Childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) arrives, as the right-hand man of the Roman governor. Messala and Ben-Hur soon quarrel over Roman subjugation. Ben-Hur is arrested, as is wife and sister. He is forced into slavery in Roman galleys, but because it is a movie, manages to save the life of Roman leader Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who adopts him as his son.
Ben-Hur returns with Arrius to Rome and briefly enjoys the good life, but of course he must abandon all that to return to Jerusalem and confront Messala about the fate of Ben-Hur's mother and sister. They are alive but are now lepers and confined to a leper colony.
How others will see it. Ben-Hur is well-known as the first movie to win 11 Oscars. Decades later, two other movies also attained that achivement, at a time when more categories existed to claim. The movie lost only the Best Adaped Screenplay trophy, which went to the much better Room at the Top. This may have been only because the sole writer credited to Ben-Hur, Karl Tunberg, wrote little of the final script, a fact known to Academy voters.
It is interesting, though, that Ben-Hur had only a single BAFTA nomination, winning Best Film from any Source.
The movie was a blockbuster, reportedly single-handedly saving its studio, MGM, from bankruptcy. It grossed three times its closest competitor, North by Northwest (Sleeping Beauty achieved much of its gross from re-releases). As would be the case the next year for Spartacus, and again in 1962 for Lawrence of Arabia, audiences were bowled over by the exotic locale, widescreen cinematography, and enormous scale of the sets.
Today at imdb.com, the movie has a huge 153K user votes and an extremely high 8.1 user rating, which is consistent across all demographics. One can, of course, find negative user comments, but they are decidely in the minority.
How I felt about it. The most famous scene in Ben-Hur is the chariot race. On its own, separated from the rest of the movie, the race scene grades much higher, perhaps in the 70s. This begs the question, should the remainder of the movie, which runs 3 1/2 hours, receive a higher grade due to its comparatively brief, but blatantly superior scene?
I would say no. The vast majority of the movie is far more ponderous and tiresome, and should be evaluated on that basis. But I can see both points of view, and if you wish to award up to three bonus points, that would be reasonable.
As the plot goes, Ben-Hur is another entry in the "Hero of a Thousand Faces" formula, as described by Joseph Campbell. There is no doubt that this formula can create riveting storytelling, exemplified, for example, by Luke Skywalker in the first (1977) Star Wars movie. The idea here is that Ben-Hur is such a great man that he can be the scion of Jerusalem, the hero of the battle of the Macedonian pirates, the hero of the Roman circus, and the winner of the Great Jerusalem Chariot Race.
What he can't do is lie, or as much as keep his mouth shut. It is a good thing he doesn't work in an American corporation, because he would never get promoted. He has to insult both Messala and Pontius Pilate until they change from friend to enemy.
One has to wonder why Ben-Hur saves Arrius. He is a Roman officer, and has already demonstrated his cruelty by making the galley slaves row until they collapse from exhaustion. Why doesn't Ben-Hur try to save his fellow galley slaves instead? The rescue is merely a plot device: Ben-Hur must become a champion chariot racer in Rome, so he can best Messala later in Jerusalem. He must rescue Arrius to become his "son" and race his chariots.
We are fortunate, though, that we get so much of Charlton Heston here. Because the scenes without him, specifically involving Esther, Miriam, and Tirzah, are nearly insufferable. We are to believe that rainfall cures leprosy? Because the film needs a happy ending? Why don't they carry out Simonides into the rain as well, so he can walk again?
The movie continues the Hollywood tradition of presenting ancient history as Roman bad, Jewish good. We have this in other Biblical epics of the era, although the film's role model, The Ten Commandments differed in that Egyptians stood in for the Romans, and the Jews were at least bad sometimes, when Edward G. Robinson had them build a golden calf while Heston was off collecting tablets on Mount Sinai.