judah gives Messala a white Arabian stallion.  The men talk some more and it becomes rather apparent to Judah that Messala wants to use him as an informer on his own people.  Messala says he has to pacify Judea in order to move up in the military ranks.  But as a Jew, Judah cannot agree to Messala's plans.  He says that Rome is an affront to God!  This is not acceptable to Messala.  He tells Judah he is either with him or against him.  Given that narrow choice, Judah says he is against Messala. 

Judah returns home.  His mother and sister want to know where Messala is?  Judah tells them that the new tribune is gone.  They shall never see him again.  Messala wanted to use him to betray his people. 

A servant of Judah's, named Simonides, brings gifts to the family when he returns from Antioch.  He tells Judah that the caravans from Petra have all arrived.  His daughter Esther, Judah's slave, has come with him from Antioch.  She is here to ask Judah permission to marry.  Judah says permission is granted.  Who will she marry?  She will marry David, son of Mathias.  When Esther comes in Judah asks her if she loves the man?  Esther answers "I will learn to love him."  Judah tells her that he gives her his permission to marry. 

Judah and Esther talk alone.  Judah gives Esther her freedom and she gives him her slave ring.  He puts it on his pinky finger.  She asks him if he will wear it until he meets the woman he will marry?  Judah says yes, until then.  A tear rolls down her left cheek. 

The new governor Gratus arrives.  From the roof of their house Judah and Tirzah watch as hundreds of Romans march in to the city.   Some of the tiles on the edging of the roof are loose and as Tirzah moves around she knocks against the tile and it falls on the horse of the new governor.  The horse rears and throws the governor off.  The Romans immediately go to Judah's house.  They take him, his mother and his sister into custody.  Judah tries to tell them it was just an accident, but they are not listening.  Messala comes and Judah tells him to tell the soldiers that it was just a mistake, an accident.  But Messala won't say anything.  So the soldiers haul them off to jail.  Messala goes up on the roof and investigates.  He discovers that the tile is loose up there.  In fact, he accidentally knocks off a few tiles himself. 

The soldiers come to the jail cell of Judah and tell him he is going to Tirus.  Judah tries to get away, but the jailer knocks him out with something in his hand.  But as the soldiers move Judah, he escapes from them.  He grabs a long spear and then runs to find Messala.  He finds his office and busts in.  He threatens to kill Messala if the other men in the office do not get out.  They leave.  Judah demands to know where are his mother and sister?  Messala says they will be sentenced.  Judah asks:  "Is it possible you could do this to us?  To people you have known."  Messala says he knows the incident was an accident.  Judah tells him:  "You are evil!"  Messala says he wanted Judah's help, but he refused it.  But now he is helping him (Messala).  As tribune he shall be feared when he condemns an old friend.  Judah begs him and Messala snaps at him:  "Didn't I beg you?"  Messala calls for the guards.  Judah says may God grant him vengeance when he returns!!  Messala asks:  "Return?" 

Simonides and Esther come to see the tribune.  Simonides introduces himself as steward of the House of Hur.  He says that Judah couldn't have done this.  Messala only says that the prisoners have been sentenced.  He then tells his assistant Drusus to keep Simonides here until they have time to question him. 

As a prisoner Judah has to walk through the desert attached to other prisoners.  When the other prisoners get water, the guard says that Judah is not to have any at all.  Judah falls on the ground and asks God to help him.  Jesus comes over to him and gives him water.  The guard heads over to Jesus to whip him for disobeying the order of no water to Judah, but is entranced by the man and decides not to hit him.  At the coast the men are put on a boat where they serve as rowers. 

The new commander Quintus Arrius comes aboard.  He examines the 200 rowers.  He comes to Judah and asks him about his rowing.  Judah has been rowing now for more than three years.  Quintus says that Judah's eyes are full of hate.  But instead of punishing the rower, he says that hate is good.  It gives a man strength.  Quintus tells all the men:  "Row well and live."  On deca Quintus tells his staff that a fleet of Macedonian galleys has been raiding Roman commerce.  So they will find and destroy the Macedonian fleet. 

Quintus Arrius puts the rowers to the test.  He has theM row at battle speed, then at attack speed and, finally, at ramming speed.  Some of the men can't do it and are whipped. Judah manages to perform well.  Later Judah is sent to see Quintus Arrius.  The sleeping commander awakens suddenly and sees Judah standing there.  He demandsto know why Judah is in his room.  Judah tells him that he was ordered to report to the commander during his relief.  Arrius has taken some interest in Judah and he asks him if would like to train as a gladiator or a charioteer under him?  Judah shows no interest in the idea.  Judah goes back to the rowing. 

