Cast: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director (William Wyler), Best Cinematography, Color (Robert Surtees), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (William A. Horning, Edward C. Carfagno, Hugh Hunt), Best Costume Design, Color (Elizabeth Haffenden), Best Sound (Franklin Milton), Best Film Editing (Ralph E. Winters, John D. Dunning), Best Effects, Special Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie, Robert MacDonald, Milo B. Lory), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Mikos Rozsa)
Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay (Karl Tunberg)
SUMMARY: Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a Jewish prince of Jerusalem, who lives with his mother and sister in the city in 26 AD. In addition to the family, the house is also frequented by the family’s slave Simonides (who is more of a friend), and his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet). At the beginning of the film, Simonides and Esther visit Judah to ask permission for Esther to marry. It is clear that Judah and Esther have feelings for each other, but Judah gives his permission. He is more concerned with the return of a childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), a Roman citizen who is now a tribune, and the head of the Jerusalem garrison. Messala expects Judah to help him bring order and peace to Jerusalem by identifying troublemakers, but Judah refuses, seeing it as a betrayal of his people (the other Jews, who are not Roman citizens). As a result, a nasty rift develops between the two men. When the new governor of Judea arrives and parades through town, Judah and his sister Tirzah watch from their roof; when Tirzah touches the roof tiles, one falls off and crashes into the street. The noise spooks the governor’s horse, who throws him, severely injuring the governor in the process. As the head of the garrison, Messala is in charge of handling the matter. When he learns that the tile came from Judah’s house, he takes the chance to get revenge, and to set an example for the other Jews: he sentences Judah to serve in the galleys of Roman war ships, and sends his mother and sister to the dungeons. Though few survive in the galleys for more than a year, Judah swears to come back and take revenge on Messala. Three years later, Judah is still alive, and serving in the galley of a warship under the command of Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), a Roman Consul. Judah’s fighting spirit is noticed almost immediately but Arrius, and when the ship finds the pirates they are chasing, Arrius decides not to chain Judah to his oar, like the other slaves. During the battle, the ship holding Arrius and Judah is rammed and sunk; Judah saves several people on the ship, including Arrius. When they are eventually rescued, the two learn that the Romans won the battle, and that Arrius has been credited with the victory. As a reward for Judah, Arrius takes him back to Rome with him, and after several years, adopts him as his son. During this time, Judah becomes a champion charioteer in the famed Roman circus. However, he has not forgotten about Messala’s betrayal, and decides to return to Jerusalem.
Outside of Judea, Judah meets Balthasar, a wealthy foreigner who has come in search of a man (the inference is that the man is Jesus). Balthasar is staying with Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), a rich Arab who has come to town to race horses. When the Sheik realizes who Judah is, he asks him to drive his horses in the upcoming race. Even though Messala will also be driving in the race, Judah turns down the offer. He makes his way back to the family house, which is deserted and run-down. However, he does discover that Esther and her father, as well as another man who takes care of Simonides, are secretly living in the house. Though she had been betrothed, Esther never married; she and Judah quickly reunite. Soon after his return, Judah visits Messala, and uses his position as Arrius’ adopted son to inquire about his family. Messala sends soldiers to the prison; they learn that both Miriam and Tirzah have leprosy. Immediately, Miriam and Tirzah are released and sent to the Valley of the Lepers, and the prison cell is burned. Before leaving the city, the two women return to their home and find Esther. They learn that Judah is alive, but Miriam forces Esther to promise not to tell him that they are still alive; later, Esther tells Judah that both women are dead. Now seeing Messala as the killer of his mother and sister, Judah decides to take the Sheik up on his offer, and compete in the chariot race. The race is being held in honor of the new governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who will also crown the victor. Messala shows up with spikes attached to the wheels of his chariot, and during the race, he uses these to destroy the chariots of several other racers. He tries to do this to Judah’s chariot, but Judah outmaneuvers him, and Messala crashes his chariot. He is caught under another chariot and dragged for some distance, which nearly kills him; Judah goes on to win the race. Afterward, Messala will not allow the doctors to touch him until he sees Judah. When Judah does arrive, Messala taunts him once again by telling him that his mother and sister are not really dead, but living in the Valley of the Lepers; he then dies. Judah receives word that Arrius has gotten him Roman citizenship, but Judah rejects it, saying that the Romans are responsible for the terrible things that have happened to him. He goes to the Valley of the Lepers, where he also finds Esther visiting, bringing food. Judah feels extremely betrayed, but Esther convinces him that it is his mother’s wish that he not see them. Despite the fact that Messala is dead, Judah is unable to let go of his hatred. Esther tries several times to persuade him to listen to the speeches and teachings of a local man (Jesus), who has radical ideas about enemies and forgiveness, but Judah refuses. However, when he learns that Tirzah is dying, and Esther recommends taking her to Jesus, Judah agrees. Ignoring the risk of contracting leprosy themselves, as well as the reaction they get from others, Judah and Esther take Miriam and Tirzah into Jerusalem in search of Jesus. Much to their dismay, they learn he is on trial before Pontius Pilate, and is soon sentenced to death by crucifixion. As Jesus walks past them, Judah realizes that he has seen the man before: after he was sentenced to serve in the galleys, Jesus provided a thirsty Judah with water, against the orders of the Roman guards. Judah leaves his mother and sister with Esther, and joins the crowd following Jesus. As they walk toward the hill where he will be crucified, Jesus stumbles and falls down. Judah grabs a cup of water from a nearby well, and pushes through the crowd to offer it to Jesus. For a moment, Jesus and Judah stare into each other’s eyes, and then Jesus is yanked to his feet. Judah continues to follow, and witnesses the entire crucifixion. During the rainstorm that suddenly erupts after Jesus dies, the women hide in a nearby cave. Suddenly, Miriam and Tirzah realize that their leprosy has been cured, and all their physical markings have disappeared. Judah returns, and adds to the joy by telling Esther that as he watched Jesus, he heard him say, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Judah says he then felt Jesus’s voice “take the sword out of my hand.”
MY TAKE: In a way, this movie reminds me of Forrest Gump, because it’s about a person who is on the fringe of a great historical event (or in the case of Forrest, several historical events). I got a mixture of thrills and chills when these connections were made: when you realize that Judah is living in the same town, at the same time, as Jesus, it’s thrilling, but when he is introduced to Pontius Pilate, the knowledge of that man’s role in Jesus’s death is sobering. It also puts an interesting perspective on the story of Jesus’s life. In most films, it is very clear that Jesus is somebody special. However, since this film is not actually focused on Jesus, he is seen as mostly just a normal guy who happens to have radical ideas and strange healing powers. In my mind, this is probably a very realistic interpretation, because I think it would be hard for most people to accept that a seemingly average, normal person is the son of God. Obviously, after hearing him or witnessing his miracles, a lot of people (including Esther and later, Judah and his family) come to this realization. Even without this aspect, the movie would have been terrific. It’s an epic in every sense of the word: there’s huge sets and enormous casts, period costumes, lots of action, relatable characters, and a great story. It also has one of the most famous scenes in history, the chariot race. Some stats: the move used over 1,000,000 lbs of plaster and 40,000 cubic feet of lumber for the sets; more than 100,000 costumes and 1,000 suits of armor were made for more than 10,000 extras. The sea battle scene was filmed in a humongous tank, using miniature ships. The chariot arena was, at the time, the largest film set ever built, and took more than one year and $1 million to make. The scene took another $1 million to shoot. All told, it’s a terrific movie from the golden age of Hollywood.