Based on Lew Wallace’s novel and directed by William Wyler, a wealthy Jew in Jerusalem falls out with his Roman friend, suffers injustice, survives slavery, becomes a successful charioteer, and seeks revenge while he and his family are helped by Jesus.
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, the people of Judea are ordered to report to their town to be enrolled. Roman soldiers at a table take information from a line of Jews, and Joseph says he is from Bethlehem.
At night three magi from the east look at the stars as they approach Bethlehem. In a manger a child has been born, and the three magi bring their gifts and bow. Joseph sits by Mary who holds the baby.
In the year 26 CE Roman soldiers are marching through the village of Nazareth led by Messala (Stephen Boyd). The carpenter Joseph does not watch the Romans, and his friend asks where his son is. Joseph says his walking in the hills is part of his working for his father.
Messala and his legion arrive in Jerusalem, and Drusus (Terence Longdon) turns over the command of the garrison to him. Messala tells Sextus (André Morell) that he grew up in Jerusalem. Sextus says the Jews have changed and do not pay their taxes. Messala says to punish them and find the leaders. Sextus says they are expecting a messiah to lead them, and a wild man in the desert named John baptizes people with water. Sextus says he teaches that God is near and in every man. Messala says only the Emperor is divine and that he is displeased. Messala intends to make change. A soldier tells Messala that Prince Judah Ben-Hur has come to see him. Sextus knows that Judah is the richest man in Judea, and Messala says they were childhood friends.
In a long room with spears Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) finds Messala, and they are glad to see each other again. Messala asks Judah about his family and wants to see them. He tosses a spear to Judah, and they compete to see who can throw most accurately. They both throw very well. Judah says that Messala saved his life. Messala asks Judah for help in governing there, and Judah asks him to withdraw his legions. Messala explains that the Emperor is fond of Judea. Judah says that Judeans do not like the Emperor. Messala shows him his austere quarters and says he is to be second in command to the new governor who is bringing two more legions. Messala says the impending rebellion will be crushed, and he asks Judah not to join the rabble. Judah objects to that view. Messala says Rome is civilizing the world with law and literature. He asks Judah to lead the Jews and not resist Rome, or his people may become extinct. Judah says he is against violence, and Messala assumes they are agreed. Judah invites him to his home, and Messala pours wine. They drink to believing in each other.
The next day Judah, his mother Miriam (Martha Scott), and his sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) are showing Messala around their estate. Messala asks Miriam if they were rascals, and she says they were good boys. He notices that Tirzah has grown up, and he gives her a Libyan brooch. Messala says they destroyed the town. Judah gives him a white horse he has raced. Messala says it will be like old times. Judah says he spoke against violence to others, and most agree. Messala asks who does not agree, but Judah declines to be an informer and calls them patriots, not criminals. Messala tries to explain that the Emperor is watching them. He can rise and will take Judah with him. Judah says Messala is talking about the Emperor as a god, and Messala agrees. Judah refuses to betray his own people. He will not help Messala murder his people. Judah believes in his people, their past and their future. Messala asks him to look to Rome now. Judah angrily says Rome is evil, and they warn each other. Messala says he is either for him or against him, and Judah says he must choose to be against him. Messala turns and leaves.
Tirzah asks Judah where Messala is, and Judah says he had to leave. Miriam leads them to dinner, and Judah says the blessing. Judah tells Tirzah they will never see him again because he wanted to use him to betray their people.
Judah greets Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and welcomes him home. Simonides gives him good news on their business and trade. Judah says Simonides is his friend, not his slave and gives permission for his daughter to marry. Esther (Haya Harareet) comes down the stairs and stands before Judah, who questions her. Her father has arranged for her to marry a merchant in Antioch named David. Judah says her freedom will be his wedding gift. He asks her if she loves him, and she says she will learn to love him. He looks at her intently and gives his permission for her marriage.
That evening Judah talks with Esther, who is saying goodbye to that house. She was happy there except when Judah with Messala was brought home injured. She prayed for him. She did not feel a slave and does not feel free now. Judah says that Solomon could choose a slave and take her to him. Judah would like to kiss her goodbye, but she is a bride. He takes the slave ring off her hand and puts it on his little finger. She asks if he will wear it until he meets the woman he will marry. He agrees and kisses her.