An officer comes in to tell Arrius that the enemy has been sighted!  Arrius tells the officer to have number 41 unlocked  from his chains.  Judah is unlocked, which really makes him wonder why.  The slaves keep rowing.  Then one of the rowers shouts that they are going to be rammed.  The Macedonian ship rams into the Roman ship and the water starts pouring into the galley.  Judah strangles a guard from behind, takes his keys and unlocks the other slave rowers.  Meanwhile, the Macedonians are jumping off their ship and onto the Roman ship.  The Romans have to fight for their lives.  Judah comes onto the deck.  He sees a man who is about to kill Arrius.  Judah grabs a spear and throws it into the man, killing him.  But then another man pushes Arrius into the sea.  Judah jumps into the sea and saves Arrius.  He pulls him on top of a large floating wooden section of one of the ships.    

Arrius watches as his ship goes under the water.  He is absolutely distraught thinking his navy has been defeated.  He tries to take his own life with his knife, but Judah stops him.  Later Arrius tries to slip back into the sea to kill himself.  And again Judah stops him from committing suicide.  In desperation Judah takes his chains and hits Arrius in the back of the head knocking the commander out.   

When Arrius awakes his movements awaken Judah who makes sure Arrius doesn't try anything.  Arrius asks why did Judah save him?   Judah asks why did Arrius have him released from his chains?  Arrius then asks the slave his name.  It's Judah Ben-Hur.  In the distance they spot a ship.  Arrius is worried that it is a Macedonian vessel, but it turns out to be a Roman vessel.  Judah says it's a Roman sail he sees. 

Arrius is welcomed aboard by the captain.  He congratulates Arrius on the battle won.  The victory was complete.  Arrius is so happy and so relieved to hear the good news.  He thought for sure he had suffered a disaster.  He turns to Judah and says about his God:  "In His eagerness to save you, your God has also saved the Roman fleet!"

Arrius is given a hero's welcome and a huge parade back in Rome.  In the same chariot as Arrius is Judah.  Arrius stops at the base of the huge staircase and walks up to be received by the emperor.  The emperor welcomes him as the hero Arrius is.  The emperor then asks Arrius about the man with him in his chariot.  Arrius says the man was condemned for trying to kill the Roman governor of Judea, but he is certain that the man is innocent.  The emperor says they will talk about this man later. 

When Arrius talks to the emperor, the emperor tells him that he and the senate have given Judah Ben-Hur to him as a slave.  He now may do with him whatever he would like. 

Judah and a woman watch the dancing of an African troupe.  Arrius introduces Judah to the crowd as the finest charioteer in Rome.  Five times Judah has driven his horses to victory.  He says that Judah has become like a son to him and so he has officially adopted Judah.  He is now heir to the name of Arrius and also to the property of Arrius.  The crowd shout hurray!  Judah says a few words expressing his gratitude for this honor and says that he will try to live up to the name of Arrius.  A little later Arrius introduces Judah to Pontius Pilate, who will be the new governor of Judea. 

Later speaking with Judah Arrius says sadly that Judah is leaving.  Yes, says Judah, he must.  Arrius advises him to wait awhile because Pontius Pilot will be the new governor, but Judah says he can't wait.  He doesn't want to go back to Judea when it's already too late.   

On his way back to Jerusalem old man Balthasar of Alexandria comes up to Judah and wonders if he is Jesus, the man who he is looking for.  With a little talking Balthasar realizes his mistake.  He says he is a guest of Sheik Ilderim.  At this point the Sheik is yelling at his chariot driver.  He is angry that the man is whipping his beautiful white Arabian stallions.  Judah watches the chariot driver drive in a circle and sees that the horses will not be able to hold the turn.  Sure enough, the horses run off the track.  When the Sheik comes over to Balthsar, the old man tells the Sheik that this man Judah predicted ahead of time what was going to take place coming around the bend.  The Sheik wants to talk with this man.  He is impressed when he learns that Judah drove the chariot in the Roman circus.  Judah tells him that all four horses are good ones, but they don't act as a team.  The Sheik invites Judah and Balthasar to dinner so he can learn more about chariot racing. 

With the Sheik Judah learns that the champion of the east in chariot racing is none other than Messala.  The Sheik wants Judah to drive his chariot so he can stamp Messala's arrogance into the sand to break his pride, to humble him.  Judah says he wants to handle Messala in his own way.  Balthasar says that Judah's way is to kill Messala.  He also says that Judah has no right to take Messala's life.  Balthasar was one of those who found the baby named Jesus at his birth.  He says he now looks for Jesus because he should be an adult by now and will be beginning his work soon.  The Sheik tells Judah that there is no law in the chariot arena.  Many are killed. 

