EFL Movie Study Guide for:
from www.krigline.com www.krigline.com.cn
Story: Winning 11 Oscars (1959), this is one of the greatest movies
ever made (it is certainly one of our favorites). Boyhood friends in ancient
Rome/Judea grow into power and wealth, but injustice makes them bitter
rivals. Messala mercilessly enslaves Ben-Hur, casts his mother and sister
into prison (where they all-but die), and tortures the family's steward.
Love, riches, athletic victory, and even revenge can't free Ben-Hur from
hate. Only a miracle can save him. This movie includes great action/battle
scenes and a seat-gripping chariot race; the filmmakers employed 8000 actors
and had a staggering budget; as you watch, you'll be amazed that they could
do all this without computers! (3.5 hours! Romance, action, drama)
Setting: First Century Rome and Judea
Note: The story came from a popular 1880 novel by US General (&
Governor) Lew Wallace (1827-1905). One of the best selling books of the 19th
century, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has never been "out of
print." You never see Christ's face in the film, but his role in Ben-Hur's
life is central to the story.
Note 2: The author (Lew Wallace) says that before an 1876
conversation with an atheist, his "attitude with respect to religion had
been one of absolute indifference." That conversation compelled him to begin
seven years of historical research. The results, in his own words, were
"first, the book Ben Hur, and second, a conviction amounting to
absolute belief in God and the Divinity of Christ." (from http://www.ben-hur.com/FirstChristmas.pdf)
People and proper nouns:
Balthasar: an Egyptian "wise man" or astrologer; we first see him at the
birth of Jesus, and later find that he has returned to find this grown
Eros: God of love
Esther: Simonides' daughter
Judah Ben-Hur: the young, wealthy Jew at the center of this story
Mars: God of war ("Down Eros, up Mars" or "Mars reigns, Eros is dead" means
that war is more important than love)
Messala: a young Roman soldier, the "enemy" in this story
Miriam: Judah’s mother
Quintus Arrius: a Roman military official (tribune)
Simonides: Judah's steward (slave in charge of managing the family's vast
Tirzah: Judah’s sister
Valerius Gratus: Roman governor of Judea
an affront to: a bold insult to
alms: [formal; old] money or food, given to the poor
arrogance: the attitude of sb who behaves in an unpleasant or rude way
because he thinks he is more important than other people
carpenter: a craftsman who makes things from wood (Jesus was the son of
Joseph, a carpenter)
to beget: [old] to give birth to
to betray: [vt] to bring harm or be disloyal to someone who trusts you (your
family, country, co-workers, etc.), often by helping an enemy
to be deserted: describes a place after all the people have left; the
connotation of this term includes sadness, abandon, desolation and emptiness
dungeon: an old word for a jail or prison (often the dark, smelly place
under a fort)
galley: the lower part of the ship – in this case, slaves or criminals were
used to row the large warships and were called “galley slaves”
gamble: to risk money on the outcome of a game, race, etc.; if you guess
right you make money, but if you guess wrong then you lose your money (i.e.,
garrison: a military post or fort
imperial: [adj] relating to or belonging to the king/emperor/Caesar or other
to injure: to hurt yourself or someone else (often passive: He was injured
when something fell on him.)
lepers: people who suffer from a disease wherein your nerves die, and thus
the patient frequently injures himself without knowing it; in the first
century this was incurable and easy to catch, and thus greatly feared. By
law, lepers had to yell out "unclean, unclean!" if a healthy person was
near. Even today, some lepers live isolated from healthy people.
messiah: a Jewish word ("Christ" in Greek) referring to a holy man who God
promised to send someday in order to save people from sin and all that was
wrong, and afterward to rule the world forever
odds: the probability that sth will happen, expressed as a ratio ("What
odds? 4 to 1?"; i.e., a 25% chance that my horses will beat yours)
patriot: [c] someone who loves his/her country, often in an extraordinary
way (a positive term)
rabbi: a Jewish teacher (and Bible authority); most rabbis are highly
respected in a Jewish community
revenge: a desire to cause injury in return for something done to you
scornful: adjective of scorn; looking down on someone else, to mock or
to slaughter: kill in great numbers
Star of David: two triangles put together to form a star (you can see it on
modern Israel's flag); David was Israel's greatest king
steward: sb who manages and protects something entrusted to him/her, such as
a family's or company's wealth or property
stubborn: unreasonable or difficult to deal with because you won’t change
to tear sb apart: to cause great emotional pain or distress ("It will tear
them apart if they see you.")
