The film opens with the New Testament Christmas
story, with the wise men following the star of Bethlehem to find
the baby Jesus. The plot then skips to around the time of Jesus
Christ's ministry years, where the story of Judah Ben-Hur begins.
A just, kind, fair-minded, observant Jew, by the name of Judah
Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), is living a very comfortable life in
a fashionable home in Jerusalem, with his mother, Miriam (Martha
Scott), sister, Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell), and servants, Simonides
(Sam Jaffe), and his lovely daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet),
whom Judah secretly loves. Judah had made his money from his trading
business, as well as inheriting family money. He was well-respected
and held in high regard by his fellow Jews.
One fateful day, Judah's childhood Roman friend,
Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives back in town, having been appointed
to be the commanding officer of the Roman Legions. Their joyful
reunion turns sour when Judah refuses to tell Messala the names
of those Jews who are openly unhappy with Rome's occupation and
rule. During a welcome parade for Messala, a lose tile falls from
Judah's roof, and nearly hits Messala. Taking this opportunity
to get rid of Judah, Messala condemns Judah as trying to kill
him, and throws Judah's family into prison, even though Massala
discovers for himself that the whole tile incident was an accident,
as Judah has claimed.
Judah is sent away in chains with other hapless
prisoners, driven through the desert on his way to his new occupation
of rowing in the belly of a Roman ship. When his hot, water deprived
group makes it to a small village, his path first crosses Jesus
Christ (Claud Heater). After hearing Judah's plea for God's help,
when denied water by a soldier, Jesus makes a wordless connection
with Judah, while giving him some water, a lot of comfort and
the will to live, to courageously survive the hard times ahead
After rowing in the galley of Roman Ships for
3 years, Judah saves the life of the ship's commander, Quintus
Arriss (Jack Hawkins), and finds himself in Rome, first as Quintus's
servant, who races successfully in the chariot contests. Judah
winds up being adopted by Quintus, putting him in a position to
return to Jerusalem to hopefully rescue his mother and sister,
and wreak revenge on his foe, Messala.
This powerful, if lengthy screenplay was based
on the novel by Lew Wallace, and was written by Karl Turnburg
and Maxwell Anderson. This story skillfully intertwines the teachings
and power of Jesus, with the life trials, the attitudes and decisions
of Judah and his family, as they are willing to learn from and
meet Jesus, accepting his help, and believing in him at the end.
Traditionally shown at Easter, it has a terrific spiritual punch,
much enjoyed by people of Christian faith.
The casting was superb, and the amount of talent
gathered in this epic really brings the screenplay to life, giving
Director William Wyler plenty to work with. William Wyler did
an outstanding job directing this great epic, being one of his
Charlton Heston gives the audience one of his
absolute best performances, as he brings his character, Judah
Ben-Hur, to life, and excels in this difficult part, convincingly
showing Judas' strength, courage, compassion and perseverance,
and his ultimate final victory when he is able to let go of his
hatred of Rome. He convincingly portrays his character's attitude
changes as he experiences various incidents and situations, and
ultimately is transformed because of Christ. He gives an especially
powerful performances in his wordless scenes with Jesus.
Stephen Boyd does a terrific job as Massala, Judah's
friend, who is fully corrupted by Rome, and comes back to Jerusalem
as a man without a moral conscience, firmly believing that the
ends justifies the means, and tries to destroy an old friend to
benefit himself. By doing so, Massala hoped to put fear in the
hearts of the Jews in town, to stop trouble before it starts and
control the resentment aimed at the Romans, which would secure
his political position in Jerusalem.
Heston and Boyd's scenes together are very well
done, especially the last chariot race, where they battle each
other as they race. Both men did most of their own chariot racing,
leaving only the most dangerous scenes for the stunt men. Their
last scene together is powerful as well, as the dying Massala
gives Judah some bombshell, heartbreaking news.
Hugh Griffith does a marvelous job playing Sheik Ilderim, the
Arab, who convinces Judah to race his Arabian horse children in
the chariot contest in Jerusalem, to get back at Massala, instead
of trying to kill him outright.
A favorite sequence of scenes with Hugh Griffith
is when his character has his horses come directly into his main
tent to say goodnight to him, and meet Judah.
Another favorite sequence of scenes has got to
be the last chariot race. This famous 17 minute chariot race has
never been topped by anything else in film. It takes your breath
away, as real galloping horses, and real chariots dramatically
thunder around the circular track, with a huge cast of extras
in the audience. The whole sequence takes you back in time to
the Roman world, as you experience the pageantry, the wild excitement,
and the life-threatening drama of the Chariot contests, where
anything was allowed. To cause more mayhem, Massala used a chariot
that had wickedly sharp knife-like curbed spikes sticking out
of his wheels, designed to cut off his opponents' wheels, as he
pulls up beside them.