In a fortress Roman soldiers welcome the arrival of the new governor. Messala speaks to Gratus and says Jerusalem’s welcome will not be warm, but he pledges it will be quiet. On horseback they lead the new legions marching through the streets. Judah and Tirzah watch from their roof and see Messala pass by below. Tarsal causes a loose tile to move. She sees the new governor and causes several tiles to slide off the roof. They fall on the governor who falls from his horse, is picked up, and taken away. The soldiers pound on the door of the house.
Judah and Tirzah come downstairs and tell Miriam what happened. Judah orders the gate opened, and soldiers rush in and arrest them. Judah says it was an accident and explains. The officers order them all taken. Messala appears, and Judah tells him what happened. Messala says nothing, and Judah asks him to let the others go. The family is taken away, but Messala orders the soldiers to let the servants go. He goes up on the roof and discovers that a loose tile can easily fall off.
Judah is in a cell, and soldiers tell him he is going to Tyrus. Judah says he had no trial and asks about his family. He tries to fight and is chained and dragged away. He escapes, hides, and removes a stick that he uses to fight another soldier. He takes a spear and enters a room and threatens Messala, ordering him to send out the others. He asks where his mother and sister are. Messala says they are there and will not die because the governor is recovering; they will be sentenced. Judah asks how he can do this to them. Messala knows that Judah is not a murderer, but by punishing an old friend he shows others he discourages treason and will be feared. Judah begs him, and Messala says he begged for his help. He warns Judah that if he kills him, his mother and sister will be executed that day. Judah throws the spear against the wall and is recaptured. He swears vengeance and says he will return. Messala doubts he will return, and Judah is taken away.
Esther and Simonides are allowed to see the tribune Messala. Simonides says he is steward for the house of Hur and that the charge is groundless. Messala says they have been sentenced. He orders Drusus to keep Simonides there for questioning.
Roman soldiers on horses lead a group of chained prisoners through the desert. One prisoner collapses and is left to die. They walk through the hills of Nazareth by the carpenter shop and stop for water. The soldiers keep the prisoners away while they water the horses first. An old woman gives water to some prisoners, but a soldier keeps water from Judah who falls on the ground and prays to God for help. The young carpenter brings water and puts it on the face of Judah and helps him drink. Judah looks up at him. The soldier commands the carpenter, but after looking at the young man with long hair he orders them all on their feet. Judah is refreshed and looks at the young man as he walks off with the others.
Roman warships are at sea, and nearly naked galley slaves work the oars. The new commander Quintus Arrias (Jack Hawkins) comes aboard and learns there are 200 rowers. He goes into the galley and uses a whip to point out an ill man who must be replaced. He notices a man has been whipped and learns he was insubordinate. He says that will stop. He asks Judah who is called “41” what service he has seen. Judah says he has served more than three years. Arrias whips him, and Judah controls his anger. Arrias says hate will keep him alive and give him strength. Arrias says they are condemned and are kept alive to serve the ship. He urges them to row well and live. He orders them to strike oars, and they begin to row. He goes on deck and tells them the Emperor ordered them to destroy the Macedonian navy. Arrias returns to the galley and sits down. He orders battle speed, and they row faster. He orders attack speed, and they speed up more. The next increase is for ramming speed, and he observes them. Men begin to collapse. Arrias orders rest, and they stop.
At night Arrias is sleeping, and Judah comes in to his room. Suddenly he wakes up and asks why he is there. Judah says he was ordered to come there during his relief. Arrias asks why he did not kill him. Judah says he is not ready to die. Arrias asks who will save him, and Judah says the God of his fathers. Arrias says he has forsaken him. Arrias says his gods do not help him either, but he might help him. He owns the best gladiators and asks if he would like to be one of them. Judas says he will not be there forever. He says his mother and sister are innocent and implies that he is too. Arrias says he will never escape when they are victorious. If they lose, he will die chained in the boat. Arrias sends 41 back to his oar. A soldier tells Arrias they have sighted the enemy, and he orders them to prepare for battle.
