Literature / Ben-Hur

Full title Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The Christ does have an important role in this story, but it's often tangential.

Originally a novel by Lewis "Lew" Wallace, a Union general in the American Civil War and the Governor of New Mexico, published in 1880. It was later adapted for the stage, and there are at least three film versions: one classic silent film from 1925 starring Ramon Novarro, one classic Panavision extravaganza from 1959, and one remake from 2016 starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell and Morgan Freeman.

The 1959 film, directed by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston, is by far the best known version, and unless otherwise noted the examples below come from that version. See here for a plot summary of the 1959 film.

At the Academy Award ceremony in 1960, Ben-Hur cleaned house. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 11, missing only Adapted Screenplay. The film won Best Picture, Wyler won Best Director, Heston won Best Actor and Hugh Griffith took home Best Supporting Actor for playing Sheikh Ilderim. The 11 Oscars set a record, since matched by Titanic and The Return of the King but still not beaten.

An animated film was made in 2003 with Charlton Heston reprising the role, in his final performance.

A live theatrical show, properly entitled Ben-Hur Live, was released to public viewing in Europe in 2009.

Provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: The novel featured another love interest for Judah besides Esther - Iras daughter of Balthazar (one of the biblical Magi).
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Messala is truly remorseful for his betrayal in the 2016 movie and he suffers elements of PTSD from the wars he fought in for Rome.
  • Adaptational Badass: In the 2016 film Messala's wartime experiences are shown via flashbacks and he is shown as a skilled swordsman and also a competent commander. He is so good that in one battle the panicking Roman general in charge even gives him direct command of the Roman army.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • In the novel and the 1925 film, the plot is kicked off when Judah accidentally knocks a roof tile on the head of a Roman centurion and gets arrested. In the movie, Judah's sister is the one who dislodges the roof tile, but Judah deliberately takes the blame in an attempt to spare his sister.
    • In the novel, when Judah is on a sinking slave ship, and finds himself unchained, he gets off the ship. In the movie, Judah takes the opportunity to punch out a guard, steal his keys, and free all the other slaves on the ship, before escaping himself.
    • In the 2016 film, Messala gets this, because the incident that kickstarts the plot is not a dislodged roof tile but an arrow fired by a zealot from the top of the House of Hur as an actual assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate. Messala even finds evidence that the Hurs had been harboring the zealot and nursing his wounds for some time. This means that he actually has valid reason to do what he does to Judah and his entire family. On top of that Messala is also shown questioning some of the orders of his superiors both in the Jewish revolt and other wars he is shown participating in against enemies of Rome and even does his best to find a favorable settlement between the Jews and the Romans. Also he is shown saving Ben-Hur in his childhood and later truly begs for forgiveness from Ben after the climatic chariot race that Ben chooses to rescue him in his crippled condition.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: YMMV. There is nothing in the book to imply that that Judah and Messala were ever lovers.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the 2016 Quintus Arrius is a total and complete bastard. He abuses the galley slaves so badly Judah doesn't lift a finger to save him.
  • Ancient Rome: Or rather the backwater Roman province of Judaea.
  • Arab Oil Sheikh: Ilderim, if you replace oil with gold. Or horse races.
  • Arranged Marriage: Esther in the 1959 film. She doesn't go through with it.
  • Artistic License - History: Roman war galleys typically used teams of professional rowers or even ordinary soldiers to man their oars, rather than slaves or condemned men.
  • Badass Israeli: Judah definitely fits the bill.
  • Became Their Own Antithesis: Invoked by Pilate in the 2016 film after the climatic Chariot Race. Pointing out how the crowd enjoyed the (arguably horrific) spectacle, he notes that they have clearly started to accept and adhere to those Roman values they had despised and rejected as barbaric until very shortly before. Of course, this is before a certain Nazarene dies on the cross, blessing his murderers...
    Pilate: “Look at them. They all want blood. They're Romans now."
  • Betty and Veronica: In the novel, Judah has two love interests: Esther, who, as in the films, is the quiet gentle Betty, and Iras, Balthazar's mysterious but alluring daughter, who serves as the Veronica. Iras is actually in the lead for most of the book but she turns out to have been working for Messala all along, deliberately bludgeoning him with the worst part of her nature as she reveals this.
