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Literature: Ben Hur

Full title Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. 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 two film versions: one classic silent film from 1925 starring Ramon Novarro, and one classic Panavision extravaganza from 1959.

The 1959 film, directed by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston, is by far the best known version. The plot summary (and most of the examples, unless otherwise noted) come from that film.

    Plot summary 
We start with the filmmaker's take on the birth of Christ. We see, after a bit of Roman Empire background, Joseph and Mary arrive at the census point; we see the Star Of Bethlehem shine, the shepherds see it, the wise men see it; we see the Star of Bethlehem shine down; we see the filmmaker's vision of a nativity scene. Finally, we see the Star of Bethlehem dim back down. It's very tastefully done, but still effective.

Then we see the opening credits.

When we return, it's Anno Domini XXVI - A.D. 26. Messala, a Roman who grew up in Judea but spent most of his life in more traditional Roman enclaves, is accepting an important position in Jerusalem under the new governor of Judea; it's a hard job, since the Jews don't want the Romans there, but he feels up to it. He is visited by his childhood friend, and our hero, Judah Ben Hur, a very important and influential Jew. They try to pick up the friendship where it left off, but there's one big problem: they no longer have anything in common besides their shared past. They are in denial about this for a while, and Judah agrees to try to get people to accept the Romans.

We meet Ben Hur's mother and sister. We also meet his right-hand slave, Simonides, who is his business administrator and is in town for his yearly report—he's based in Antioch. He's very good at managing Judah's assets, and very loyal. Simonides' daughter Esther is with him; she is about to enter an arranged marriage, but needs Ben Hur's approval. Ben Hur gives it, and even throws in her freedom as a wedding present, but - having seen her as a grown woman for the first time - he sorta wants her for himself.

Messala comes over for dinner. Judah and Messala go out back to meet privately. Judah gives Messala a white horse. Messala asks Judah for his progress in pacifying the Jews; on learning that it isn't 100% successful, he wants to know who's refusing. Messala makes clear that he wants names. Judah, while protesting that he's nonviolent himself, doesn't think that the Jews resisting Roman rule are doing anything wrong, and so he doesn't provide them. Messala begs for cooperation, but in doing so makes clear that he considers the Roman Emperor a god; not only doesn't Judah believe that, but he's personally against the occupation. They leave as enemies, and Judah Ben Hur is left to explain why Messala isn't staying for dinner.

There is a procession for the new Roman governor. Judah and his sister Tirzah watch. They see Messala, and Messala sees them. They see the Roman governor, but Tirzah puts too much of her weight on the roof, and a large section of it falls, knocking out the governor. In an act that is part chivalry and part Idiot Ball, Judah tells Tirzah not to say anything; he'll take responsibility. This gets all the house of Hur arrested. The servants are allowed to go free, though.

On learning that he is to go to Tyrus with neither a trial nor info about what's going to happen to his mother and sister, we learn that Ben Hur's pacifism didn't survive the imprisonment. Since he hurts or kills only people who aren't of Nominal Importance, this is supposed to be tolerated. Judah demands info of Messala, and naturally doesn't get it. He protests his innocence of wanting to kill the governor; Messala knows that this is, at least, a plausible theory, but doesn't let it show. He says that Ben Hur gave him exactly what he needed; the Jews will know that, if he can send his childhood friend to certain death at the galleys, he can do it to anyone. Judah starts to beg Messala, and gets this reply: "You beg me? Didn't I beg you for help?"

Ben Hur swears vengeance when he gets back. Messala is puzzled, since the galleys are supposed to be a one-way trip.

Simonides tries to defend Ben Hur. This gets him and his daughter seized.

The Romans taking prisoners to the galleys are not overly concerned about anyone surviving, especially not people who knocked out their governor. At a well some distance north of Jerusalem, soldiers get watered first, then horses, and then slaves—and not Ben Hur. He asks God for help, and God comes and gives him water. We do not hear Him speak or see His face, but this is supposed to be Jesus. The Roman in charge starts to tell Him not to give Ben Hur water, but on seeing His face changes his mind. Ben Hur drinks deep until it's time to move it.

More than three years later, we see Ben Hur working one of many oars. He is going by "41" (or is that XLI?), his seat number, and he is full of hate. A Roman consul, Quintus Arrius, has boarded the ship, and it goes to war almost immediately. The consul wants Ben Hur for a charioteer, and doesn't understand why Ben Hur has any other hopes of life after the galleys; if they succeed in battle, he'll keep rowing, and if they don't, he'll die chained to the oar. Ben Hur makes clear that he dislikes the idea of dying chained to the oar; this has a delayed effect; at the time, "back to your oar," but the consul orders him unchained after all the galley slaves had been chained.

There is a firefight with real fire. Things are burning all over the place. The ship gets rammed; for some reason, instead of trying to get the ship out of the way, those slaves who are chained try to remove the chains. Since the enemy ship appears to be holding up their ship, it almost works out. Ben Hur is unlocking slaves, and major fighting is going on on deck. Then Quintus is shoved overboard. Ben Hur goes to save him, shoving a torch into the face of a mercenary along the way.

