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Film / Ben-Hur (1959)

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Ben-Hur is a 1959 Panavision Sword and Sandal film directed by William Wyler, produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and boasting a score by Miklos Rozsa. By far and away the most famous adaptation of the Lew Wallace novel of the same title, this motion picture extravaganza is one of the all-time poster boys for the Epic Movie.

In 1st Century AD Jerusalem at the time of the Roman Empire, Judean prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) gets betrayed by his childhood Roman friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) and goes through a journey to hell and back from being enslaved to becoming a chariot race champion in Rome and taking his revenge. Along the way, Ben-Hur also has some meaningful encounters with the Christ.

The film also stars Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Haya Harareet as Esther, Finlay Currie as Balthazar, Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim, Martha Scott as Miriam, Cathy O Donnell as Tirzah and Sam Jaffe as Simonides.

The film was a massive box office success and cleaned house at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1960, being nominated for 12 Oscars and winning 11, missing only Best 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-Oscar win set a record, since matched by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King but still not beaten (and the latter two films got most of their awards on technical merits such as costuming and special effects).

Click here for a plot summary.

See also the 1907, 1925 and 2016 versions of the story.

This film has the examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Charlton Heston's other best-known role from The Ten Commandments (1956) also has him playing a Jewish character, who returns after being years away to set things right.
  • Adaptational Early Appearance: Esther and Simonedes are introduced at the start of the film as opposed to the book where they don't appear until after Judah's return from Rome.
  • 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 this one, Judah's sister is the one who dislodges the roof tile, but Judah deliberately takes the blame in an attempt to spare her.
    • In the novel, when Judah is on a sinking slave ship, and finds himself unchained, he immediately gets off the ship. Here, Judah takes the opportunity to punch out a guard, steal his keys, and free all the other slaves on the ship, before escaping himself.
    • Judah reconsiders his revenge on Messala, even personally telling him he will let him go if he releases his mother and sister. When he is told about their "deaths" he goes through with his revenge, even though he acknowledges the immorality of it (before the race, he prays to God).
    • The Novel Judah is the one to wreck Messala's wheel (having planned it before the race). Here it is Messala who intends to break Judah's wheel with his Greek [sic.] Chariot. However this ends up Hoist by His Own Petard.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: 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 during their youth and that his vindictiveness is therefore motivated by a romantic rejection as much as a political one (while not telling Charlton Heston). There is nothing in the book to imply that that Judah and Messala were ever lovers. It's good to remember that ancient Roman notions of sexuality and identity were different from ours.
  • Adaptational Wimp: Simonedes used the funds he saved from the fall of the House of Hur to become a merchant prince in his own right in Antioch, in the movie he's reduced to hiding in the derelict estate.
  • Adapted Out:
    • Balthazar's daughter Iras is cut.
    • Quintus Arius was an acquaintance of Judah's father in the book, something the movie cut.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Judah feels this for Messala during the chariot race when the latter got trampled to death. Despite what Messala did to him, all Judah really wanted was to humiliate his former friend by defeating him in front of the Roman government and population of Judea.
  • Ambition Is Evil: A large part of what drives Messala, seeing his post as a way to rise to the top and betrays his old friends to advance after Judah refuses to help him.
  • Arranged Marriage: Esther to the freedman David ben Mathias. She doesn't go through with it thanks to her father's imprisonment and torture.
  • Artistic License – Geography: The Romans' route to Jerusalem or to the coast would have never passed through Nazareth, which was very geographically isolated and away from any of the main roads.
  • Artistic License – History: The Romans never used the Slave Galley. All rowers on a Roman warship (referred to as remiges) were paid members of the Roman navy, often taken from freeborn provincials who had a maritime heritage. There are accounts that the Romans would occasionally pull from the slave population in an emergency situation, or if they were strapped for manpower, but even then, these slaves would be freed before being put to work.
  • Aspect Ratio Switch: In the 1988 VHS version of the film, the Chariot Race sequence is presented letterboxed while the rest of the film is in Pan and Scan.