  • Been There, Shaped History: In the novel and film Jesus gives Judah water when the latter is a prisoner. In the film Judah repays this by giving Jesus water as he is taken to be crucified. The novel goes further and makes Judah the man who gives Jesus sour wine on a sponge, mentioned in the Gospels.
  • Bible Times
  • The Big Race: Judah Ben-Hur and Messala play out their conflict in a famous Chariot Race.
  • Call-Back: The 1959 film has Judah paying back that long-ago cup of water by giving one to Jesus as he walks to his crucifixion.
  • Chariot Race:
    • The race is the Trope Codifier featuring Spiked Wheels (Messala's "Greek chariot"), Messala whipping his horses and any driver within range, if you're tossed from the chariot, there's a token attempt at retrieval.
    • In the silent movie version of Ben Hur, apparently one of the more spectacular accidents in the chariot race wasn't staged, invoked and the stunt driver only barely escaped with his life.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Ben-Hur's spear throwing.
  • Clear My Name:
    • Judah has to restore his standing after having been falsely accused of trying to assassinate the governor.
    • Also, the author. According to the historian Victor Davis Hanson, Wallace may have been so exasperated over accusations of incompetence at the Battle of Shiloh that he wrote this book to distract himself.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: During the climactic chariot race, Ben-Hur gets white horses, while Messala gets black.
  • Composite Character: In the 2016 film, Quintus Arrius does not appear after his Death by Adaptation in the galley scene, so Ilderim takes some of his role as Judah's mentor and benefactor.
  • Day of the Jackboot: The 2016 film hints at this trope when Legio X Fretensis marches into Jerusalem, chanting "Legio Aeterna Victrix" note . There is even a short scene with a soldier inciting a black dog to attack the stunned citizens.
  • Death by Adaptation:
    • In the novel Messala survives being crippled at the race and remains a thorn in Judah's side for years (like sending assassins after him), and lives past the Crucifixion, but is murdered by a rejected love interest of Judah.
    • In the 2016 film Quintus Arrius doesn't survive the sea battle where Judah gains his freedom. Not only does Judah not rescue him like the previous versions... he makes sure he dies.
  • Depraved Homosexual: The 1959 film had Messala be played as if he and Judah had been lovers as youths. As the antagonist, Messala ends up as this as well as other villain tropes.
  • Determinator Messala after being trampled by horses in the Chariot Race, is determined to stay alive so he could speak to Ben-Hur one last time.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Judah feels this happens to Messala during the chariot race when Messala gets trampled to death when all Judah really wanted was to humiliate his former friend by defeating him in front of the Roman government.
    • Judah refusing to be an informant for Messala and betray the confidence of those unhappy with the Roman rule of Judea, since he also desires freedom for his people. Messala responds to this slight by invoking that he's either With Us or Against Us and then declares Judah to be his sworn enemy when he still refuses. It becomes truly disproportionate when Messala arrests Judah and his entire family for a crime he knows was an accident, consigning him to life as a slave and his family to the Citadel.
  • Dutch Angle: An extremely powerful one that shows Jesus on the cross.
  • Drone of Dread: The rowing scene uses gradually-accelerating cellos.
  • Emerging from the Shadows: Ben-Hur makes use of this when showing up at Messala's door after his return from Rome.
  • Empathic Environment: The literal house that Judah's family lives in mirrors the fall and eventual return of its owners; the crucifixion takes place in the middle of a huge storm.
  • Epic Movie: Spars with Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, and Lawrence of Arabia as the quintessential example of the type. For that matter, the 1925 silent version was the most expensive movie ever made at the time.
  • The Faceless / The Voiceless: Jesus, in the first two film versions. (In the 1925 version, we never see anything except his arms.) By contrast, he is both seen and heard in the 2016 film.
    • In the stage production of the novel, Jesus wasn't even portrayed by an actor; He only appeared as a beam of intense white light.
  • Fascinating Eyebrow: Quintus, as he looks at the galley slaves dropping.
  • Final Speech: Messala makes one.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Funny Foreigner: Sheikh Ilderim in the movie.
  • Harsh Word Impact: Ben-Hur visibly reacts when Esther accuses him of becoming like Messala.
  • Heel–Face Turn: In the 2016 film Messala survives his crippling in the arena and makes peace with Judah, becoming his brother once more. It's implied that he even gets together with Tirzah.