Ben Hur saves the consul and gets him on a raft of debris. Then he has to knock out the consul to prevent the fella from committing suicide, and chains the mercenary to him. After the consul wakes, still wanting to die, he reminds him that staying alive is the motivation he gives his slaves... Quintus wanted to commit suicide because he thought he'd lost overall. He hadn't, and so there is a triumphant return to Rome. Ben Hur gets to see the Emperor and then becomes the charioteer. Quintus actually tried to get him cleared of wanting to kill that Judean governor, but didn't pull it off...

Quintus adopts Ben Hur because of his great feats of charioteering. Now free, Ben Hur heads back to Judea almost immediately, not even waiting for the scheduled boat to take Pontius Pilate to Judea. There is no time to waste; four years have already passed.

On the way home, he helps a horse-loving Arab, Sheikh Ilderim, with the fine art of charioteering. Ilderim offers a position. Judah declines for now, though it has appeal, because he is on a mission. Not even being told Messala is racing convinces him. Some talk of Jesus slips in, though the name is not mentioned directly.

The house of Hur is in ruins, but people are living there. He is met by Esther; she and her father were in there for only a year. Her father was paralyzed in prison, so a big fella who shared a cell with him and went mute during that time has also moved in. They are still in Jerusalem because all the assets were seized by the Romans - well, not all the assets, but they don't want the Romans to know about the rest of them prematurely. Esther never married, partly because the reason for arranging that marriage no longer applied, and partly because - she looks at her all-black clothing here, so we're probably supposed to believe that her fiance died.

Judah arranges an appointment with Messala under his Roman name, which he acquires as son of Quintus Arrius, and sends a dagger for an advance gift. He wants to know what happened to his mother and sister. Messala honestly doesn't know. Judah tells him he'll kill Messala if a) he doesn't find out or b) anything's happened to them...

Messala goes to find out what happened to Judah's mother and sister. They are still alive—the food disappears. But they have somehow caught leprosy. Messala orders them freed so they can go where the lepers belong, and then orders the cell burned out.

Ben Hur's mother and sister drop by the old place and come as close to meeting up with Esther as they dare. Esther tells them Judah hasn't changed, which is at best a half-truth. They make Esther promise not to tell Judah they have leprosy; they want him to remember them as they were. Esther promises by her love of Judah (and yes, it is there). She sees him (he passed by without noticing the lepers) and "confesses" that his mother and sister are dead...

Intermission. This is a long film.

After the intermission, Ben Hur has taken the charioteer job now, and Ilderim is trying to make a wager with lots of money involved. He eventually succeeds...

You all know at least some of what comes next: one Chariot Race, no rules, no one objects to it becoming a demolition derby, blades on Messala's chariot wheels, Messala ends up killing himself when he cheats too hard but not before he taunts Ben Hur with the fact his family are lepers, and Jesus gets crucified. At His death, Judah's mother and sister are healed of their leprosy, Judah gets over his hate, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Messala.


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 tied by Titanic and The Return of the King.

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.


Provide examples of:

  • Ancient Rome
  • Acting In The Dark: See Homoerotic Subtext below.
  • Adapted Out: The novel featured another love interest for Judah besides Esther - Iras daughter of Balthazar (one of the biblical Magi).
  • Adaptational Heroism: In the novel, 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 the hell 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.
  • Arab Oil Sheikh: Ilderim, if you replace oil with gold. Or horse races.
  • Arranged Marriage: Esther. She doesn't go through with it.
  • Badass Judean: Judah definitely fits the bill.
  • 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.
  • Chariot Race: The Trope Codifier.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 as the quintessential example. For that matter, the 1925 silent version was the most expensive movie ever made at the time.
  • The Faceless / The Voiceless: Jesus, in both film versions.
    • 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.
  • Galley Slave: Trope Codifier. Chained rowers, brutal overseers with whips, and a drummer.
  • Harsh Word Impact: Ben-Hur visibly reacts when Esther accuses him of becoming like Messala.
  • 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.
  • 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 galley on a slave 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".
  • 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.
  • 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)
  • Mr. Fanservice: Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd both get shirtless scenes.
  • 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. 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.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Quintus Arrius is a slave-keeping imperialist just like Messala. But because he's nice to 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.
  • 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.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Judah is a Badass, and devout in his Jewish faith. In the end, he embraces the teachings of Jesus.
  • Recycled INSPACE: 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.
  • 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).
  • Splash of Color: Most of the 1925 silent version is shot in black and white, but all of the scenes that deal with Christ are in color, as is Ben-Hur's triumph and the final scene.
  • Sword And Sandal
  • Trauma Conga Line: What's worse than death? Knowing your sister and mother wasting away in The Valley of the Lepers.
  • We Used to Be Friends: The basis for the conflict between Ben-Hur and Messala.
  • You Are Number Six: Ben Hur being called "Forty-One" on the Galley.

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alternative title(s): Ben Hur; Ben Hur
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