William Wyler’s biblical, chariot-racing masterpiece is the movie that defined the word ‘epic’. This is also the first Stephen Boyd movie I ever saw, and it hooked me as a kid. Even after all these years, watching this movie is absolutely amazing. First of all, Stephen Boyd in a Roman muscle cuirass and scarlet plumed helmet is truly a glorious sight to behold. Boyd’s masculine and cruel Messala is a performance for the ages and when he is pitted against the equally masculine and statuesque Heston (who also gives a his best performance), the movie becomes a true epic battle between these two characters . The hint of lust Messala has for Charlton’s Judea adds a homoerotic twist to this biblical epic as well.
The story goes that William Wyler enlisted the help of young Gore Vidal as an extra screenwriter. Vidal was trying to come up with a way to make the hatred that develops between Messala and Judea seem genuine. Gore Vidal is a brilliant author and he took an idea from one of his early novels called “The City and the Pillar”. In the novel, two young men have a love affair in their teens. Later in life, one of the men has moved on in life and gotten married, whereas the other man is still in love with his former lover and obsessed with the idea of possessing him again. Vidal thought that the idea of a spurned lover- Messala in this case- would inject much needed emotion and backstory between the hero and his nemesis. Vidal presented his plan to a bemused Wyler who told him to approach Boyd with the idea, but to leave Heston out of the loop. Vidal discussed his approach with Boyd, who immediately understood what to do. So in essence, Boyd played Messala as if he was still in love with Judea. When Judea turns Messala down, he isn’t just turning down Messala as a Roman, but as a lover. At that point, Messala snaps and becomes Judea’s dire enemy. There’s no dialogue to suggest any of this, but some of the dialogue takes on a double meaning. For instance, when Messala tells Judea, “You’re very cruel to your conquerors,” he could be talking about the Jews and the Romans or about himself as a ‘conqueror’ over Judea. It is also completely obvious in the way Boyd looks at Heston with desire, the frequent touches to Heston’s arm, and especially Messala’s burning rage during the chariot race, which could be construed as sexual release. The chariot race in Ben Hur is one of cinema’s most iconic moments captured on screen, and even to this day has not been surpassed. Boyd’s death scene as Messala is (as far as I am concerned) the best acted death scene in a movie ever. From his angry defiance to the final death rattle- it’s riveting. ( https://stephenboydblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/boyds-death-scene-as-messala-best-ever-absolutely/) Messala is a magnificent villain, and Boyd as this character certainly is one of the the reasons this movie is so enduring generation after generation.