I have always believed that Stephen Boyd’s death scene in Ben Hur as the handsome villain Messala was probably the best acted death scene on film- ever. I still feel that way after all these years since first seeing it. It’s hard to find any that come close to this.
To begin with, it is so magnificently filmed by William Wyler; the lighting is superb and the sense of Stygian darkness that threatens to swallow Judah is almost palatable. Apparently many doctors were consulted about how this death scene should be played out. The gory makeup truly makes it seem as if Boyd just got trampled to death. His voice is raspy and his last intake and exhale of breath is mesmerizing. I think the best part, however, is the triumphant smile he shows when he realizes that he still has power over his nemesis Judah Ben-Hur with his knowledge of what happened to Judah’s mother and sister. The evil thrill Boyd seems to feel as he waits patiently to let go of this information makes this scene even more riveting to watch. Many decades later, fellow actor Charlton Heston specifically applauded Boyd’s death scene when he recorded the DVD commentary for the movie.
This scene in itself should have won Stephen Boyd the Oscar that year as Supporting Actor, an award which, amazingly, he wasn’t even nominated for. Boyd did, however, win the Golden Globe that year for Best Supporting Actor. In a Movieland magazine interview in December 1962, the notoriously self-critical Stephen Boyd was asked what performances he was most proud of up to that point in his career. He answered, “And somewhere in there I’d put Ben Hur. But only the death scene. It was the only thing I liked in my performance, the only thing where I felt I was getting close to what I wanted in that picture.”
Above is a great description from the book “Bigger Than Ben Hur” (edited by Ryan Shamir), which describes this scene as a subversive crucifixion.