Based on Lew Wallace's novel, a wealthy Jew is enslaved by the Romans but saves the life of a general, becomes a celebrated charioteer, and hopes to help Israel's new king.
Joseph and Mary pass through busy Jerusalem and go to Bethlehem. Three shepherds and three wise men see a star and visit Mary's baby in the cave of David.
Many years later the Romans are still oppressing the Jews. The Princess of Hur (Claire McDowell) sends Simonides (Nigel De Brulier) with her fortune to Antioch. His daughter Esther (Mary McAvoy) visits Jerusalem, and Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) retrieves a pigeon for her. The officer Messala (Francis X. Bushman) goes with Judah to his home. Messala says that Jews must submit to Roman masters, and Judah says his friend has changed. As the Roman soldiers parade, Judah lets a tile fall on the governor. Messala has Judah and his family arrested.
Enslaved Judah is whipped as he walks. At Nazareth soldiers do not give him water, but a carpenter does. Simonides is tortured. Judah rows with galley slaves. Commander Quintus Arrius (Frank Currier) asks Judah why he wants to live, and Judah says he seeks revenge. Before a sea battle, Judah is not shackled. The ship is rammed and boarded by pirates. Judah fights to protect Arrius and saves his life on a raft. When Arrius learns of the Roman victory, he adopts Judah as his son.
Judah becomes a celebrated athlete in Rome, but he goes to Antioch to find Simonides. The Princess of Hur and her daughter Tirzah (Kathleen Key) are in a Jerusalem dungeon. Sheik Ilderim (Mitchell Lewis) is racing his Arabian horses at Antioch. Judah sees Esther again and tells Simonides that he is Judah Ben-Hur. Simonides says the house of Hur is dead. Sheik Ilderim asks Judah to drive his horses against Messala. Simonides admits to Esther that he is a slave and she may be too.
Messala loves the Egyptian Iras (Carmel Myers), and she dines with Sheik Ilderim and Judah. She asks why he races as the unknown Jew. Judah kisses her. Simonides and Esther recognize Judah Ben-Hur and tell him he is rich. Iras tells Messala that Judah is the driver. Judah bets Messala 50,000 gold coins. Thousands attend the race. Messala and a Greek are leading, but Messala drives him into a wall. Judah is gaining. Messala whips Judah, who eventually grabs the whip. Their wheels collide, and Messala crashes. Judah wins.
Balthasar tells Simonides that the Messiah has come. Judah hears and says he will help make him king. Esther tells Judah that she will wait for him. Men are stopped from stoning a woman. Judah organizes an army. Pontius Pilate releases prisoners with unrecorded crimes. The Princess of Hur and Tirzah are freed but are lepers. Judah returns to Jerusalem and sleeps by the gate. The Princess and Tirzah see him. Esther finds them and learns that the new king can heal people. Esther goes to the valley of lepers and takes the two to be saved by the one who is condemned and carries a cross. Judah says two legions are coming, but a voice tells him not to fight. Esther brings the two lepers, and they are cleansed. Judah sees his mother and sister. At the crucifixion soldiers gamble for the clothes. Two legions advance and are told their king is dead and to love enemies and pray. Judah says he will live forever in people's hearts.
This epic drama portrays the Roman oppression of Judea
during the time when a great spiritual teacher declined an earthly
kingdom to spread the teachings of love. The scenes in color offer
the promise of a brighter future.