Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Ben-Hur (1959)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Ben-Hur (1959)

In William Wyler's renowned, Best Picture-winning Biblical epic of enormous scale that was the winner of 11 Oscars. The character-driven, action-filled, star-studded extravaganza filmed in Italy was one of the cinema's greatest epics - a compelling human story of revenge, bitterness, redemption and forgiveness:

  • the opening was composed of a series of tableaux of the birth of Christ Nativity sequence and the coming of the Magi
  • the wealthy and influential Prince of Judea, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) was reunited with his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), newly-appointed Roman Tribune and member of the Roman legions. The two loyal and old friends toasted to each other and expressed their closeness by embracing, and engaging in a friendly spear-throwing contest (exclaiming: "Down Eros, up Mars!"). Messala was potentially Judah's avowed enemy, although they pledged to each other as they crossed arms: (Messala: "It's an insane world, but in it there's one sanity, the loyalty of old friends. Judah, we must believe in one another")
  • shortly later, a rift developed between Judah and Messala when Judah was asked to betray his people, turn traitor (and reveal names of Jews who opposed Roman rule) and help Rome: "I'd rather be a fool than a traitor or a killer...Rome is evil....I warn you. Rome is an affront to God. Rome is strangling my people and my country and the whole Earth, but not forever. I tell you, the day Rome falls, there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before"; Messala offered Judah a choice: "Either you help me or you oppose me. You have no other choice. You're either for me or against me" - and Judah chose decisively: "I am against you!"
  • Judah's family members were falsely accused of treason (after an unfortunate accident during a Roman parade), and Ben-Hur was condemned and sentenced to exile as a slave on a Roman galley ship - Judah vowed revenge: "May God grant me vengeance. I pray that you live till I return"; Judah's family members - his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and his sister Tirzah (Cathy O'Donnell) were banished and enslaved (years later, they had contracted leprosy and were confined to the Valley of the Lepers, while Judah believed that they were dead)
  • during a forced march of slaves across the desert, the dehydrated Judah Ben-Hur cried out: "God, help me" in Nazareth - and was given water by a defiant Jesus
  • aboard the galley slave ships, Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) noticed Ben-Hur's steely determination - and learned he had already served over three years: "You have the spirit to fight back but the good sense to control it. Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-One. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength"
Roman Consul Quintus Arrius: "Your eyes are full of hate, 41"
  • during an exciting slave galley ship battle against the Macedonians' pirate war ships, Ben-Hur's ship was rammed, but because he was unchained to his oar, he was able to miraculously save many of the slaves and Arrius himself - the Romans were victorious although five ships were lost; Arrius told Ben-Hur: "In his eagerness to save you, your God has also saved the Roman fleet"
  • Judah was adopted by Arrius, and during a spectacular reception scene in Rome, the victorious Arrius and Ben-Hur rode in a chariot together, and were recognized by Emperor Tiberius (George Relph)
  • Judah became a respected citizen and a famed chariot racer under the tutelage of an Arabian horse racer (Hugh Griffith). He finally met his rival Messala in a justly famous 11-minute long chariot race - often regarded as one of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed
  • the race was prefaced by a lengthy and impressive Parade of the Charioteers, when they paraded around the ring in a display of pageantry; the setting was majestic with a central divider strip composed of three statues thirty feet high, and grandstands on all sides, rising five stories high with immense crowds
Famed Chariot Race Sequence
  • Messala suffered a gruesome deathbed scene after his defeat in the arena, when he called for Ben-Hur - delaying an operation to amputate his legs that would attempt to save his life; Messala was bitter and had one last card to play: "Triumph complete, Judah. The race won. The enemy destroyed...What do you think you see? The smashed body of a wretched animal! Is enough of a man still left here for you to hate? Let me help you...You think they're dead. Your mother and sister. Dead. And the race over. It isn't over, Judah. They're not dead...Look for them in the Valley of the Lepers, if you can recognize them. (Messala grabbed Judah's clothing) It goes on. It goes on, Judah. The race, the race is not over"
  • Ben-Hur visited the Valley of the Lepers, where he watched in anguish and pain from behind a boulder as his love interest Esther (Haya Harareet), his steward Simonides' (Sam Jaffe) grown daughter, brought food to his leprosy-afflicted mother Miriam and sister Tirzah
  • in a reversal of roles - Judah followed along behind Jesus as he was being led to his crucifixion, and as the carpenter once gave him water in Nazareth, so did Ben-Hur offer the agonized 'King of the Jews' water when he fell
  • Ben-Hur's leprosy-afflicted mother and sister were healed by a cleansing rain, and Judah became transfixed and transformed by the power of the crucifixion - he spoke of the miracle to Esther and how he was inspired to convert to Christianity: "Almost at the moment he died, I heard him say it, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'...Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand."
  • the film's final image was of the high place with three empty crosses as a shepherd drove his flock before the hill

Friendship Toast Between Judah and Messala

Judah: "Rome is an Affront to God"

Judah: "God help me"

Triumphant Rome Entry: Judah With Quintus Arrius

After the Chariot Race - Messala's Death

The Valley of the Lepers

Judah Offering Water to the "King of the Jews"

Judah Speaking to Esther: "...take the sword out of my hand"

Three Empty Crosses


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