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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 Miklós Rózsa. 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 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 also has him playing a Jewish character, who returns after being years away to set things right.
  • 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.
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    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Ben-Hur's spear throwing skill, demonstrated during his friendly contest with Messala upon the latter's return. During the naval batle, 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 Lipizzaners, which 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Messala's stunned reaction when a very much alive Judah shows up to challenge him.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Slave Galley: Trope Codifier. Chained rowers, brutal overseers with whips, and a drummer.
  • 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.
    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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • You Are Number 6: Ben-Hur being called "Forty-One" on the Galley.


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?

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Example of:

Main / SlaveGalley

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