On deck the soldiers prepare catapults, and Arrias puts on his armor. In the galley the guards chain the rowers, but Arrias orders a guard to unlock 41. Judah wonders why he is being helped. They are ordered to row. Arrias orders the first catapult to fire at the enemy ships. The battle has begun, and two warships collide. Another warship rams an enemy ship. Some ships are on fire. Arrias orders ramming speed. The slave next to Judah sees they are going to be rammed. The warship crashes into them, causing water to flood in. Judah kills a guard and unchains other men. On deck the soldiers are fighting hand-to-hand. Judah opens a door that frees imprisoned slaves. Arrias is fighting with a sword and shield. Water fills the galley, and the ship is on fire. An enemy with a sword pushes Arrias off the boat. Judah jumps in after him and saves him from drowning by taking him to a detached portion of a ship that functions as a raft. Arrias tries to stab himself, but Judah takes the knife away from him. He grabs Arrias to keep him from jumping in the sea. Arrias bites his arm, and Judah knocks him out with a chain.
Later Arrias and Judah have been sleeping. When Arrias wakes up, Judah does too because he has Arrias held by a chain. Arrias asks why he saved him, and Judah asks him why he had him unchained. Arrias asks his name and to let him die. Judah says he keeps him alive to serve the ship. They see a ship, and Judah says it is a Roman sail. He lets go of the chain and waves to the ship. They climb on to the ship, and Arrias is welcomed and told they won the battle. Arrias tells Judah that his God saved the Roman fleet as well as him. He gives Judah water to drink before drinking himself. The soldiers hail Arrias, and Judah looks at the slaves in the galley.
In Rome thousands of people watch the Roman army march in triumph. Arrias drives a chariot accompanied by Judah. Arrias walks alone up the steps and salutes the seated Emperor Tiberius Caesar (George Relph). The Emperor stands and walks with Arrias to address the people. He gives Arrias a baton of victory, and the people cheer. The Emperor asks him about the man riding beside him. Arrias says he was accused in Judea but is innocent. The Emperor invites Arrias to come to him tomorrow. Arrias returns to the chariot.
In the palace Tiberius tells Arrias that the man attacked their governor, but he gives Judah to Arrias as his slave.
Africans dance at a feast, and Judah attends with a Roman beauty. Arrias has the musicians stop and tells how Judah has driven his horses to victory five times. He says Judah has replaced his dead son and has been adopted as his legal son and heir. Arrias gives him a ring, and they applaud. Judah says he has a strange destiny in this new home, and it may take him away. He will wear the ring with gratitude, affection, and honor. Arrias presents Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) to Judah. Pilate says he is to be governor of Judea. Arrias realizes that Judah is leaving and will not stop him. He asks Judah to wait because Pilate is to be governor. Judah does not want to return too late. Arrias asks if he will ever return to Rome, and Judah says he will remember him.
Dressed as a Judean, Judah takes a ship and a camel. At an oasis he drinks water and rests. Balthasar (Finlay Currie) looks at him and asks if he is from Nazareth. Judah asks why he wants to know. Balthasar hoped he is the one he is looking for. He is the guest of Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffith) who shouts at the men training his horses. Judah says the white horses are beautiful. Judah says they will not hold the turn, and the horses run off the course. Ilderim takes over the chariot, and Balthasar says Judah predicted what would happen. Judah says the horses are not a team, and he advises how to deploy the horses. Judah says he has driven in the great circus. Ilderim asks him to train his horses and invites him to dinner.
In his luxurious tent Judah dines with Ilderim, and they discuss the horses. Ilderim urges him to come back with his wives, but Judah says he has none. Ilderim burps and asks Judah if he liked the food. Judah manages to burp too. Ilderim asks Judah to stay and watch him say goodnight to his beauties. Ilderim calls forth the four horses and talks to them. Judah says he never saw finer horses, and they take to him. Ilderim says they will race in Jerusalem against the team of Messala. Judah says he knows him, and neither likes him. Ilderim asks Judah to drive his horses and defeat Messala. Judah says he must deal with Messala in his own way, but Balthasar advises him not to kill Messala. He asks him to accept God’s judgment, and he believes in miracles. He found a child in a Bethlehem manger and says he is near. Balthasar says there are many paths to God, and he hopes that Judah’s path will not be difficult. Ilderim tells Judah there is no law in the arena, and many are killed there.
