Ben-Hur (1959)

Ben-Hur (1959)

“May God grant me vengeance!”

Shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ, a Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) visits with his former childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) who has become a military commander for Rome. When Judah refuses to share names of Jews who are resisting Roman imperialism, Messala teaches him a lesson by sending him to work as a galley slave, and his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O’Donnell) to prison. Years later, Judah rescues the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) from drowning during a battle at sea, and is rewarded by being made Arrius’s honorary son. Soon Judah reunites with his sweetheart (Haya Harareet), but remains more determined than ever to seek revenge on Messala.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Biblical Times
  • Charlton Heston Films
  • Christianity
  • Historical Drama
  • Hugh Griffith Films
  • Jack Hawkins Films
  • Revenge
  • Sam Jaffe Films
  • Slavery
  • Stephen Boyd Films
  • William Wyler Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of this “colossal remake of the 1925 silent classic” by noting that it “won a record-breaking 12 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Cinematography (Robert Surtees), Best Scoring (Miklos Rozsa), and Best Visual Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie [and] Robert MacDonald).” He writes that this “big-budget epic is quite watchable, but a bit syrupy once Messala is no longer around:”

… and he feels that Heston merely “does a credible job as Ben-Hur” — a “tormented, wrathful” man who “is striving for inner peace, which he can achieve only by accepting Christ and his message of love and forgiveness.”

He notes that “the chariot-race sequence and the sea battle still hold up nicely” (true):

… but argues that “there is nothing else exciting in the picture.” Regardless, he concedes that the “scenes in which Christ is seen from the back only are nevertheless quite effective because just from seeing the watery eyes and smiles of those who behold him, we can imagine his face and the love and calmness it projects.”

I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s assessment of this enormously expensive, hugely popular film, which is visually stunning but will ultimately appeal primarily to those who enjoy epic historical dramas. While Peary’s assertion that “none of the acting is particularly impressive” is somewhat true (only Heston’s character is really memorable), the actors here do serviceable work and are overshadowed by the spectacle of it all anyway.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur
  • Robert Surtees’ cinematography
  • The exciting action sequences

Must See?
Yes, as an Oscar-winning favorite, and for its historical importance.


  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


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