Remember When Gore Vidal Said He Secretly Turned Charlton Heston’s ‘Ben-Hur’ Into a Thwarted Gay Romance?
The new ancient-Roman action-drama Ben-Hur, in theaters Aug. 19, has some big sandals to fill. The 1959 William Wyler epic of the same name struck gold at the box office and won a record 11 Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Charlton Heston as the title character. But there was a fascinating side note to the 1959 production that some movie fans might not remember: Decades after the movie premiered, Ben-Hur screenwriter and all-around man of letters Gore Vidal claimed that he’d inserted a gay romantic subtext into the scenes between Judah Ben-Hur and his childhood friend turned enemy, Messala (played by Stephen Boyd), without Heston’s knowledge. Vidal’s boast led to a 1996 newspaper feud between Heston (who refuted the possibility) and Vidal (who said that director Wyler strategically told Boyd, but not Heston). Now that Ben-Hur is making another lap into theaters, let’s revisit Vidal’s story of spicing up the classic epic with forbidden lust.
Related: Before #OscarsSoWhite: The Forgotten Story of Queer Nation’s 1992 Academy Awards Protest
The relationship between Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, and Messala, a Roman officer, is a thread that winds through all three-and-a-half hours of Wyler’s film. After their lifelong friendship turns bitter, Judah is enslaved, then rises up in Roman society and is ultimately reunited with Messala in a deadly chariot race. According to the script (and the Lew Wallace novel on which it was based), Judah and Messala fall out because of political differences. But Vidal, one of several writers who worked on the film, said that Wyler was frustrated with the characters’ arc. Why would the childhood friends, who had been on opposite sides of the political spectrum their whole lives, suddenly have such a dramatic falling out? Vidal, an expert on ancient Rome, had an idea.
“I proposed the notion that the two had been adolescent lovers and now Messala has returned from Rome wanting to revive the love affair, but Ben-Hur does not,” Vidal — who died on 2012 — said in the 1985 book The Celluloid Closet. “I told Wyler, ‘This is what’s going on underneath the scene — they seem to be talking about politics, but Messala is really trying to rekindle a love affair.‘” (Watch Vidal repeat the story in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet below.)
According to Vidal, Wyler cautiously agreed to the rewrite, with one condition: “Don’t say anything to Heston, because Chuck will fall apart.” They kept Heston in the dark, but told Boyd, who embraced the romantic angle. “Stephen Boyd is acting it to pieces,” Vidal said in the documentary. “There are looks that he gives him that are just so clear.”
Wyler never confirmed or denied Vidal’s version of events, conceding only that Vidal was “a clever fellow and a good writer.” However, there is one person who adamantly denied that Ben-Hur had any gay subtext.
“Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me,” Heston wrote in a 1996 letter to the LA Times, following the debut of The Celluloid Closet on HBO. (The actor died in 2008.)
Heston further claimed that Vidal barely worked on the Ben-Hur script and instead spent just three days on a “trial run” draft that was rejected. Vidal responded with his own letter, writing, “The deserved success of The Celluloid Closet has set all sorts of odd birds atwitter of which easily the oddest is the spokesperson for the National Rifle Assn. and general flak for the National Review, one Charlton ‘Chuck’ Heston.” He also produced an excerpt from Heston’s memoir, An Actor’s Life, which described Vidal’s rewrite of the “crucial scene with Messala” as “much better than the script scene.” Both Heston and Vidal’s letters can be read here.
Since Boyd wasn’t around for the post-Celluloid Closet conversation (he died of a heart attack in 1977), we’ll never know for sure whether he played Messala as a spurned lover. But some would say the footage speaks for itself. Watch a Ben-Hur scene between Heston and Boyd, below. Entwined goblets never looked so cozy.