  • As You Know: Quintus Arrius reminds his subordinates about the Macedonian pirates raiding the area and their Imperial comission to destroy them.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Ilderim says his "beauties" always come to him at bedtime and see which one he'll embrace first, Judah hastily tries to excuse himself, thinking the Sheik is about to show him his harem. To his relief, the "beauties" are Ilderim's four white chariot horses.
  • Body Horror: Downplayed and implied, but catching leprosy is still treated as a fate worthy of in-universe nightmare fuel.
  • Brownface: Welsh actor Hugh Griffith playing the Arab Sheik Ilderim.
  • Call-Back:
    • Throughout the film, Judah has several moments involving the mezuzah beside his door whenever he approaches it. He kisses it by rote when he meets Simonidies. Four years later, when he returns to the palace, he face-hugs the mezuzah (thanking God for his return). When he is informed of his mother & sister's "deaths", he smashes the mezuzah in anger (Later, there is no scene about it when he comes home from Pilate, suggesting he ignored it). Coming home from the Crucifixion, the enlightened Judah repairs the mezuzah.
    • Jesus gave Judah water at his lowest moment in Nazareth, on the way to the cross Judah tries to return the favor.
  • The Cameo: The disciple John is present at the Crucifixion, as the only man standing with the group of women that presumably includes Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene although they aren't specifically identified.
  • Chariot Race: Trope Codifier in the climactic race between Judah and Messala, including the Spiked Wheels and rampant cheating.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Ben-Hur's spear throwing skill, demonstrated during his friendly contest with Messala upon the latter's return. During the naval battle, he uses said skill to kill a Macedonian pirate who was attempting a surprise attack on Quintus Arrius, saving the Roman's life.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: During the chariot race, Ben-Hur gets white horses, while Messala gets black horses.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Excluding the Nativity prologue and the Neronian Epilogue, the main narrative of the novel spans eleven years, although most of those years are diluted by time-skips like the three years between Judah's arrest and the Sea Battle that saves him, the five years between Judah's adoption by Arrius to his return to Judea, and the three years between Judah joining Jesus and the Passion. Like the earlier 1925 film, this version compresses the timeline to about four years.
  • Cool Horse: Ilderim's "children" are supposed to be Arabians, but are played by Andalusians, who originate in Spain, although today's Andalusians have a lot of Arabian blood. There are also a lot of Lipizzaners in the film; they are descended from North African Barbs. The sorrel horse Ilderim rides is an Arab; she shows the characteristic "flagging" of her tail as she runs.
  • Cool Old Guy: Balthazar of Alexandria, one of the three Wise Men. Both Judah and Ilderim clearly respect him.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Messala's chariot breaks but he's still tied to his horses, leading to him being dragged. And then another charioteer accidentally runs his horses over him while he's still moving at speed, leaving him stuck beneath the horses until the reins break. Even Judah, who has spent most of the movie on a revenge quest, is horrified by his death.
  • 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. He dies after being trampled by his horses in this film.
  • Death March: Ben-Hur is forced to walk all the way from Jerusalem to Tyr after being enslaved, and he's denied water by the Roman officer. Fortunately, as he pleads for God's help, Jesus steps up to give him water.
  • Demoted to Extra:
    • Simon of Cyrene is little more than a background character in this film, shown being ordered by a Roman soldier to carry the cross while Judah tries to give Jesus water.
    • Like in the earlier 1925 version, Amrah is demoted to a cameo and her actions given to Esther.
  • Depraved Homosexual: The 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. Of course, it should be noted that Messala is only this trope by a modern dichotomies as neither "heterosexual" nor "homosexual" formed the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking and no Latin word for either exists.
  • Determinator: Messala after being trampled by horses in the chariot race. He is determined to stay alive so he could speak to Judah one last time.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: If Messala hadn't resorted to attacking Judah with his whip, he might not have suffered the crash that ultimately killed him.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: 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.
  • Don't Make Me Destroy You: Pilate urges Judah to return to Rome and let go of his bitterness, making it clear he would deal with him if he was forced to act in Rome's interests.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Messala rages against Judah's pity, lashing out with his Dying Curse to hurt him one more time.
  • Dutch Angle: An extremely powerful one that shows Jesus on the cross.
  • Drone of Dread: The rowing scene uses gradually-accelerating cellos.
  • Dying Curse: Before he dies of his injuries, Messala taunts Judah by revealing that Miriam and Tirzah are still alive in the Valley of the Lepers, and uttering his Last Words: "It goes on, Judah... The race is not over".
  • Emerging from the Shadows: Ben-Hur makes use of this when showing up at Messala's door after his return from Rome.