Judah returns to his home in Jerusalem at night and finds it appears abandoned with leaves in the courtyard. He rings the bells and enters through the gate. Esther comes down the stairs, and he speaks to her. She is surprised he is alive and drops what she was carrying. He embraces her and asks where her father is. She says he was imprisoned and tortured and then released. They have been hiding there because the Romans took all their property. He asks where his mother and sister are. They hear a voice, and Esther goes to tell Simonides in a room that Judah has come home. Judah comes in, and they embrace and thank God together. Judah asks where they are. Simonides says there has been no word since that terrible day. Simonides introduces him to Malluch, who had his tongue cut out but carries lame Simonides. The old man tells him that he has managed to save most of Judah’s fortune. Simonides asks who can live more than four years in the dungeons. They agree to celebrate, and Simonides weeps. Judah carries him.
Judah and Esther remember talking there before. She says she is not a bride, and he kisses her. He asks why she never married, and she says her father needed her. She looks for the ring she gave him, and he says it is still on his finger. They hug. Judah says Messala will know where they are. If they are not alive, he will go after Messala. She asks him to stay alive and forget Messala. She warns him he would be destroyed. He holds her close.
Messala practices using his whip, and a servant brings him a gift from the son of Arrias. He opens a box and finds a valuable knife. Judah comes in dressed as a Roman and tells Messala he is wrong that he has not met the son. Judah says he saved the consul’s life, and he shows him his seal. Judah says he swore he would come back. He asks what happened to his mother and sister. Messala says he does not know and cannot find out without the approval of Gratus. Judah demands that he get it, and he will return tomorrow. Judah leaves, and Messala orders Sextus to find out what happened to them.
A guard tells Sextus where Miriam and Tirzah can be found in the dungeons. They go down stairs with a torch and enter a dark cell. The guard has been there three years and has never seen them, but he says the food disappears. The door is opened, and the guard goes in and says they are lepers. Sextus looks in and steps back and has the door closed. The guard says they can be released at once, and the cell will be burned out.
At night Miriam and Tarsal return home and hide as Esther comes out. She asks if anyone is there and sees something. Miriam tells her not to come closer and says who she is. She tells Esther to stand back because they are lepers. All but their faces and fingers are covered with old clothes. Esther tells them that Judah is alive and searching for them. Miriam says he should not be told. She says they are going to the valley of lepers and will not return. She begs Esther not to tell him. They see Judah go into the house and ask if he has changed. Esther says he has not changed. They love him, and Miriam tells Esther to promise she will not tell him about them so that he can remember them as they were. Esther promises. Miriam and Tirzah leave, and Esther cries.
Esther joins Judah and Simonides and tells them that Messala cannot free his mother and sister. Esther says she saw them dead. Judah demands to know when. She says in prison when she was waiting for news of her father. She says his search is over now and tells him to forget Messala and go back to Rome. Judah leaves the room and cries.
Messala is being massaged when Sheik Ilderim comes in and says he is a gambling man. He is racing his whites against the tribune’s blacks and wants to bet a chest of gold and silver. The Romans ask what odds. Ilderim sits down and asks for odds since the tribune has won four times in four years. They offer 2-1 and 3-1, and Ilderim laughs. They ask who is his driver, and he says it is Judah Ben-Hur. Ilderim asks Messala for 4-1 odds, and they agree. The Romans laugh at the Jews and Arabs. Ilderim will venture one thousand talents, and Messala is surprised but accepts and walks off.
Judah is driving the white horses in the country and orders the trainer to feed them. At night in a tent he speaks to the horses. Ilderim comes in and talks to Judah about the contest. Judah is eager to race against Messala.
People are preparing for the chariot races. Judah wears leather and a blue cape. He prays and asks for forgiveness for seeking vengeance. Ilderim gives him a star of David to wear on his chest. The trumpets sound, and they go to the horses. Judah puts on his leather helmet and drives his white team.
The chariots take their positions, and Messala drives the black team that arrives last. Messala wears black and a golden helmet. Ilderim shows Judah that Messala’s chariot has metal saws sticking out from the spokes of the wheel. He advises Judah to stay away from that chariot. Messala prays to Jupiter for victory.
The nine chariots move forward into the arena, and people cheer as they slowly proceed around the wide track. Pontius Pilate in purple enters the arena. The chariots stop in front of him, and the drivers’ capes are removed. Some of the horses are restless, and men try to calm them. Pilate stands and speaks to the citizens. He announces that they are from Alexandria, Messina, Carthage, Cypress, Rome, Corinth, Athens, Phrygia, and Judea. They hail Caesar, and he holds out a white cloth. He drops the cloth, and the race begins.
Messala uses his whip on his horses. Around a turn a chariot overturns. Messala causes another chariot to avoid his metal weapons. Messala is leading but is being passed. Messala moves his chariot so that the saws destroy the wheel of the other chariot. The driver is carried from the track. Messala is whipping his horses, but Judah catches up with him. Messala whips Judah who moves away and causes another chariot to hit the outer wall. Three laps have been completed. Judah is running last and shouts at his horses. He passes other chariots and catches up to Messala again. Messala destroys another chariot with the saws. Judah has gained the inside, and on the turn Messala pushes him into the wall. Judah has to ride over a chariot and regains his position on the chariot. Messala comes into contact with Judah’s wheel for a moment. The saw destroys part of Judah’s chariot. They have completed seven of nine laps. Judah is bleeding, and Messala whips him until Judah grabs the whip and pulls it out of Messala’s hand. As Messala’s chariot detaches from Judah’s, the wheel is broken, destroying his chariot. Messala hangs on and is dragged on the ground until he lets go. Judah wins the race and sees Messala being put on a stretcher. Judah drives his team in front of Pilate and hugs his horses. Judah goes up the stairs and stands in front of Pilate who congratulates his victory and says he is a god for the time being, crowning him with laurel. People cheer. Pilate says he will send for him and has a message from Rome.
A physician tells bloody Messala that they cannot wait. Messala says he will come and that he sent for him. He will not receive him with half a body. His arms are tied, and he struggles. Judah appears in the doorway and comes in. Messala says his triumph is complete because his enemy is destroyed. Judah sees no enemy. Messala says he can still be hated. He tells Judah that his mother and sister are not dead. Judah asks where they are, and Messala tells him to look for them in the valley of the lepers if he can recognize them. Judah cries, and Messala grabs his armor, saying, “It goes on. The race is not over.” Messala breathes out and dies. Judah removes Messala’s clutching hand from his armor and goes out to the empty arena.
Judah goes to a platform where men are loading food and asks if he can go there. They warn him to stay away. Judah walks around and finds a path down to the caves. He says he is searching for a mother and daughter from the family of Hur. A leper says they have no names there. Judah sees Esther and Malluch coming down with food. He asks her if it is for them. He grabs Esther angrily, and she explains what she promised. He approaches a cave and sees them coming out. He hides behind a boulder. Esther places the food near them and steps back. The two women approach the food. Miriam asks if Judah is well, and Esther says he is. They pick up the baskets and carry the food into the cave. Esther tells Judah that they have gone, and he can go back. He asks what he can go back to. She says they want him to remember them as they were. She advises him to forget what is there. He wants to see them; but Malluch stops him, and Esther says it would tear them apart to see him.
Judah, Esther, and Malluch walk by a stream and join a crowd gathering on a mountain. Balthasar sees Judah and tells him he is there; the child became a man and is the son of God. Judah says life has answered Balthasar. Judah drinks from the stream, and Balthasar asks him to come with him. Judah tells of a man who gave him water to keep him alive. He wishes he had died. Judah says he has business with Rome. Balthasar says he insists on death and says goodbye. From a distance Judah sees a man speaking to the crowd, but Judah walks away.
Judah calls on Pilate in his palace. Pilate gives him a message from his father. He has been made a citizen of Rome. Judah says his mother and sister are lepers and outcasts without hope. His flesh carries Rome’s mark. He says Rome destroyed Messala and his family. Pilate says greatness can also make errors. He says there is no perfect freedom, and now the world is Rome. Judah states his name. Pilate says he spoke in friendship, but on his throne he is the voice of Caesar. He warns Judah to avoid this tragedy here. Judah gives Pilate the ring Arrias gave him and asks him to return it to him. Pilate says he cannot protect him if he stays there. Pilate orders him to leave Judea, and Judah goes out.
Judah goes home, and Esther embraces him. He says her father is waiting for him and asks where he is. She asks what he intends to do. She advises him to rest and sleep to find peace. He longs for peace but does not see it. She says the man from Nazareth is more than a man and taught that the merciful and peacemakers are blessed. He says Judeans are unclean because of tyranny. She asks if he will wash it in blood. She says death causes more death. The voice she heard says to love your enemies. She asks what they can bear together. He kisses her and pushes her hands against the wall. He says it is better not to love him. She says he has become what he is trying to destroy; he has become like Messala. She walks away.
Esther is waiting outside the leper cave and sees Miriam coming out. Judah is watching from a distance. Esther asks where Tirzah is and what happened. Esther comes close to Miriam and says she heard words from God. She says this man is going to Jerusalem. Miriam says that Tirzah is dying. She asks her to leave the food and go. Judah comes near, and Miriam sees him. She is upset and tells him to come no nearer. She walks away, and he asks to see Tirzah. Esther says Tirzah is dying. Miriam is crying. Esther says if they can see Jesus, they will know that life is everlasting. Esther touches Miriam who tells her to go away. Judah approaches and asks to see Tirzah. He touches Miriam’s clothes and looks around in the cave. Esther has her arm around Miriam and leads her out. Miriam says she is afraid but goes with her. Judah looks at the lepers until he finds Tirzah. She tries to avoid him, and he takes her in his arms and hugs her. He carries her out of the cave.
Judah is carrying Tirzah in Jerusalem as Esther helps Miriam. A blind beggar says everyone has gone to the trial of Jesus. People call them lepers and throw stones at them.
Pilate is washing his hands while Jesus waits, and many people watch. Roman soldiers keep the people at a distance. The four enter the courtyard as Jesus is carrying a cross beam on his back. People are waiting in the streets, but they run from the lepers. The four see Jesus as he passes by them in the narrow street. Judah recognizes him. Jesus collapses and gets ups with the beam. He struggles up steps. Judah asks Esther to watch over them, and he follows behind the soldiers. Miriam tells Tirzah they must go back. Esther says she hoped but brought them to this. Miriam says she has not failed, and the three leave.
On a street Jesus falls down, and a soldier has another man carry the cross. Judah gets water and takes it to Jesus. A soldier kicks the cup out of his hands, and Jesus walks on.
A soldier nails his feet to the cross, and they hoist it upright with ropes. People have gathered to watch. Three men are being crucified. Judah asks Balthasar if that is where his search has brought him. Judah says he gave him water and asks what he has done to merit this. Balthasar says he has taken on their sins. Judah asks if it is for this death, and Balthasar calls it a beginning. Balthasar says he has lived too long.
Thunder is heard, and the three women stop to rest. Miriam says he was carrying the pain of the world. She says she is no longer afraid. They take shelter from the storm in a cave. Esther says it is a strange darkness during the day. They hear the wind and thunder and rain. Tirzah and Miriam are in pain. Esther notices that Miriam’s hand has been cleansed. Miriam and Tirzah look at each other’s faces and hands, realizing they have been cured. They embrace each other and walk out into the rain. Below the cross blood has flowed. The rain washes the ground.
Judah finds his courtyard flooded. Esther sees him, and he puts his head on her stomach. He says he heard him say to forgive them because they do not know what they do. He felt his voice take the sword out of his hand. He sees Miriam and Tirzah and walks up the stairs to touch their faces and embrace them as he cries. Esther joins them by hugging Judah.
The three crosses remain on the hill.
This epic drama depicts the conflict between Jews in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus through the lives of a wealthy Jew and a Roman tribune. The Jew’s desire for vengeance against Roman cruelty is eventually transcended by the forgiveness taught by a young Jew who inspired many people with his spiritual ideas and exemplary life.