Star Wars Origins - Ben-Hur
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LEFT: Hugh Griffith, the actor who played Sheik Ilderim in the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. RIGHT: Watto from The Phantom Menace, almost certainly based on Griffith's portrayal of Sheik Ilderim. Notice how Watto's fleshy eyelids give the impression of thick eyebrows.

The memorable pod race from The Phantom Menace is probably not the only riff Lucas borrowed from 1959's definitive epic, Ben-Hur.1 Charlton Heston's star-making role is widely considered one of the great classic films, in the league of Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, The Wizard of Oz, and Citizen Kane.

Star Wars
Ben-Hur
Pod Race Chariot Race
The hero's racing rival, Sebulba The hero's racing rival, Messala
The Emperor's pro-hatred speeches to Luke: "Good. I can feel your anger... Let the hate flow through you... Your hate has made you powerful." Arrius' pro-hatred speech to Ben-Hur: "Your eyes are full of hate - that's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength."
Theed pageantry Roman pageantry - The ceremony ending Phantom Menace is reminiscent of those in Ben-Hur, including the color scheme, costumes, baskets of flower-petals, flag-waving, even the huge, peculiarly-curved horns.2
Wooden shutters on Jabba's barge Wooden shutters in Ben-Hur's home
Watto: A short, pot-bellied, ill-mannered Toydarian who sponsors Anakin in the pod races and bets heavily on the outcome. Sheik Ilderim: A short, pot-bellied, ill-mannered Arab who sponsors Ben-Hur in the chariot races and bets heavily on the outcome.
Slave galleys in Roman ship - Roman soldiers walk across a long wooden gangplank while slaves row in sunken pits on either side. The bridge of the Star Destroyer - Darth Vader and Imperial officers walk across a gangplank with lower-ranking officers in sunken pits on either side.

The Wizard of Oz

1 LucasFilm has often acknowledged that the pod race in Phantom Menace is based on the chariot race from Ben-Hur. The rest is speculation from watching both movies... um... a number of times.

2 Mike Tibbetts wrote in: "The background to the celebration sequence is directly copied from Anthony Mann's film The Fall of the Roman Empire. They digitally added some decorations to the Roman buildings but I've checked my library and it's definitely the same footage." Wow!! Can anyone send in some comparative screencaps?


Star Wars created by George Lucas, © LucasFilm Ltd.
Star Wars: Origins © 1999-2006 by Kristen Brennan,
part of the Jitterbug Fantasia webzine.