Stephen Boyd did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning the Golden Globe, for portraying Messala in Ben-Hur.
At first he seems a man of two minds as he proclaims in all his bluster about making the region far more secure for the Roman Empire, but he is very easily dissuaded by such talk particularly when he hears that his old friend Judah has come to visit him. There is something particularity brilliant about Boyd's choices in his first scene with Heston. Boyd portrays a constant fascination with Judah's very being of existence. He's excessively happy to see him, and Boyd plays these scenes in such a physical fashion. Physical in terms of his interactions with Heston. Boyd is always touching Heston throughout the scene and often lingers quite long in these moments. Although Heston plays it as just an old friend greeting another Boyd does not. Boyd plays it as though Messala had formerly been Ben-Hur lover, or at the very least had always wished to be. This relationship certainly is never stated in the film, rather it's all in Boyd's performance. It's extremely effective in creating the first divide between the two since they seem on different wavelengths of how this relationship should continue. The most remarkable moment in this regard is when Messala hopes they can continue to be good friends, that good friends given a certain accentuation in Boyd's delivery to mean more, which is countered bluntly by Judah rearranging the meaning since one is a Roman the other a Jew.
Boyd continues to carry this to the succeeding scenes where Boyd continues this interest as he always chooses to glance more often to Judah, than to Judah's sister who is interested in him. This is until Judah refuses to give Messala names of potential Jewish rebels, but at the same time Judah still does not look at Messala the way Messala looks at him. Now Boyd realizing this subtext to the character of
Messala adds more than simply making his and Judah's past a bit more
complex. Boyd utilizes this to make Judah's refusal seem all the damaging to Messala. The intensity Boyd brings in the moment where Judah "betrays" him is particularly powerful. Boyd does not show Messala in the moment as that commander who wants names, he brings a greater emotional quality in his face, of a man whose been denied by the man he believed loved him. Boyd does not lose this when Messala decides to have Judah and his family arrested for accidentally causing the injury of a Roman. Boyd brings a cold demeanor as he has them taken away, but there's a uncomfortable rigidity that Boyd brings as though he is still fighting with himself over this decision. Boyd keeps this idea as Judah gets the chance to confront him. Boyd portrays Messala in thought as though there is still a second thought in his mind, before assuring Judah that he has condemned both Judah and his family.
There is one last emotional outburst, as Boyd brings a searing hatred again in Messala words as he says that he begged Judah for help, but with that Boyd naturally ends the old Messala as he assumes the role of the cruel Roman he wished to create. In this way Boyd is equally effective, and I almost wonder if that's the reason he was not Oscar nominated, maybe he was just too good at being this sort of villain. After all when Judah swears revenge saying he'll return, Boyd's delivery of merely asking "return?" is so perfectly smug and despicable suggesting full well that Messala knows he's given Judah a death sentence. After that scene Boyd disappears for along time in the film, as it follows Judah through his life as a prisoner of Rome. When we finally return to Messala Boyd shows him to have apparently assumed his role as the fierce man of role in his confident rather smarmy demeanor. Boyd is great at this but what I love about his work though is that he still does not make Messala one note. When Judah makes his reappearance known Boyd actually delivers a very realistic reaction of a subdued disbelief with his tough exterior, and also even a fear of what Judah might do. Even in his scene with the Sheik that's all about ego, which again Boyd delivers incredibly well when taunting the Sheik, he still does well to subtly show that Judah is no laughing matter to him. When the other Romans doubt his return, Boyd is excellent by expressing how Messala is very mindful of Judah's return.
This is put aside for the chariot race where the two are pit against each other. Boyd is fantastic in this scene as he has Messala fully embrace his status, and actually seems to revel in it particularly when he loudly asks for Jupiter to give him victory. Boyd importantly does not let the sheer spectacle of the chariot race overshadow his performance, always keeping the villainy of Messala present, presenting such pompousness in his manner as well as such a viciousness in his eyes as purposefully tries to kill the other racers particularly Judah. This ends in his brutal defeat though where he is trampled by a group of horses. Boyd is simply amazing in this final scene as he depicts every bit of Messala's pain, from the straining in his body, and face, to his voice where every breath seems through a collapsed lung. Boyd does not leave it to the makeup he creates Messala's broken body, and it must be said that Boyd dies well. As remarkable as his physical performance is in the scene, that's not all there is. Once last final time Boyd brings the two sides to Messala. There is a certain somberness in his voice as though perhaps there is the regret of a better man as he asks if Judah is happy to see his enemy defeated. Boyd though still leaves hate in the man as he portrays such a vile and final joy in Messala as he is allowed to tell Judah the horrible fate of his family. This is an outstanding performance by Stephen Boyd as he so well realizes Messala as the despicable fiend he should be, but brings a surprising amount of depth to the character as well. His work is one of the most memorable aspects of this epic and deserved to recognized with it.