traitor/treason: someone who acts in a disloyal way, especially if disloyal
to his government or other leaders (which is called treason)
tribune: an elected and respected Roman official; sometimes Tribunes also
served as leaders in the Roman army
unclean: [formal and religious] morally bad or polluted; physically or
spiritually dirty (An "unclean food" is a food that God has told you not to
eat; e.g. pork for Jews and Muslims, or blood for Christians. An "unclean
person" has a condition—such as sin or leprosy—that God has called
"unholy"; this person must get rid of this condition and then go through
some kind of religious ritual to become "clean" again.)
vain: proud; thinks more of himself than he does for other people
vengeance: punishment inflicted for a wrong
to vow: to promise in a very strong way (often meaning "a solemn promise to
Sentences/dialog from the movie: (see the bottom)
Intermission (mid-movie break):
1. The main character had several names or titles in this film. With your
partner, write down as many as you can remember.
2. What could/should have Judah and Messala done differently to preserve
their friendship? Who do you think is most at fault for destroying their
3. Tell your partner your favorite part of this movie. In general, what
makes movies popular? Together, try to list reasons why this movie has been
called "one of the greatest in history."
4. Look at dialogs 4 & 20. Judah doesn't blame Messala for his change from
"friend" to "evil person." Who or what do you think is responsible
for this change?
5. My description of this film says "only a miracle could save him"—that is,
could save Ben-Hur from bitterness and hatred. Did he get a miracle? If so,
what was it? If not, what miracle do you think he needed?
6. Pick one of these themes and discuss it with your partner: romantic love,
friendship, riches, loyalty, athletic victory, social class, power, revenge,
faith/doubt, sickness/healing. How is this shown in the story?
7. What happens at the end of the film? Describe it to your partner,
including both the physical events and (if you can) what the filmmakers
meant by the symbolism shown after Judah's last words.
For additional information, download a longer study guide from
personal website of Rose Williams, a Latin teacher. Rose draws attention to
many interesting points, including the differences between Romans, Jews and
Arabs, the role of music in the film, and the important symbolism of water
as "the symbol of life." She also provides a lot of discussion/reflection
Here is an introduction to the story and times:
Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his best friend, which makes him lose
his wealth and become separated from his family. When Judah is condemned to
"work to death" as a galley slave aboard a Roman warship, he prays
for revenge. But even more important than "getting revenge" is
Judah's desire to find his imprisoned mother and sister.
The story takes place at the beginning of the first century, mostly in the
country of Judea (now Israel). Rome's armies have expanded the Roman Empire
to dominate the nations around the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.
The film begins with the birth of Jesus (the Christmas story). We see three
men from different parts of the world, who met each other in a desert near
Judea. Each has been drawn by a new star that they believe to proclaim the
birth of a new king in Israel. One of the men is called Balthasar, an
Egyptian from Alexandria; Balthasar's relationship with Judah Ben-Hur is
also central to the story.
The story picks up 21 years after "Christmas" (i.e., in AD 21), when
Valerius Gratus became the fourth Roman governor of Judea. These strict,
often merciless governors were locally unpopular, leading to a long, bitter
quarrel between the Romans and the Jews. (In AD 70, the Romans forced Jewish
people out of their land, and the Jews did not have the right to return and
rule themselves until AD 1948, when the United Nations gave Israel
In the movie, Gratus arrives with a young Roman officer. This officer,
Messala, had been Judah's childhood friend. Messala went to Rome to be
educated, and was now back as a vain, proud, power-hungry "Roman."
