Literature / Ben Hur

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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, 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 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.

A remake was announced in early 2016, starring Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman.

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 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 1925 film it's Judah who knocks the tile.) 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.
  • 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.
  • Badass Israeli: 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • "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)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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'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 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.

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