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Ben-hur and the CHARIOT RACE Moment

The One-Line Summary: Judah Ben-hur (Charlton Heston) is at first happy that his long time friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) has been named as the commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, but soon discovers Messala has became an autocratic conquerer and when Ben-hur refuses to give the names of Jews opposing Roman rule, sentences him to serve as a slave on a galley, where he manages to survive and make his way back for a taste of revenge.


The Two-Line Blurb: A re-make of the 1925 classic, this William Wyler directed film is the very definition epic with staggering set pieces and grand, sweeping moments of land and sea battles, employing up to 10,000 extras and thousands of animals, winning a stunning eleven Academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. It’s also a personal story with, many powerfully emotional moments, especially as Ben-hur endures life as a slave.


The Three-Line Set-up: Once free of slavery, Ben-hur, now a champion charioteer, returns to his homeland where an Arab, Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) asks him to ride in a race in front of the new Judean governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring). At first he declines, wishing only to be home with his mother and sister who he has been separated from for years. When he arrives, he learns they are dead, though actually sent to a leper colony, and so, full of hate, takes the Sheik’s offer and races against his old friend and new enemy, Messala.

Charlton Heston (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Charlton Heston (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The Four-Line Moment: The massive race consist of chariots drawn by four horses, and Messala has equipped his ride with steel blades mounted in the hub, meant to shred competitors. The two rivals take the lead and are literally neck and neck as they round the corners, Messala whipping his horse and then Ben-hur, bringing the crowd to their feet. On the last stretch, Messala’s own tricks backfire and his chariot is over-turned, leaving him trampled underfoot by the chariot behind. One of the greatest action scenes ever filmed, with incredible real horse racing footage and Heston actually driving for closeups, this sequence (that took a year to stage) still shines six decades later as a marvel of cinematography, special effects, and live drama.

The Five-Word Review: Heston is at his best.

Clip courtesy Randall Mitchell


Director: William Wyler

Writers: Lew Wallace (novel), Karl Tunberg (screenplay)

Stars: Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd

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