Ben Hur (1959) - description
Ben-Hur (or Benhur) is a 1959 epic film directed by William Wyler, the third film version of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It premiered at Loew's State Theatre in New York City on November 18, 1959. The film went on to win a record of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, a feat equaled only by Titanic in 1998 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004. It was also the last film to win the Oscar for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, until nearly 44 years later when Mystic River achieved the same feat.
The film's prologue depicts the traditional story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
In AD 26, Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy merchant in Jerusalem. His childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), now a military tribune, arrives as the new commanding officer of the Roman garrison. Ben-Hur and Messala are happy to reunite after years apart, but politics divide them; Messala believes in the glory of Rome and its imperial power, while Ben-Hur is devoted to his faith and the freedom of the Jewish people. Messala asks Ben-Hur for names of Jews who criticize the Roman government; Ben-Hur counsels his countrymen against rebellion but refuses to name names, and the two part in anger.
Ben-Hur, his mother Miriam (Martha Scott), and sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell) welcome their loyal slave Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and his daughter Esther (Haya Harareet), who is preparing for an arranged marriage. Ben-Hur gives Esther her freedom as a wedding present, and the two realize they are attracted to each other.
During the parade for new governor of Judea Valerius Gratus, a tile falls from the roof of Ben-Hur's house and startles the governor's horse, which throws Gratus off, nearly killing him. Although Messala knows it was an accident, he condemns Ben-Hur to the galleys, and imprisons his mother and sister to intimidate the restive Jewish populace by punishing the family of a known friend and prominent citizen. Ben-Hur swears to return and take revenge. En route to the sea, he is denied water when his slave gang arrives at Nazareth. Ben-Hur collapses in despair, but a local carpenter named Jesus gives him water and renews his will to survive.
After three years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur is assigned to the flagship of Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), tasked to destroy a fleet of Macedonian pirates. The commander notices the slave's self-discipline and resolve and offers to train him as a gladiator or charioteer, but Ben-Hur declines, declaring that God will aid him.
As Arrius prepares for battle, he orders the rowers chained but Ben-Hur to be left free. Arrius's galley is rammed and sunk, but Ben-Hur unchains other rowers, escapes and saves Arrius's life and, since Arrius believes the battle ended in defeat, prevents him from committing suicide. Arrius is credited with the Roman fleet's victory, and in gratitude petitions Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus (George Relph) to drop all charges against Ben-Hur, adopting him as his son. With regained freedom and wealth, Ben-Hur learns Roman ways and becomes a champion charioteer, but longs for his family and homeland.
While returning to Judea, Ben-Hur meets Balthasar (Finlay Currie) and his host, Arab sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith), who owns four magnificent white Arabian horses. Ilderim introduces Ben-Hur to his "children" and asks him to drive Ilderim's quadriga in the upcoming race before the new Judean governor, Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring). Ben-Hur declines, but hears that champion charioteer Messala will compete; as Ilderim observes, "There is no law in the arena. Many are killed."
Ben-Hur learns that Esther's arranged marriage did not occur and that she is still in love with him. He visits Messala and demands that he free his mother and sister, but the Romans discover that Miriam and Tirzah have contracted leprosy and expel them from the city. They beg Esther to conceal their condition from Ben-Hur, so she tells him that his mother and sister have died in prison.
Ben-Hur enters the race. Messala drives a "peaked chariot," with blades on the hubs, designed to tear apart competing chariots. In the violent and grueling race, Messala attempts to destroy Ben-Hur's chariot but destroys his own instead; Messala is trampled and almost killed, while Ben-Hur wins the race. Before dying, Messala tells Ben-Hur that "the race is not over" and that he can find his mother and sister "...in the Valley of the Lepers, if you can recognize them."
The film is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and it is at this point that Jesus Christ reappears. Esther is moved by the Sermon on the Mount. She tells Ben-Hur about it, but he will not be consoled; blaming Roman rule — not Messala — for his family's fate, Ben-Hur rejects his patrimony and citizenship, and plans violence against the Empire. Learning that Tirzah is dying, Ben-Hur and Esther take her and Miriam to see Jesus Christ, but they cannot get near him; his trial has begun, with Pilate washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus Christ's fate. Recognizing Jesus Christ from their earlier meeting, Ben-Hur attempts to give him water during his march to Calvary but guards pull them apart.
Ben-Hur witnesses the Crucifixion. Miriam and Tirzah are healed by a miracle, as are Ben-Hur's heart and soul. He tells Esther that as he heard Jesus Christ talk of forgiveness while on the cross, "I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." The film ends with the empty crosses of Calvary and a shepherd and his flock.
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