Release Date: November 18th, 1959 MPAA Rating: G
Director: William Wyler Actors: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott
n the 7th year of the raid of Emperor Augustus Caesar, Judeans are essentially enslaved – counted and taxed and put below the wellbeing of the mighty Romans in their grand golden temple. The birth of Jesus promises a new hope, with prophecies of a savior ringing through the downtrodden people, who the Romans fear are drunk with religion. Their faith, unlike the land and the men, cannot be crushed.
By the year Anno Domini 26, Roman soldiers journey through Nazareth to Jerusalem, where they’ve overthrown the religious governance. Roman citizen Messala (Stephen Boyd), a tribune feverish with growing power, greets his childhood friend Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a kind, generous Jewish prince. Ben-Hur wishes Messala to withdraw his legions from the city, but the faithful warrior will soon become second-in-command to the new governor, and intends to uphold the emperor’s conquering desires. The longtime comrades are now worlds apart with incompatible beliefs. Back at Judah’s home, loyal slave Simonides (Sam Jaffe) prepares for the arranged wedding of his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who is clearly in love with Ben-Hur, despite being resigned to a marital fate to another.
At the exalted arrival of governor Valerius Gratus, who the Jews refuse to welcome graciously, Ben-Hur’s sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) accidentally knocks loose rooftop tiles that crash down upon the royal rider. Messala, angered at Ben-Hur’s refusal to betray his people for the Romans, and desiring to be feared, makes an example of his old friend by imprisoning Tirzah and her mother Miriam (Martha Scott), and sending Judah away to be a condemned galley slave (during the trek across Nazareth, he crosses paths with Jesus for the first time – a gentle carpenter who offers him water). After three years, he’s put under the rule of the particularly ruthless commander Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and assigned the designation #41. Arrius offers to make Ben-Hur a gladiator, but he declines; nonetheless, during the next naval conflict, Arrius orders that all the slaves be chained to the oar benches except #41, who in turn saves Arrius’ life when the damaged galley sinks. Though the fleet suffers great losses, the battle is won, granting consul Arrius a celebratory victory. Ben-Hur is removed from ship labor and given to Arrius, who adopts Judah and makes him a champion charioteer – allowing the vengeful man to continue his ultimate quest to exact satisfaction against Messala and rescue his family.
Dubbed “A Tale of the Christ,” based on the novel by General Lew Wallace, the film uses Jesus as a recurring supporting character from which Ben-Hur can relate his own story of enslavement, revenge, and redemption. The account of the son of God is merely an overarching idea that aids Judah’s progression and destiny – and also to subtly curb the method of murderous vengeance Judah deems paramount. In the end, Jesus’ guidance not only gives the lead character purpose, but also deliverance and salvation. It is impactful, poignant, heartbreaking, and life-affirming. It’s a historically inspired take on “The Count of Monte Cristo” that examines retaliation with influential biblical components that allow, despite the obvious basis in Christianity, a wider audience to partake in a masterpiece of tested faith and undying hope, which is likely universally appealing to all demoninations.
Rife with gladiatorial action, wartime adventure, drama, romance, tearful tragedy, elaborate costumes, massive sets, thousands of extras, thundering scoring, magnificent cinematography, and a powerful lead performance, “Ben-Hur” is an epic of incomparable proportions. It’s perhaps best known for the intensely climactic and lengthy chariot race, resulting in urban legend stuntmen deaths and one of the most widely recognized and acclaimed cinematic sequences ever filmed. It features wrecks and stunts so realistic and thrilling that it easily rivals the best car chases from works of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Winning a record-breaking eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Heston, it’s an irrefutably ambitious, illustrious, and monumental achievement in moviemaking.
– Mike Massie