Judah arrives at his old home in Jerusalem.  The place looks abandoned.  He knocks into something in the dark and Esther comes out to investigate.  She is shocked but very happy when she realizes that the intruder is  none other than Judah Ben-Hur himself.  She can't believe he is alive.  Judah asks her what has happened?  She says that after Judah was taken away, Messala had her father imprisoned.  Ever since he was released they have been living in hiding at the Ben-Hur home.  Esther tells Judah that the Romans took everything they had.  Judah then asks where is his mother and sister?  Esther will have her father answer that question. 

She goes in to see her father and tells him that Judah Ben-Hur is alive.  When Judah comes in the old man says:  "Praise God for his mercy!"  He tells Judah that there is no word of his mother and sister.  He then introduces Judah to a huge man named Malluch who had his tongue cut out.  They met while in prison and once out of prison became a team that together, he says, makes one good man.  Esther's father tells Judah that most of his fortune is safe for he did not tell the Romans where it is hidden. 

Esther goes outside to see Judah.  They stand where they last stood and talked together some four years ago.  She tells Judah that she is not a bride.  The two kiss and hug.  She says she didn't marry because her dad still needed her and because she did not want to marry.  She notices that Judah still wears the slave ring that she gave him four years ago.  Judah says the ring has become a part of his hand.  Judah talks about getting back at Messala.  Esther says that she has had enough of hate.  A young rabbi told her that forgiveness and love are greater than hate.  She pleads with Judah to stay alive  -- to keep away from Messala. 

Messala is told that Quintus Arrius the younger is here to see him.  In walks Judah who is Quintus Arrius the younger.  Messala is shocked and wants to know the story of how Judah became the son of Quintus Arrius.  In short, Judah saved the consul's life.  He asks about his mother and sister.  Messala says he doesn't keep track of the condemned.  Judah tells him to find them and if he does so, Judah will forget what happened.  After Judah leaves, Messala tells Drusus to go to the citadel to find out. 

The jailer takes Drusus down to the jail cell of Judah's mother and sister.  He starts to go in but then draws back in horror.  He turns to Drusus to tell him that mother and sister are now lepers.  The jailer says that the women must be taken outside of the city and released.  Then their cell will be burned to cleanse it. 

Mother and sister make their way to their former home.  Esther hears some noise outside and goes to look.  She sees two women hiding.  She starts to approach them but the women warn her:  "Don't come any closer."  Esther is confused, so the mother says Esther, it's Miriam.  Again Miriam has to tell Esther to stay where she is.  Miriam tells Esther that they are lepers.  Esther is shocked and upset.  The two women want to know if Judah is alive.  Yes, he's here, says Esther.  In fact, he is searching for the two of them now.  Esther will tell him.  But Miriam tells Esther to tell no one.  They are going to the Valley of the Lepers now and they make her promise that she will not tell Judah that they came to the house.  The women then leave. 

Esther tells Judah that Messala cannot free his mother and sister.  She says she saw the two of them.  "They were dead."  Judah wants to know when she saw them.  Esther says she saw them in prison.  Then she tells Judah that he has come to the end of his search.  She wants him to forget Messala and go back to Rome.  Judah cries for his mother and sister. 




Sheik Ilderim goes to see Messala.  He wants to arrange the bets for the upcoming chariot races.  The Sheik tells the Romans that his driver will be the Prince of Hur. He asks Messala for odds of 4 to 1 and gets it.  He will be betting 1,000 talents.  The Sheik returns home and sees Judah practicing for the chariot races.  Judah tells the Sheik that the horses have made him pat of their family.   

The day of the races arrives.  Messala tells Judah:  "This is the day now!"  Everyone notices that Messala has sharpened points at the center of his wheels to cut into the other chariots.  The chariots go slowly around the track once.  Pontius Pilot officiates at the race.  He says that there are racers from Alexandria, Cyprus, Athens, Rome and Judea, among other places.   Pontius Pilot starts the races and the action begins. There are lots of crashes in the race.  Some of the men are thrown from the chariots and then run over by the horses.  Messala uses his whip on Judah, but Judah is able to grab it, wrap it around his forearm and pull it out of Messala's hands.  He then hits Messala with the whip.  Then suddenly one of Messala's wheels falls apart, the chariot tips onto one wheel and Messala is thrown from the chariot.  He is trampled by several horses and chariots and is left in the middle of the track all bloodied and bruised.  Judah wins the contest.  He sees Messala being taken off the race course on a stretcher. 