  • Hell Hole Prison: What it says on the tin when we see scenes of "the citadel".
  • Hero of Another Story: This happens in the background of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, arguably a more important series of events.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: A deliberate example. Director William Wyler and co-screenwriter Gore Vidal told Stephen Boyd, the actor portraying Messala, to play him as if he and Judah had been lovers as youths and that his vindictiveness is therefore motivated by a sexual and romantic rejection as much as a political one. They did not, however, tell Charlton Heston, who found out years later and was not pleased. This did add an interesting dynamic to the scenes between Judah and Messala, since Heston's uncomfortable reactions to some of Boyd's behavior came off as reluctance towards his former lover.
  • Honor Before Reason: In the 2016 movie, Judah causes his mother and sister to be crucified and himself to be enslaved because he takes responsibility for an assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate by a Jewish assassin, rather than turn in a fellow Jew.
  • Insistent Terminology: Pontius Pilate insists on referring to Judah by his adopted Roman name of Arrius the Younger, as part of his attempt to civilise him into the Roman way of life. Judah eventually snaps and demand he be called by his real name.
  • Ironic Echo: "We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well, and live."
    • As Judah is dragged off to the slave ship, Jesus gives him much-needed water despite the Roman guards threatening to stop him. Later, when Ben-Hur sees that the "miracle healer" is Jesus, he tries to return the favor of offering Jesus some water during his tribulation only for the Romans to successfully stop him.
  • Irony: Judah being a slave on a galley ship, surrounded by endless water that he cannot drink.
    • Additionally, the ocean symbolizes death for the Jewish people (being desert peoples, they never learned to swim), so it's also symbolic of how he "died" and was later "reborn".
  • Karma Houdini: Marcus Decimus in the 2016 version.
  • Knights and Knaves: Ben-Hur deduces that whatever Messala says about his mother and sister, he will mean the exact opposite.
  • Lampshaded Double Entendre: Sheik Ilderim does this. "One God, that I can understand; but one wife? That is not civilized. [nudges Judah] It is not generous!"
  • Large Ham: You can tell Hugh Griffith is enjoying himself as Ilderim. Heston as Judah has a few moments as well.
  • "Last Supper" Steal: The 1925 film recreates the painting—but since Jesus must remain The Faceless, the shot in the movie has another disciple sitting directly in front of him.
  • Letterbox The chariot sequence is ALWAYS presented in letterbox, even if the rest of the movie is a Pan and Scan format.
  • Made a Slave: Judah is arrested and made a galley slave.
  • Manly Gay: Messala (see above)
  • The Mockbuster: A 1907 short film is sometimes cited as the "original" film version. However, this was actually an unauthorized adaptation that provoked a successful lawsuit by the book's copyright holders. Silent film blogger Fritzi Kramer makes the case that, as a low-budget production meant to ride on the coattails of a more famous property (in this case, the book and its authorized stage adaptation), the 1907 film should be regarded as an early mockbuster.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd both get shirtless scenes.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: In the 2016 remake the Romans behave like this.
    • Marcus Decimus dresses Messala down for having subjugated a village without razing it to the ground and killing all the inhabitants.
    • The Romans desecrate an old Jewish cemetery by stealing the tombstones and using them to build their circus. The zealots are not happy...
    • When the X Legion enters Jerusalem, it is preceded by soldiers who incite black dogs against the citizens.
    • After Judah attacks Massala in the old Ben-Hur's house, Pilate orders a brutal reprisal. Twenty Jews are taken in the road and crucified.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Judah sums it up beautifully in this exchange.
    Messala: By what magic do you bear the name of a Consul of Rome?
    Judah: You were the magician, Messala. You had me condemned to the galley. When my ship was sunk, I saved the Consul's life.
  • Not So Different: At one point, Esther lampshades that Judah's hatred of Rome has made him just as bitter as Messala.
  • Occupiers out of Our Country: The point of view of the zealots, especially in the 2016 film.
  • Oh, Crap!: When Judah looks for Miriam and Tirzah in the leper colony, he runs into Esther bringing them food and water. She has a quietly horrified Oh Crap look as she has previously told him (by their request) that they were dead.
    • The Roman soldier when he realized he almost cussed out Jesus for giving Ben-Hur water.
    • Messala's stunned reaction when a very much alive Judah shows up to challenge him.
