We start with the filmmaker's take on the birth of Christ. We see, after a bit of Roman Empire background, Joseph and Mary arrive at the census point; we see the Star of Bethlehem shine, the shepherds see it, the wise men see it; we see the Star of Bethlehem shine down; we see the filmmaker's vision of a nativity scene. Finally, we see the Star of Bethlehem dim back down. It's very tastefully done, but still effective.
Then we see the opening credits.
When we return, it's Anno Domini XXVI - A.D. 26. Messala, a Roman who grew up in Judea but spent most of his life in more traditional Roman enclaves, is accepting an important position in Jerusalem under the new governor of Judea; it's a hard job, since the Jews don't want the Romans there, but he feels up to it. He is visited by his childhood friend, and our hero, Judah Ben-Hur, a very important and influential Jew. They try to pick up the friendship where it left off, but there's one big problem: they no longer have anything in common besides their shared past. They are in denial about this for a while, and Judah agrees to try to get people to accept the Romans.
We meet Ben-Hur's mother and sister. We also meet his right-hand slave, Simonides, who is his business administrator and is in town for his yearly report--he's based in Antioch. He's very good at managing Judah's assets, and very loyal. Simonides' daughter Esther is with him; she is about to enter an arranged marriage, but needs Ben-Hur's approval. Ben-Hur gives it, and even throws in her freedom as a wedding present, but - having seen her as a grown woman for the first time - he sorta wants her for himself.
Messala comes over for dinner. Judah and Messala go out back to meet privately. Judah gives Messala a white horse. Messala asks Judah for his progress in pacifying the Jews; on learning that it isn't 100% successful, he wants to know who's refusing. Messala makes clear that he wants names. Judah, while protesting that he's nonviolent himself, doesn't think that the Jews resisting Roman rule are doing anything wrong, and so he doesn't provide them. Messala begs for cooperation, but in doing so makes clear that he considers the Roman Emperor a god; not only doesn't Judah believe that, but he's personally against the occupation. They leave as enemies, and Judah Ben-Hur is left to explain why Messala isn't staying for dinner.
There is a procession for the new Roman governor. Judah and his sister Tirzah watch. They see Messala, and Messala sees them. They see the Roman governor, but Tirzah puts too much of her weight on the roof, and a large section of it falls, knocking out the governor. In an act that is part chivalry and part Idiot Ball, Judah tells Tirzah not to say anything; he'll take responsibility. This gets all the house of Hur arrested. The servants are allowed to go free, though.
On learning that he is to go to Tyrus with neither a trial nor info about what's going to happen to his mother and sister, we learn that Ben-Hur's pacifism didn't survive the imprisonment. Since he hurts or kills only people who aren't of Nominal Importance, this is supposed to be tolerated. Judah demands info of Messala, and naturally doesn't get it. He protests his innocence of wanting to kill the governor; Messala knows that this is, at least, a plausible theory, but doesn't let it show. He says that Ben-Hur gave him exactly what he needed; the Jews will know that, if he can send his childhood friend to certain death at the galleys, he can do it to anyone. Judah starts to beg Messala, and gets this reply: "You beg me? Didn't I beg you for help?"
Ben-Hur swears vengeance when he gets back. Messala is puzzled, since the galleys are supposed to be a one-way trip.
Simonides tries to defend Ben-Hur. This gets him and his daughter seized.
The Romans taking prisoners to the galleys are not overly concerned about anyone surviving, especially not people who knocked out their governor. At a well some distance north of Jerusalem, soldiers get watered first, then horses, and then slaves--and not Ben-Hur. He asks God for help, and God comes and gives him water. We do not hear Him speak or see His face, but this is supposed to be Jesus. The Roman in charge starts to tell Him not to give Ben-Hur water, but on seeing His face changes his mind. Ben-Hur drinks deep until it's time to move it.