The country of Judea is the home of the Jewish (or Hebrew) people, who
believe in "the one true God: Jehovah." Their holy writings predicted that a
"son" (i.e., descendent) of their greatest king, David, would one day save
them from their enemies and establish "the kingdom of God" on earth. Judah
Ben-Hur and many people in his day expected this king (or messiah)
to end Rome's abuse and domination. But the holy writings also indicated
that the promised messiah would be a humble servant who suffered for the
people, in order to free them from their real enemy (not Rome, but sin).
Interwoven in Judah’s story is the story of the peace and love offered by a
Jewish Rabbi (teacher) called Jesus of Nazareth, a "son of David" who
Christians believe to be the promised one. From the opening "Christmas"
scenes to the ending crucifixion, the movie provides glimpses into Jesus'
life and impact.
Sentences/dialog from the movie: (in part from IMDB:
*some of these have been shortened or simplified a little for my students
1. Narrator [starting the film]: In the year of our Lord [i.e., the year
Jesus was born, AD zero], Judea, for nearly a century, had lain under the
mastery of Rome. In the seventh year of the reign of Augustus Caesar, an
imperial decree ordered every Judean each to return to his place of
birth to be counted and taxed. The converging ways of many of them led to
the gates of their capital city, Jerusalem, the troubled heart of their
land. The old city was dominated by the fortress of Antonia, the seat of
Roman power, and by the great golden temple, the outward sign of an inward
and imperishable faith. Even while they obeyed the will of Caesar, the
people clung proudly to their ancient heritage, always remembering the
promise of their prophets that one day there would be born among them a
redeemer to bring them salvation and perfect freedom.
2. Messala [in AD XXVI (AD 26), returning to Jerusalem as a military
leader]: Drusus, as a boy I dreamed of commanding this garrison. And
now the wheel has turned. I am in command.
3.* Messala: If you want to rise, do the difficult. I asked to be sent here.
Sextus: There are strange forces at work here. For instance there's this
M: I know. There was one predicted when I was a boy [growing up here].
S: A king of the Jews, who will lead them into some sort of anti-Roman
M: The emperor is displeased. He wishes Judea made into a more obedient
and disciplined province.
S: How? You can break a man's skull, you can arrest him, you can throw
him into a dungeon. But how do you control what's up here? [taps his head]
How do you fight an idea? Especially a new idea.
Centurion: There's a Jew outside. He wants to see the Tribune
Messala: I assume he has a name.
Centurion: [sneeringly] He says he's a prince - Prince Judah Ben-Hur.
M: THEN TREAT HIM LIKE ONE! Tell him I'll join him. [the centurion
starts to leave] CENTURION! This was his country before it was ours. Don't
Centurion: Yes, Tribune.
Sextus: That was very wise. This Judah Ben-Hur is one of the richest men
M: And the head of one of the greatest families in Judea. We were
friends as boys. We were like brothers. Sextus, you ask how to fight an
idea. Well I'll tell you how... with another idea!
4.* Messala: Who are these criminals who don't agree when you speak against
Judah Ben-Hur: They're not criminals, they're patriots.
M: Patriots? Help me Judah!
J: I would do anything for you, Messala, except betray my own
people. If I cannot persuade them, that does not mean I will help you murder
them. Besides, you must understand this, Messala. I believe in the past of
my people, and in their future.
M: Future? You are a conquered people!
J: You may conquer the land. You may slaughter the people. But that is
not the end. We will rise again.
M: You live on dead dreams. You live on myths of the past. There is only
one reality in the world today. Look to the West, Judah! Don't be a fool,
look to Rome!
J: I would rather be a fool than a traitor or a killer!
M: I am a soldier!
J: Yes! Who kills for Rome, and Rome is evil!
M: I warn you...
J: No! I warn you! Rome is an affront to God. Rome is strangling
my people and my country, 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
M: Either you help me or you oppose me. You have no other choice. You
are for me or against me.
J: If that is the choice, then I am against you.
5. Esther (after Judah grants her freedom—she was daughter of his slave): My
father brought me here when I was little. It was a home where I was always
happy, except once. When you and your friend, the Roman boy Messala, had
been out hunting and they brought you home injured. I prayed to God,
"Don't let this boy die."