Judah reports to Pontius Pilot who tells Judah it was a great victory.  The crowd cheers for Judah.  Pontius tells Judah:  "A long life Arrius and the good sense to live it."

Messala delays the doctor removing his legs.  He has called for Judah to come to him and won't be seen by him without his legs.  Judah arrives.  Messala mention himself as Judah's enemy.  But Judah tells him:  "I see no enemy."  Messala brings out his trump card.  He tells Judah that his mother and sister are not dead.  They are to be found in the Valley of the Lepers, that is if Judah can recognize them.  Messala says:  "It goes on, Judah.  The race is not over."  Messala dies. 

Judah goes to the Valley of the Lepers.  He asks a leper about his mother and sister and gives their names.  The man tells him that they have no names here in the valley.  Esther and Malluch come down into the valley.  Judah looks at Esther with a bit of bitterness.  His mother and sister are coming out of the cave.  Esther leaves the food for them 50 yards in front of them.  Mother asks if Judah is well and is he happy?  Esther tells Miriam that he is well.  Sister and mother return into the cave. 

Esther tells Judah that they have gone.  We can go back.  Judah asks go back to what?    Esther tells Judah not to see his relatives because it will tear them apart if they see him. 

Judah and Esther start for home.  But many people are gathering to listen to Jesus.  Balthasar sees Judah and tells him:  "He is here!  I have found Him!"  He believes Jesus to be the son of God.  Balthasar asks Judah to come and listen but Judah says he has business with Rome.  Balthasar says:  "You insist on death."  Jesus comes forward to the people. 

Judah goes to see Pontius Pilate.  Pontius tells Judah that he is now a citizen of Rome.  Judah is not particularly happy because he blames Rome for not only destroying Messala but for also destroying his family.  Judah gives Arrius' ring to Pontius Pilate to give back to his adoptive father.  Pilate says that Judah is becoming too great a danger.  He should leave Judea.  Judah goes home.  He embraces Esther  She tells Judah that the Judah Ben-Hur she loved is no longer here.  She asks what happened to him?  She adds that it is as though Judah had become Messala.  She feels she has lost Judah. 

Esther waits at the mouth of the cave.  Miriam shows up but without Tirzah.  Tirzah is dying.  Esther tells Miriam that she has heard the words of the man from Nazareth.  She would like Miriam to come hear the healing words.   Judah suddenly shows up.  Miriam is upset and tells him to come no farther.  But Judah keeps coming forward.  He tells his mother that he wants to see Tirzah.  Mother says Tirzah is dying.  This only makes Judah more determined to see his sister.  He goes inside the cave to look for her.  After a while he finds her and hugs her, all the while ignoring her pleas for him not to come near her.  The four people get together.  Esther wants to take them to see the man from Nazareth. 

They go to Jerusalem and find that the streets are largely deserted.  They learn that most of the people have gone to the trial of Jesus.  Some people see the lepers and throw stones at them before scurrying away.  The four reach the trail just after it is finished.  Now Jesus and the two thieves have to haul their crosses up to Mount Calvary.  Jesus is whipped as he trudges along.  When Judah sees His face, he says:  "I know this man."   Jesus passes right by the four of them.  Judah follows after Jesus, but is held back by a blockade of guards.  When Jesus falls and another man is told to pull the cross along, Judah gets past the guards, gets some water and gives Jesus a drink.  Jesus doesn't get much water because a guard kicks the water container out of Judah's hands. 

Jesus is nailed to the cross and the cross is set erect into a hole.  Balthasar looks on with hundreds of others.  It grows dark and a big wind comes up.  The three women take refuge in a cave.  It rains with plenty of lightning and thunder.  All of a sudden Miriam and Tirzah's leprosy is cured. 

Judah goes home to find Esther.  He has obviously been affected by what he experienced with Jesus.  He sees his mother and sister cured from their leprosy.  Judah kisses them.  Esther comes up to the trio and they all have a group hug.

Good movie.  This is a religious film, but the actual religious parts are rather small, one in the beginning and the biggest section at the end.  In between there is a love story between Judah and Esther and lots of action as Judah has to serve as a  slave rower on a Roman galley.  And, of course, there is the famous chariot race with lots of action.  So it's largely an action film, with a small love story with religious underpinnings.  The religion parts are not well integrated into the story.  Judah is not a particularly religious man, nor is Esther a particularly religious woman.  Then comes Jesus near the end and they become religious in response to his preaching.  Other than that, religion doesn't have much to do with the main story.  The film is also an historical film because it does deal with Jesus, the Roman Empire under Tiberius and the Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.  But the historical part is not all that important either.  It's just that the story is set in a particular historical period.  So I have mixes feelings about the film from an historical viewpoint. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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