Anno Domini: the seventh year of Augustus Caesar’s reign. In the Roman province of Judea, Jews return to the city of their birth for the census. A bright star in the night over Bethlehem marks the birth of Jesus Christ. Years later, Roman commander Messala (Stephen Boyd), who was brought up in Judea, takes command of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. His Jewish boyhood friend Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) greets him. Messala is delighted. But when Judah refuses to name Jewish patriots, Messala sentences him to the slave galleys and imprisons his mother, Miriam (Martha Scott), and sister, Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell). Judah vows revenge.
This Oscar-laden film was released in 1959, the same year I was born. I actually viewed it for the first time for this review, and I have decided it earned those eleven Academy Awards. The special effects still hold up well these many years later and, although the film is rightfully famous for its chariot race, it goes far beyond that. The story is about Judah Ben-Hur, a man of peace who does not like Rome’s oppression of the Jews but does not believe that violence is the answer. His path crosses that of Messala, whom he knew as a friend when they were boys. Messala is now gaining Roman power and places himself against Judah Ben-Hur. As the tyranny of Rome oppresses Judah and his own family more and more, he begins to believe that striking back may be the answer after all. An encounter with Christ changes his mind and this film’s ending is as powerful as the beginning and middle sections. In other words, it may be lengthy at over three hours running time, but it never becomes boring. This one deserves its rank as a classic.