Judah: I can hear how you said it. Gently, as you say it now…. If you
were not a bride I should kiss you goodbye.
E: If I were not a bride, there would be no goodbyes to be said.
J [starting to fall in love with her]: Your slave ring. Fair exchange.
Freedom to you, the ring to me.
E: You will wear it? Until you meet the woman you will marry?
J: Yes, until then.
6.* [after Messala condemned Judah to die as a galley slave]
Judah: I didn't try to kill the governor. I'm not a murderer!
Messala: I know you're not.
J: You know? You are evil.
M: No I am not evil. I wanted your help. Now you've given it to me. By
making this example of you, I discourage treason. By condemning
without hesitation an old friend, I shall be feared.
J: May God grant me vengeance. I will pray that you live till I
M: Return? Take him away.
7. [After three years as a galley slave, a new commander (Quintus Arrius)
takes over Judah's ship; he whips Judah for no reason]
Quintus Arrius: 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. Now listen to me, all of you. You are all
condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.
[Then to command the galley's 200 rowers to row faster and faster... ]
Strike oars! Battle speed! Attack speed! Ramming speed!
8.* Quintus Arrius: [startled from sleep] Why are you here?
Judah (#41): I was ordered to report to you during my relief.
Q: Yes, I had forgotten... You could have killed me as I lay there!
You're a condemned man, why didn't you?
J: I'm not ready to die.
Q: What do you think will save you?
J: The God of my fathers.
Q: Your God has forsaken you. He has no more power than the images I
pray to. My gods do not help me, your God will not help you. But I might.
Does that interest you, 41? I own some of the best gladiators and
charioteers in Rome. Would you like to become one of them?
J: I will not be here [as a slave] forever.
Q: Oh? What would you do if you escaped?
J: My mother and sister were condemned with me, though they were
Q: Consider carefully my offer. You will never escape while we are
victorious. If we are not, you will sink, chained to an oar.
J: I cannot believe that God has let me live these three years to die
chained to an oar.
Q: It's a strange, stubborn faith you keep, to believe that
existence has a purpose. A sane man would have lost it long before this.
J: What drove it out of you?
9. [Arrius orders that Judah be left unchained during the battle]
Rower No. 42: Forty-one, why did he do that?
Judah: I don't know. Once before a man helped me. I didn't know why
10. [In battle, Quintus Arrius lost his ship & fell into the sea but Judah
saved him. Later, when they were picked up, they learned that the battle was
a victory--i.e., Rome won.)
Quintus Arrius: In his eagerness to save you, your god has also saved
the Roman fleet.
11. Tiberius Caesar [asking about Ben-Hur while honoring Quintus for the
victory]: This man riding beside you, who is he?
Quintus Arrius: The man who saved me, divine Emperor, to return and
Caesar: Is that all you know about him?
Q: No. He was accused of an attack on the governor of Judea. But he was
Caesar: If not, there is a strange inconsistency in this man, who tries
to kill my governor, yet saves the life of my consul. Come tomorrow, and we
will talk of him.
[By Caesar's decree, Judah became Quintus' slave instead of going back
to the galleys. Quintus trained him to drive a chariot. After some time,
Quintus adopted Judah as his son.]
12. Balthasar: Pardon me--you are a stranger here. Would you be from
Judah: Why do you ask?
B: I thought... you might be the one... the one I have come back from my
country to find. He would be about your age.
B: When I find him, I shall know him. Oh, but forgive me. I am Balthasar
of Alexandria. I am the guest of Sheik Ilderim.
Sheik Ilderim [yelling at a driver for hurting his race horses]: You
think you can treat my horses like animals?
13. Sheik Ilderim (to Judah at dinner): You have no wives? I have six—no,
Balthasar: At home he has more.
Sheik: Believe me, it is a great advantage to have many wives.
Judah: Someday I hope to have one.
Sheik: One wife? One God, that I can understand, but one wife, that is
not civilized. It is not generous!
Sheik: Was the food not to your liking?
J: Oh, indeed!
