During the time of Christ Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Jerusalem, lives with his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and his sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell). His childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) has just returned to the city as a Roman Tribune in charge of the Fortress of Antonia. Ben-Hur is a Jew and Messala is a Roman but their childhood bond was strong. It doesn’t take long for their separate ideals to come between them.
Judah’s slave Simonides (Sam Jaffe) returns from Antioch with his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet). Simonides has secured a marriage for her. Judah gives his permission for her to marry, however, Judah and Esther fall in love.
When the new governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus (Mino Doro), arrives and is marching past Judah’s home, some loose tiles on the roof of Judah’s house accidently fall and almost kill the governor. Even though Messala knows it was an accident he decides to make an example of Judah. Without a trial Judah is sent to man the oars of a galley. Miriam and Tirzah are sent to prison. Several years later Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) takes an interest in Judah. Judah’s spirit makes him think that the condemned man could be a gladiator. Judah declines the offer. During a battle the ship is rammed by Macedonians. Judah saves the Consul’s life. Judah becomes a charioteer. Quintus adopts him as his son.
Judah leaves Rome to go back to Jerusalem. He is looking for his mother and sister. He also has a score to settle with Messala. He finds Esther and her father Simonides. He goes to Messala demanding to know where Miriam and Tirzah are. When the jailers open their prison cell they find that the two women have contracted leprosy. They are expelled from the city. Esther takes care of them and promises not to tell Judah. She tells him they died to spare him seeing them slowly rotting away. Judah is now determined to kill Messala for all he’s done to his family. The best way he can get revenge is to face Messala in the chariot race. A race that has no rules.
“Ben-Hur was released in 1959 and was directed by William Wyler. It is a high class sword and sandal movie. It is a re-make of the 1925 silent movie and was based on the 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ” by Lew Wallace.
It is on the list of Vatican approved religious films. In 2004, the National Film Preservation Board selected Ben-Hur for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." It won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Heston), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Griffith), and Best Cinematography (Surtees); it also won Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture for a drama, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Stephen Boyd.
“Ben-Hur” is long. At least three and a half hours. A little more or less depending on what version you are watching. But that’s part of being an epic tale. It is a combination of emotional roller coaster and action film. For a sword and sandal movie made during the beginning of the main Peplum period it is an excellent film and quite an extravaganza. But that’s what MGM does best.
Constructed on 18 acres of the back lot of Cinecitta Studios near Rome, the chariot race required 15,000 extras. Eighteen chariots were built, with half being used for practice. The race took five weeks to film. Charlton Heston already knew how to drive a two horse chariot from his work on “The Ten Commandments” 1956. He learned how to handle a four horse chariot by training with stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt. Over 200 camels and 2,500 horses were used in the shooting of the film, with some 10,000 extras. The budget was around $15,000,000.
The character Balthazar is one of the three wise men that visited Jesus in the manger. He brought Myrrh. In the film he is played by a white man whereas Saint Balthazar was traditionally depicted as a man of color. He was usually an Arabian or Ethiopian king.
In a standard chariot race 12 chariots race in teams of two. The four teams are usually called factions. Each team has their own colors, blue, green, white and red. There are 4 horses to each chariot. They usually race around an oval track seven times. Races normally took about fifteen minutes.
Leprosy is a bacterial infection. In Ancient Rome people thought it was highly contagious but it takes prolonged exposure to get the disease from someone. It causes skin lesions and ulcers. Later it can cause the loss of fingers and toes and facial disfigurement. At one time having leprosy was an eventual and prolonged death sentence. Now it can be cured with a six to twelve month multiple drug regimen.