William Wyler’s biblical, chariot-racing masterpiece Ben-Hur is one of the classic movies that defined the word ‘epic’ along with Cecile B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments. 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 his best performance), the movie becomes a true epic battle between these two characters .
The hint of lust Messala has for Charlton’s Judah adds an interesting twist to this biblical epic as well if you chose to consider this subtext. The story goes that William Wyler enlisted the help of young author Gore Vidal as an extra screenwriter. Vidal was trying to come up with a way to make the hatred that develops between Messala and Judah seem genuine. Gore Vidal is a brilliant author (His novel “Julian” is truly the best Roman Empire novel ever written in my opinion!) 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 back story 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 portrayed Messala’s emotions as if he still was in love with Judah. Judah, on the other hand, rejects these emotions and therefore sets up the conflict. When Judah turns Messala down, he isn’t just turning down Messala as a Roman and a friend, but as a lover. At that point, Messala snaps and becomes Judah’s dire enemy. There’s no dialogue to suggest any of this, but some of the dialogue takes on a piquant double meaning. For instance, when Messala tells Judah, “You’re very cruel to your conquerors,” he could be talking about the Jews and the Romans or about himself as a ‘conqueror’ over Judah. Messala looks at Judah at certain times with desire and frequently guides Judah’s arm. Messala’s burning rage during the chariot race could also be construed as sexual release. Once again this is all subtext and the audience can choose to see this or not.
The heart-pounding 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. From that point on the movie loses steam a bit, almost as if the death of Messala was the climax of the movie.
Messala is a magnificent villain and Boyd, as this character, is certainly one of the the major reasons why this movie has endured generation after generation.
“Ben-Hur” Photo Gallery
Critical Praise for Stephen Boyd’s performance as Messala in “Ben-Hur”
“If there was an Academy Award deserved by any cast member of “Ben-Hur, ” it belonged to Stephen Boyd, playing the villainous Messala who turned his boyhood friendship into a vendetta of hate. Boyd was a near absolute personification of the power which corrupts.
Particularly, Boyd’s performance as the dying Messala spewing out his last arrogance was superb.” (The Akron Beacon Journal, Dec 25, 1960)
“And Charlton Heston is the nominal star of “Ben-Hur”, doing mighty well too. But while Heston get top billing, it’s Boyd who gets the low cooing from the girls.
And he’s way ahead in the all important “word of mouth,” as well he might be, for he’s strong, rugged and handsome in a bristling, masculine way. Of course that death scene- the goriest death scene in movie history, what with Boyd as Messala gasping out his last tortured breath from his mangled body, torn and broken from pounding hoofs and churning chariot wheels in the dust of the hippodrome.
Any any will tell you that as accelerator to a stymied career nothing can match a strongly dramatic death scene.” (Pittsburgh Press, March 09, 1960)
“To wit, the touted chariot race, worth every ounce of its publicity. And, a realistic (with reservations) sea battle between first century vessels. And, the most vivid, most believable death scene (Messala’s, after the race) you’ll see outside of the real thing. Or maybe including the real thing.
Point two, good: there are excellent actors, good actors, capable actors, and a few bad ones. Heston, to me ( a Heston fan) was overshadowed by Hugh Griffith (Arab relief), Jack Hawkins (as Arrius, with dignity almost out of place in this movie), Stephen Boyd (Messala, the noblest Roman of them all), and even Terence Longden (Drusus) in too small a role.” (Clarion Ledger, Nov 11, 1960)
“Much of what happens in the chariot race is pretty bloody too, but you’d expect it although the death of Messala–trampled by several teams when his chariot breaks up – becomes excessively so.”
“Boyd as Messala, however, is the guy who should have won that supporting actor Oscar. He’s a player of real intentisy and much, much better than Hugh Griffith who did win the prize for his role as the Arab owner of Ben-Hur’s horses. Heston, this year’s ‘best actor’, is …quite a charioteer- and when he and Messala get to exchanging lashes while their chariots run side by side, you can barely keep from shouting.” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, July 6, 1960)
“As the power-hungry Messala, handsome Stephen Boyd brings to the character a believable arrogant ruthlessness of the degenerating Roman civilization.” (The Lawton Constitution, Nov 3, 1960)
“In the title role, Mr. Charlton Heston surpasses himself; his Ben-Hur has a regal strength inside and out, the pride and bearing of a prince and warm nature of a man of God. As Messala, the previously practically unknown Mr. Stephen Boyd is superb, handsome, virile, properly arrogant, dedicated to his Emperor and immersed in his dreams of influence. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan 21, 1960)
“Guess I’m in the minority. I found Stephen Boyd a handsome Messala. But stiff, mannered, a posturer, and the only actor in the world capable of over-hamming this superspecial which calls for high-keyed playing.” (Cincinnati Enquirer, Mar 16, 1960)
“…Messala is just about as ornery a cuss as a writer could dream up. He doesn’t bat an eye when he sentences his best friend to the galleys. Nor does he flinch as he condemns his friend’s mother and sister, both of whom helped nurse him through childhood, to prison for life. He is unmoved when, years later, he learns they’re in a leper colony. And in the climactic chariot race of “Ben-Hur,” Messala uses the foulest and most unsportsman-like means at his command in an effort to emerge the victor. In short, he is not exactly the type a girl would want to take home to meet mother.” (Shamokin News-Dispatch, Mar 31, 1961)
“Messala was such a strong, vital character, and I’ve heard so many people say that when he died in “Ben-Hur,” the picture was over. ” (Hedda Hopper, Hartford Courant, July 1, 1960)
“Charlton Heston as “Ben-Hur” gives a performance of utmost conviction and sincerity, while Stephen Boyd as Messala brings to the screen one of the most vital portrayals since Gable’s Rhett Butler.” (Pittsburgh Press, Jan 20, 1960)