May 20, 2013

Ben Hur: A Gay Tale of Christ

Ben Hur (1959), based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ, by Lew Wallace, was one of those big-budget epics with "a cast of thousands" that studios in the 1950s hoped would draw people away from television.  And it worked: 11 Academy Awards, second-highest grossing movie of all time to date (after Gone with the Wind), re-released in 1969, broadcast on tv in 1971.  With a palpable gay subtext.

Gore Vidal, the gay author who wrote the screenplay, apparently included a gay text: around the time of Christ, the Roman Messala (Stephen Boyd) is made tribune of the province of Judea, and looks up his boyhood lover, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston, previously seen in Peer Gynt).  But Ben-Hur refuses to rekindle the romance, and the enraged Messala tries to destroy him.

The gay text was removed -- you can't have lovers on screen in 1959 -- but the subtext was strong enough, with Messala and Ben-Hur gazing into each other's eyes and linking arms to drink out of each other's cups.  The only problem is, there's no real explanation left for why Messala suddenly turns evil: when a stone from Ben-Hur's roof accidentally falls and injures the Governor of Judea, he seizes on the incident to sell his former "friend" and his mother and sister into slavery.

After three years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur makes a new "friend," Roman Consul Arius (Jack Hawkins), who brings him back to Rome, trains him as a charioteer, and adopts him.

But Ben-Hur wants revenge, and he wants to find his mother and sister.  So after a few years of domestic bliss with his older boyfriend,  he heads back to Judea and challenges Messala to a chariot race.  Messala dies, Ben-Hur is reconciled with his mother and sister.

Ben-Hur gets a girl along the way, but no fade-out kiss.  The final scene shows Ben-Hur and his family witnessing the Crucifixion, where they learn to forgive the Romans.

"Admitted heterosexual" Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) was no gay ally: "I find my blood pressure rising when [President Bill] Clinton's cultural shock troops participate in homosexual-rights fund-raisers..and claim it's time to place homosexual men in tents with Boy Scouts."

But Stephen Boyd (Messala) was gay. Here he buddy-bonds with David Wayne in another gay-subtext movie, The Big Gamble (1961).

See also: Ramon Novarro, who starred in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur.


  1. I hope my local movie palace (San Francisco's Castro Theatre) opens up soon and has this on one day. I only know of Ben Hur from SCTV.

  2. Heston has more chemistry with Boy than with the woman playing his girlfriend.

  3. Years ago saw a short interview with someone who was part of making "Ben Hur". I forget who was speaking but I think it was Stephen Boyd. Charlton Heston's wooden delivery led to the director to privately direct Boyd to act as if he was in love with Heston's character. This ended up adding real emotional intensity to their shared scenes. I remember feeling a little uncomfortable yet drawn to this part of the movie when I saw "Ben Hur" as a clueless 'tween. The direction seems wonderfully obvious when watching these scenes now. Apparently (and unsurprisingly) Heston remained clueless...


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