  • The Empath: Jesus seems to be a version of one when he stands up to the Roman soldier for Judah. The soldier looks like he is experiencing a flood of emotions, as if he is suddenly acutely aware of the suffering he is cruelly inflicting on others and feels guilty.
  • 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, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago as the quintessential example of the type for The Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Evil Is Petty: Messala spend his last moments trying to hurt Judah by revealing his mother and sister are lepers.
  • Evil Stole My Faith: Discussed when Quintus wonders why Judah as a condemned galley slave still clings to his faith when "a sane man would've learned to lose it long ago". Judah in turn asks why Quintus has lost his own faith, but is ordered back to his oar.
  • The Faceless: Jesus' face is never shown and he's generally only ever seen from behind apart from a very brief shot just before he falls carrying the cross in which part of his face is just about visible.
  • Fascinating Eyebrow: Quintus Arrius, as he looks at the galley slaves dropping.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: While the intention of William Wyler was for the viewer to never see Jesus's face, going frame by frame during the Crucifixion scene allows you to see a few frames where Jesus's face is actually visible.
  • Funny Foreigner: Sheikh Ilderim is the movie's resident Plucky Comic Relief.
  • 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". Prisoners who go there are expected to die in its halls, disease runs rampant, and torture is regular even when there wouldn't be anything to gain.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: A deliberate example. 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.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Judah's spear throw is powerful enough to run the Macedonian soldier who attempted to kill Arrius through during the naval battle.
  • 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 quietly but intensely says "I am Judah Ben-Hur."
  • Intermission: Part One ends with Judah, told that his mother and sister are dead, choosing revenge.
  • 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".
  • Karmic Jackpot: Quintus Arrius decides, in an unexpected moment of compassion, to unlock Judah from his chains so he won't drown if the ship is sunk. Judah repays him by saving him, first in the battle and then later from killing himself for failure, and when they're finally picked up by galleys he learns that the battle was in fact a victory and he is being brought home with honors.
    Quintus Arrius: In his eagerness to save you, your God has also saved the Roman fleet.
  • Kill It with Fire: After realizing the cell has been housing lepers, the jailer orders it burned clean.
  • 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!"
  • Knights and Knaves: Ben-Hur deduces that whatever Messala says about his mother and sister, he will mean the exact opposite.
  • Large Ham:
    • You can tell Hugh Griffith is enjoying himself as Ilderim. Heston as Judah has a few moments as well.
    • The hortator, as part of his job. "RAMMING! SPEED!"
  • Letterbox: The chariot sequence is ALWAYS presented in letterbox, even if the rest of the movie is a Pan and Scan format.
  • Like a Son to Me: Judah becomes this to Arrius, who formally adopts him after some years in Rome. He even announces to the Senate that he considers Judah a replacement for the son he lost.
  • Make an Example of Them: Messala destroying the family of Hur is this. If Judah won't help him willingly, he can serve as an example of how ruthless and unflinching Messala is in condemning without hesitation a old friend.
  • Meaningful Look: After Judah returns Quintus Arrius to the fleet, they learn that the battle was won, and Arrius decides to take Judah on in thanks. Judah then looks below to see the enslaved rowers, reminding him and the audience of the sort of country he's joining.
  • Manly Tears: Judah when begging Messala for his family's lives and when meeting Jesus at the Crucifixion.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd both get shirtless scenes.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: The HUAC Hearings moment as Messala demands to know who the Jews are who didn't like his "no grumbling about the Romans" request, and Judah won't tell him.
  • 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" Remark: 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. He doesn't know who this guy is, but it's clear he's sheepishly reacting to the way Jesus must be looking at him (since we only see Jesus from behind) as if he went against something he can't comprehend or go against.
    • The slave who sees the approaching galley and realizes they're going to be rammed.
    • Messala's stunned reaction when a very much alive Judah shows up to challenge him.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Messala rebuking a centurion to treat Judah Ben-Hur like the prince he is, noting "this was his country before it was ours".
    • Messala releasing the servants after arresting Judah.
    • Quintus Arrius has Judah unchained from his oar before the battle.
