Top 100 Movie Review: No. 030 – Ben-Hur (1959)

Ranked 030 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017). Watched movie during June 2020.

Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim), Martha Scott (Miriam), Cathy O’Donnell (Tirzah), Sam Jaffe (Simonides), Finlay Currie (Balthasar), Frank Thring (Pontius Pilate)
Director:  William Wyler
My rating: 8.5 / 10

The movie opens with people moving back to their place of birth for a Roman census.  We next see three wise men following a star to a stable and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  The movie than moves to AD 26 and to Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant in Jerusalem, who lives with his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott); his sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell); and their female servant Amrah (Stella Vitelleschi). The family’s loyal slave, the merchant Simonides (Sam Jaffe) who manages Judah’s affairs, pays a visit with his daughter, Esther (Haya Harareet). Seeing each other for the first time since childhood, Judah and Esther fall in love, but she is betrothed to another.

Judah’s childhood friend, the Roman citizen Messala (Stephen Boyd), is now a tribune. After several years away from Jerusalem, Messala returns as the new commander of the Roman garrison, the Fortress of Antonia. Messala believes in the glory of Rome and its imperial power, while Judah is devoted to his faith and the freedom of the Jewish people. This difference causes tension between the friends, and results in their split after Messala issues an ultimatum demanding that Judah deliver potential rebels among the populace to the Roman authorities.

During the parade for the new governor of Judea a loose tiles fall from the roof of Judah’s house. The governor is thrown from his spooked horse and nearly killed. Although Messala knows this was an accident, he condemns Judah to the galleys and imprisons Miriam and Tirzah due to his residual anger at Judah for his refusal to betray his people. Simonides confronts Messala, and is also unjustly imprisoned to keep him from speaking out. By punishing a known friend and prominent citizen, he hopes to intimidate the Jewish populace. Judah swears to take revenge on Messala. As he and other slaves are being marched to the galleys, they stop in Nazareth to water the Romans’ horses. Desperate with thirst, Judah begs for water,  but the commander of the Roman detachment denies it to him. He collapses, but is revived when Jesus of Nazareth gives him water.

After three years as a galley slave, Judah is assigned to the flagship of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who has been charged with destroying a fleet of Macedonian pirates. Arrius admires Judah’s determination and self-discipline, and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer. Judah declines the offer, declaring that God will aid him in his quest for vengeance. When the Roman fleet encounters the Macedonians, Arrius orders all the rowers except Judah to be chained to their oars. Arrius’ galley is rammed and sunk, but Judah unchains the other rowers and rescues Arrius. In despair, Arrius wrongly believes the battle ended in defeat and attempts to atone in the Roman way by falling on his sword, but Judah stops him. They are rescued, and Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet’s victory. Arrius successfully petitions Emperor Tiberius to free Judah, and later adopts Judah, who has been successful in chariot races, as his son.

Another year passes. Wealthy again, Judah learns Roman ways and becomes a champion charioteer, but still longs for his family and homeland. Judah returns to Judea. Along the way, he meets Balthasar (Finlay Currie) and an Arab, Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). After noting Judah’s prowess as a charioteer, the sheik asks him to drive his quadriga in a race before the new governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring). Judah declines, even after he learns that Messala will also compete. Judah returns to his home in Jerusalem. He finds Esther and Simonides, who made a new friend (Malak) in prison and was subsequently released. Judah learns Esther’s arranged marriage did not occur and that she is still in love with him. 

Judah visits Messala and demands his mother and sister’s freedom. The Romans discover that Miriam and Tirzah have contracted leprosy in prison, and expels them from the city. The women beg Esther to conceal their condition from Judah so that he may remember them as they were before, so she tells him that they died. This false revelation changes Judah’s mind, and he decides to seek vengeance on Messala by competing against him in the chariot race hoping for a chance to kill him. During the chariot race, Messala drives a Greek style chariot with blades on the hubs to tear apart competing vehicles. He attempts to destroy Judah’s chariot but wrecks his own instead. Messala is dragged behind his horses and severely trampled on by another passing chariot, while Judah wins the race. Before dying, Messala awaits the arrival of Judah, and informs him that “the race is not over”. In one last act of pure hatred, he tells Judah to search for his family in the Valley of the Lepers.

Judah visits the nearby leper colony, where he confronts Esther while she is delivering supplies for his mother and sister. Esther convinces Judah to remain hidden from them for now and not break Miriam’s wishes. Blaming Roman rule for his family’s fate, Judah visits Pilate and rejects his patrimony and Roman citizenship. He returns with Esther to the leper colony, reveals himself to Miriam and finds out that Tirzah is dying. Judah and Esther take Miriam and her daughter to see Jesus of Nazareth, but the trial of Jesus has begun. As Jesus is being marched through the streets he collapses while carrying his cross. Judah recognizes him as the man who gave him water years before, and returns the gesture. Judah witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus, and Miriam and Tirzah are miraculously healed during the rainstorm following the crucifixion. Judah returns home a changed man and embraces Esther, Miriam and Tirzah.

What’s to Like
The epic story, the acting, the scale of the movie including extras, the sets and costumes, the chariot race.

What’s not to Like
The breakdown of friendship between Judah and Messala happens so quickly and with little explanation of why Messala would turn on a childhood friend so quickly. 

Winner of a record eleven Academy Awards Ben-Hur is the definition of a massive financial and critical hit. The story intersects at key points with the story of Jesus of Nazareth but with Jesus not at the centre of the story even if he is essential to the conclusion. 

The death of Jesus is what turns Judah away from blind vengeance and more towards the peaceful messages of Jesus.  As a man who lost everything for no just trying to be neutral while attempting to convince his people against violence, and having been severely punished with many hardship Judah is on a dark path.  Esther even notes he is becoming like the people he hurts which shocks Judah and opens a small door away from vengeance.  Seeing the pain inflected on Jesus for no reason, and seeing that he does not hate those doing it brings him back to the peaceful man he was at the beginning.

An amazing movie, with a good story and many technical achievements.  Well worth watching.

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – Winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Charlton Heston) – Winner
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hugh Griffith) – Winner
  • Best Director – Winner
  • Best Cinematography, Colour – Winner
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour – Winner
  • Best Costume Design, Colour – Winner
  • Best Sound – Winner
  • Best Film Editing – Winner
  • Best Effects, Special Effects – Winner
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture – Winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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