[Balthasar gestures for Judah to burp in gratitude, and Judah burps,
which pleases the Sheik]
14.* [the Sheik says his horses will race against Messala, and asks Judah to
drive. Judah refuses.]
Sheik Ilderim: But you could be the one to stamp his arrogance
into the sand of that arena. Think of it. To break his pride, to humble this
tribune before the very people he has degraded. Just think, his defeat and
humiliation at the hands of a Jew! Does it not delight your imagination?
Does it not answer your purpose?
Judah: I must deal with Messala in my own way.
Balthasar: And your way is to kill him. I see this terrible thing in
your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur, but no matter what this man has done to you, you
have no right to take his life. He will be punished inevitably.
J: I don't believe in miracles.
B: But all life is a miracle. Why will you not accept God's judgment?
You do not believe in miracles. Yet God once spoke to me out of the
darkness, and a star led me to a village called Bethlehem where I found a
newborn child in a manger. And God lived in this child, who is now a man. He
is near…and all of our lives from now on will carry His mark. [Balthasar
leaves to go to sleep]
Sheik: Balthasar is a good man. But until all men are like him, we must
keep our swords bright!
J: And our intention true! So I must leave you.
Sheik: One last thought. There is no law in the arena. Many are killed.
I hope to see you again.
15.* Judah: Where's your father [i.e., my steward]?
Esther: The day they took you away they imprisoned him. They tortured
him. The Romans took everything. After they let him go, we have been living
here, in hiding. [she runs to her father] Father, something wonderful has
happened. Judah is alive. He is here.
Simonides: Judah Ben-Hur.
Judah: My dear old friend.
S: Praise God for His mercy. [they embrace]
J: Where are my mother and sister?
S: Since that terrible day there has been no word of them.
J: You should have been less loyal.
S: Do not pity me, Master Judah. In fact, I'm twice the man I was. There
is Malluch. We met in the dungeons of the citadel. We were released
on the same day—Malluch without a tongue and I without life in my legs.
Together we make a considerable man. [he looks at his daughter] She always
said you would return. She never game up hope. Judah, much of your fortune
is safe [hidden]. It is there still to put power into our hands and buy
death for the Romans.
J: That is not why I came back.
S: Your mother and sister are dead. Four years. No one could live so
long in the dungeons.
J: Who lives more than one year in the galleys?
S: Yes, it is true. Judah Ben-Hur! You've come back to us like a
returning faith! Oh Judah, I should like to laugh again. Let us laugh!
J: We will laugh.
S: There will be joy again in this house! We will celebrate among the
16.* Judah: Messala will know where they are.
Esther: What if he says they're dead...
J: Then Messala will wish they were living.
E: I've seen too much of what hate can do. My father is burned up with
it. But I've heard of a young rabbi who says that forgiveness is
greater, and love more powerful, than hatred. I believe it. Judah, stay
alive. Keep away from Messala.
J: Only if I give up thinking and feeling.
E: This time you won't be sent to the galleys. You will die.
17. Messala: By what magic do you bear the name of a Consul of Rome?
Judah: You were the magician, Messala. You condemned me to the galleys.
When my ship was sunk I saved the consul's life. You know his seal? [Judah
stamps a tablet] Now I have come back as I swore I would.
M: Your gift [of a knife] is exquisitely appropriate, young Arrius. Do
you suggest I use it on myself?
J: What has become of my mother and my sister?
M: It is not my duty to keep track of prisoners.
J: Find them Messala. Restore them to me and I'll forget what I vowed
with every stroke of that oar you chained me to.
18. 1st Jailer [looking in records]: Miriam, wife. Tirzah, daughter.
Drusus: Yes, they are the ones. Are they alive?
1st Jailer: East section, lower level. The jailer in that level will
know. [they go down into the prison]
Drusus: How long since you've seen them?
2nd Jailer: Never. And I've been here three years. But they're alive all
right. The food disappears. [he forces the old door open, then reacts with
19. Balthasar: Judah! He is here. I have found him. The child has become a
man. And the man, I know it now, is the Son of God. The promise is true.
