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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 Zaimonides (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 in love with each other.
During the parade for the 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. As Ben-Hur collapses in despair, a local carpenter whose face is hidden from the viewing audience, but who is obviously 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), assigned to destroy a fleet of Macedonian pirates. As slave „Number 41,” Ben-Hur’s self-discipline and resolve are noticed by the commander who 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 offers to forget Messala’s betrayal in exchange for freeing his mother and sister, but the Romans discover that Miriam and Tirzah contracted leprosy during their five years in prison 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.
Enraged, and seeking his vengeance, Ben-Hur enters the race. Messala drives a „Greek 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 mortally wounded, 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 encounter in Nazareth, Ben-Hur attempts to return the long-ago favor by giving Jesus 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 an emotional reunion between Ben-Hur and his mother and sister, followed by a scene of the empty crosses of Calvary and a shepherd leading his flock.
Differences between novel and film
There are several differences between the original novel and the film. The changes made serve to make the film’s storyline more immediately dramatic.
- In the novel, Messala is seriously, but not fatally, injured in the chariot race. In the movie, Messala falls victim to an accident that is caused by his own attempts to sabotage Ben-Hur, and he dies from the wounds sustained from the accident. In the book, Messala plots to have Ben-Hur murdered in revenge, but his plans go awry. It is revealed at the end of the novel that Iras (who is Messala’s mistress and does not appear in the 1959 film) had murdered Messala in a fit of anger about five years after the chariot race.
- The film has the chariot race taking place in Jerusalem, the novel however has it taking place in Antioch.
- In the novel, Ben-Hur becomes a convert to Christianity before, rather than after, the Crucifixion, and he does not display the harsh bitterness that he does in the William Wyler film. Similarly, the healing of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister takes place earlier in the book, not immediately after the death of Christ.
- In the novel, the character of Quintus Arrius was acquainted with Ben-Hur’s father, but in the movie there was no such prior association between the Arrius and Hur families. In the novel, Arrius dies and passes his property and title on to Ben-Hur prior to Ben-Hur’s return home. No mention of Arrius’s death is made in the 1959 film, so presumably he is still alive at film’s end.
- The novel ends about 30 years after the chariot race, with the Ben-Hur family living in Misenum, Italy. While in Antioch, Ben-Hur learns that Sheik Ilderim (who does not die in any of the film versions of the novel) had bequeathed him a large amount of money. At about the same time he learns of the persecution of Christians in Rome by Emperor Nero, Ben-Hur helps establish the Catacomb of San Calixto so that the Christian community will have a place to worship freely. The movie, however, ends almost immediately after the Crucifixion of Christ and the healing of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister. This is presumably only a few years after the chariot race, not thirty years afterward. None of the characters (except Balthasar, who appears in the Nativity Scene) is shown to age in the film.
- (VIA) Wikipedia