  • Property of Love: In the 1925 film, Esther is deemed to be Judah's slave, since her father was. She even makes a pose of submission before him. They declare their love for each other, but he never actually frees her. (The 1959 film specifically states that Judah frees Esther from slavery right before he's arrested.)
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Quintus Arrius is a slave-keeping imperialist just like Messala. But because he adopts Ben-Hur, he's considered a good guy. Even Pontius Pilate gets off relatively lightly.
    • After being accused of attempting to assassinate the governor and trying to escape from custody, Judah claims that he is no murderer... despite having been just shown strangling one of the guards with his chains and the film never revealing whether or not he actually did kill him?
  • The Queen's Latin: In the movie, Roman characters are mostly played by Brits, and speak accordingly. In the 2016 remake, the only Latin spoken is the Legion's marching song as they enter Jerusalem.
  • Rated M for Manly: Well, it isn't exactly a macho movie, but the galley battle and chariot race scenes are like testosterone and adrenaline mixed together.
  • Reaction Shot: In the scene where Jesus offers the enslaved Judah water to drink, a Roman guard rushes forward to confront him... and halts in his tracks when Jesus turns to face him, as we see a whirl of emotions (anger, confusion, fear, shame) flicker across his face.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Judah is a Badass Israeli, and devout in his Jewish faith. In the end, he embraces the teachings of Jesus as a miracle saves his family.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: The novel has often been referred to as "The Count of Monte Cristo meets Quo Vadis" or "The Count of Monte Cristo in the first century AD".
  • Redemption in the Rain: A huge thunderstorm whips up during the crucifixion and the healing of Judah's mother and sister takes place at the same time Judah himself gives up on vengeance.
  • Remake Cameo: Various sources indicate that May McEvoy, who played Esther in the 1925 film, appears as an extra in a crowd scene somewhere in the 1959 movie.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Judah's not exactly roaring with it when he returns demanding his family's release, but he's close, and by the time of the Chariot Race this trope is in full effect.
  • Shining City: Rome and Jerusalem.
  • Sidelong Glance Biopic: A borderline example, since the places the story of the gospel in the background of Judah's adventures.
  • Sistine Steal: The movie popularized the use of The Creation of Adam in mainstream medias (although not a parody here).
  • Slave Galley: Trope Codifier. Chained rowers, brutal overseers with whips, and a drummer.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • In the 2003 film, Messala lives on as a cripple and is healed at the death of Christ where he reconciles with the House of Hur.
    • In the 2016 film, Messala is shown escaping Jerusalem alongside Ben and Esther after he reconciles with the Judah household.
  • Splash of Color: Most of the 1925 silent version is shot in black and white, but most of the scenes that deal with Christ are in color, as is Ben-Hur's triumph and the final scene.
  • Sword & Sandal
  • Time Passage Beard: Judah grows one during his years in the galley.
  • Trauma Conga Line: What's worse than death? Knowing your sister and mother wasting away in The Valley of the Lepers.
  • Undying Loyalty: Simonides, Judah's father's life-long financial minister and willing slave. Even after being brutally tortured and "beaten out of human shape" by the Romans seeking to claim the family's wealth, he gives them nothing, and when Judah returns he is able to give him access to tremendous wealth necessary to finance his revenge.
  • Vengeance Feels Empty: A key point in all versions of the story. Judah revenges himself on Messala, but, finding it does not bring him peace, he decides to revenge himself on all of Rome. Only witnessing the crucifixion of Christ convinces him to instead devote his life to his family and faith.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: In the 2016 movie Ben-Hur is openly skeptical about the zealots' actions, even if he does not hand Dismas over to the Romans and hide him in his house (possibly, out of loyalty for his sister who has apparently joined them). He repeatedly points out that it is unlikely that they will ever be able to drive the all powerful Roman legions out of Judea and that, as a matter of fact, they are only making the Roman rule more oppressive and ruthless. He is dramatically proven right when the Roman High Command orders an entire legion into the sacred city of Jerusalem as a show of force.
  • We Used to Be Friends: The basis for the conflict between Ben-Hur and Messala.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the 1925 movie Messala is shown being taken away from the chariot race injured but alive, and is described as "broken" after losing his fortune to Judah. He is never mentioned again. (The 1959 film includes a death scene for Messala.)
  • You Are Number 6: Ben-Hur being called "Forty-One" on the Galley.

Alternative Title(s): Ben Hur, Ben Hur 1959, Ben Hur 2016, Ben Hur 1925