  • The Power of Hate: Quintus Arrius is glad to see how "41" clearly hates him, because hate keeps a man alive and gives him strength. Deconstructed in that Judah's hatred of Rome and Messala is shown to bring him close to He Who Fights Monsters.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Quintus Arrius makes a point to evaluate the galley slaves rowing his ship, replacing a sick man and pushing them to their limits so he can see what they are capable of.
  • 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 or just choked him unconscious. Or perhaps he doesn't consider fighting to escape in the heat of the moment to be "murder", as opposed to what modern people would consider "cold-blooded murder".
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Pontius Pilate merely does his duty as Caesar's representative to crush any potential rebellion. For his part Pilate doesn't even want to be the Governor of Judea.
  • The Queen's Latin: Roman characters are mostly played by Brits, and speak accordingly.
  • Reaction Shot: In the scene where Jesus offers the enslaved Judah water to drink, the Roman decurion 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 as if he saw something he shouldn't go against.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Tiberius oddly enough. He's willing to hear out Quintius Arrius' argument on Judah's behalf and while he can't exonerate Judah outright due to politics, he gives charge of him to Quintus Arrius to do with as he will allowing him to be freed.
  • 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. Jesus is still up on the cross; the rain washes his blood down along the ground and into the cave where the women are sheltering, and so they are healed and "reborn".
  • 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 film.
  • Saved From Their Own Honor: After Quintus Arrius is knocked overboard and dragged to a makeshift raft by Judah, his first act on regaining consciousness is to try to kill himself, believing he'd lost the battle and the Roman fleet. Judah wrestles him into submission and knocks him out, and when they're rescued by a Roman ship, the consul learns that the Romans won. His gratitude is such that he not only keeps Judah close to him as his charioteer, but eventually adopts him as his son.
  • Sistine Steal: The movie popularized the use of "The Creation of Adam" in mainstream media (although not a parody here).
  • Sizable Semitic Nose: Sheikh Ilderim is played by Hugh Griffith, who had quite the proboscis though the actor is Welsh.
  • Slave Galley: Trope Codifier. Chained rowers, brutal overseers with whips, and a drummer. Judah manages to free most of the slaves when their boat is rammed, but it's unclear how many made it out alive.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Like the earlier 1925 film, this version spares Quintus Arrius. Drowned at Sea in the novel (in a later, unrelated incident), this film makes his final appearance a heartfelt goodbye to Judah before he leaves Rome to locate his family.
  • Time-Passage Beard: Judah grows one during his years in the galley, doubling as a Beard of Sorrow from his hardships.
  • Trauma Conga Line: What's worse than death? Knowing your sister and mother are wasting away in the Valley of the Lepers.
  • Treated Worse than the Pet: Played for Laughs with Sheikh Ilderim who gets furious with his servants if they get careless with his beloved horses. He even kicks one incompetent driver out of a moving chariot.
    You think you can treat my horses like animals!?!
  • 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: When he goes to see Messala as he's dying, Judah is so horrified by the state he's in that he can't even take satisfaction in it. Messala spitefully telling him what really happened to his mother and sister just seals it, as he's gained nothing from the victory.
  • Villain Takes an Interest: Quintus Arrius first takes notice of Judah/Forty-One from his unbreakable spirit and "eyes full of hate". Arrius offers to make him a gladiator or charioteer under him, but Judah turns him down.
  • Voice for the Voiceless: When Simonides was finally released, he had no life in his legs, so he teamed up with another prisoner named Malick who had lost a tongue.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, were childhood friends who fall out and become mortal enemies.
  • What a Drag: Once his chariot is destroyed during the race as a result of his attack on Judah, Messala is briefly dragged by his own horses, then gets trampled by the horses of the charioteer behind him.
  • Widescreen Shot: Filmed in Panavision Camera 65, meaning many scenes suffer in Pan and Scan:
    • The Shot of the Three Wise Man seeing the Star of Bethlehem.
    • The scene with the Blind Beggar. Either the Beggar or the Hur Family are cropped out.
  • With Us or Against Us: Messala pulls this on Judah after he refuses to inform on his fellow Jews. Judah defiantly takes the latter option.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: Messala refers to Judah as being more like a Roman than a Jew. Judah is clearly irritated by this.
  • You Are Number 6: Ben-Hur being called "Forty-One" on the Galley.
  • You Cannot Kill An Idea: Discussed between Sextus and Messala, when Sextus bemoans that Jesus' teachings are spreading and that while they can punish and kill those they find they can't fight the idea itself. After thinking it over, Messala thinks that there is a way to fight an idea: with another idea.


Video Example(s):


Ben-Hur in the Slave Galley

Condemned for a crime he didn't commit, Judah Ben-Hur is forced to work as a galley slave.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / SlaveGalley

Media sources: