Ben-Hur: playing to the galley

The chariot race remains one of the most stunning action sequences ever shot, but William Wyler's epic of first-century Judaea puts spectacle before specifics

Director: William Wyler

Entertainment grade: B–

History grade: C

During the first century Ad, the Roman empire took control of the Mediterranean. The eastern province of Judaea was ruled by prefects Valerius Gratus from 15-26Ad and Pontius Pilate from 26-36Ad.


Lew Wallace, previously a general in the American civil war, wrote his epic Ben-Hur in 1880, when he was governor of New Mexico territory. To the modern reader its appeal may be difficult to unlock, but Wallace's pious, turgid and contrived novel was a massive 19th-century bestseller. Despite the subtitle, A Tale of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth is an incidental character. The film's director, William Wyler, avoids showing his face. "The Christian world would not tolerate a novel with Jesus Christ its hero,
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