More than three years later, we see Ben-Hur working one of many oars. He is going by "41" (or is that XLI?), his seat number, and he is full of hate. A Roman consul, Quintus Arrius, has boarded the ship, and it goes to war almost immediately. The consul wants Ben-Hur for a charioteer, and doesn't understand why Ben-Hur has any other hopes of life after the galleys; if they succeed in battle, he'll keep rowing, and if they don't, he'll die chained to the oar. Ben-Hur makes clear that he dislikes the idea of dying chained to the oar; this has a delayed effect; at the time, "back to your oar," but the consul orders him unchained after all the galley slaves had been chained.
There is a firefight with real fire. Things are burning all over the place. The ship gets rammed; for some reason, instead of trying to get the ship out of the way, those slaves who are chained try to remove the chains. Since the enemy ship appears to be holding up their ship, it almost works out. Ben-Hur is unlocking slaves, and major fighting is going on on deck. Then Quintus is shoved overboard. Ben-Hur goes to save him, shoving a torch into the face of a mercenary along the way.
Ben-Hur saves the consul and gets him on a raft of debris. Then he has to knock out the consul to prevent the fella from committing suicide, and chains the mercenary to him. After the consul wakes, still wanting to die, he reminds him that staying alive is the motivation he gives his slaves... Quintas wanted to commit suicide because he thought he'd lost overall. He hadn't, and so there is a triumphant return to Rome. Ben-Hur gets to see the Emperor and then becomes the charioteer. Quintas actually tried to get him cleared of wanting to kill that Judean governor, but didn't pull it off...
Quintus adopts Ben-Hur because of his great feats of charioteering. Now free, Ben-Hur heads back to Judea almost immediately, not even waiting for the scheduled boat to take Pontius Pilate to Judea. There is no time to waste; four years have already passed.
On the way home, he helps a horse-loving Arab, Sheikh Ilderim, with the fine art of charioteering. Ilderim offers a position. Judah declines for now, though it has appeal, because he is on a mission. Not even being told Messala is racing convinces him. Some talk of Jesus slips in, though the name is not mentioned directly.
The house of Hur is in ruins, but people are living there. He is met by Esther; she and her father were in there for only a year. Her father was paralyzed in prison, so a big fella who shared a cell with him and went mute during that time has also moved in. They are still in Jerusalem because all the assets were seized by the Romans - well, not all the assets, but they don't want the Romans to know about the rest of them prematurely. Esther never married, partly because the reason for arranging that marriage no longer applied, and partly because - she looks at her all-black clothing here, so we're probably supposed to believe that her fiance died.
Judah arranges an appointment with Messala under his Roman name, which he acquires as son of Quintas Arrius, and sends a dagger for an advance gift. He wants to know what happened to his mother and sister. Messala honestly doesn't know. Judah tells him he'll kill Messala if a) he doesn't find out or b) anything's happened to them...
Messala goes to find out what happened to Judah's mother and sister. They are still alive--the food disappears. But they have somehow caught leprosy. Messala orders them freed so they can go where the lepers belong, and then orders the cell burned out.
Ben-Hur's mother and sister drop by the old place and come as close to meeting up with Esther as they dare. Esther tells them Judah hasn't changed, which is at best a half-truth. They make Esther promise not to tell Judah they have leprosy; they want him to remember them as they were. Esther promises by her love of Judah (and yes, it is there). She sees him (he passed by without noticing the lepers) and "confesses" that his mother and sister are dead...
Intermission. This is a long film.
After the intermission, Ben-Hur has taken the charioteer job now, and Ilderim is trying to make a wager with lots of money involved. He eventually succeeds...You all know at least some of what comes next: one Chariot Race, no rules, no one objects to it becoming a demolition derby, blades on Messala's chariot wheels, Messala ends up killing himself when he cheats too hard but not before he taunts Ben-Hur with the fact his family are lepers, and Jesus gets crucified. At His death, Judah's mother and sister are healed of their leprosy, Judah gets over his hate, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Messala.