Judah: Happy Balthasar. Life has answered you.
B: Life has been answered. God has answered it. [Judah drinks some
water] Come with me.
J: When the Romans were marching me to the galleys, thirst had nearly
killed me. A man gave me water to drink, and I went on living. I should have
done better if I'd poured it into the sand!
J: I'm thirsty still.
20. [Governor Pilate tells Judah that Quintus Arius has done what was needed
to allow Judah to become a Roman citizen--which was a very valuable thing at
that time--but Judah is filled with hate because of the injustice his family
Judah: By Rome's will my mother and sister are lepers, outcasts without
Pontius Pilate: I have heard this. There was great blame there, very
deeply regretted. Messala is dead. What he did has had its way with him.
J: The deed is not Messala's. I knew him well, before the cruelty of
Rome spread in his blood. Rome destroyed Messala as surely as Rome has
destroyed my family.
P: Where there is greatness, great government or power, even great
feeling or compassion, error also is great. We progress and mature by
fault…. Perfect freedom has no existence. A grown man knows the world he
lives in. For the moment, that world is Rome.
21. Esther: Oh Judah, rest. Sleep. For a few hours of the night, let your
mind be at peace.
Judah [bitterly]: Peace? Love and peace. Do you think I don't long for
them as much as you do? Where do you see them?
E: If you had heard this man from Nazareth...
J: Balthasar's "word."
E: He is more than Balthasar's word. His voice traveled with such a
still purpose. It was more than a voice. A man more than a man. He said,
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the
peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."
J: Children of God? In that dead valley where we left [my mother and
sister]? I tell you every man in Judea is unclean, and will stay
unclean, until we've scoured off our bodies the crust and filth of being at
the mercy of tyranny. No other life is possible except to wash this land
E: In blood?
J: Yes, in blood!
E: I know there is a law in life, that blood begets more blood as
dog begets dog. Death generates death, as the vulture breeds the vulture.
But the voice I heard today on the hill said, "Love your enemy. Do good to
those who despitefully use you."
J: So all who are born in this land hereafter can suffer as we have
E: As you make us do now…. Are we to bear nothing together? Even love?
J: I can hardly draw breath without feeling you in my heart. Yet I know
that everything I do from this moment will be as great a pain to you as you
have ever suffered. It is better not to love me! [the subtitles say:
"…from this moment bears greater pain than you have ever suffered…" but I
think the above is more accurate]
E: It was Judah Ben-Hur I loved. What has become of him? You seem to be
now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil! Hatred is
turning you to stone. It's as though you had become Messala! [Judah looks at
her, shocked] I've lost you, Judah.
22.* Esther: Tirzah is dying. Judah, if your mother and sister would see
Jesus of Nazareth they will know that life is everlasting, and death is
nothing to fear if you have faith. I will take them to him.
Judah: Mother, where is Tirzah?
Miriam: No. You must not go to her, dear son. [Judah goes and picks
Tirzah up, in spite of the risk of becoming a leper himself] Esther, I'm
Esther: No cause. The world is more than we know.
23. [They enter the city to find it deserted except for a blind beggar]
Judah [to Blind Man]: Why are the streets deserted?
Blind Man: They have gone to the trial. Alms for the blind?
J: Trial? Whose trial?
Blind Man: The young rabbi from Nazareth. They are wanting his death.
Esther: It cannot be true!
J: What has he done?
Blind Man: Nothing I know of. For the blind? For the blind? Help for the
[Judah had dropped a coin in his cup, but when others shout "lepers!"
the blind man gets rid of the coin]
24. Judah: I know this man…. He gave me water, and a heart to live. What has
he done to merit this?
Balthasar: He has taken the world of our sins onto himself. To this end
he said he was born, in that stable, where I first saw him. For this cause,
he came into the world.
Judah: For this death?
Balthasar: This beginning…. [soldiers crucify Jesus] I have lived too
25. Judah: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, "Father, forgive
them for they know not what they do."
Esther: Even then.
Judah: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.
[choir sings "Alleluia"--Praise the Lord in the Jewish language--as the film