The 1959 film epic, Ben-Hur, was a huge hit at the box office (second at the time only to Gone with the Wind), and a record winner at the Academy Awards. It won 11 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Charlton Heston), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hugh Griffith), and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Miklos Rózsa).
The film’s story centers on Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince in Jerusalem, and his childhood friend, the Roman Messala, who later becomes commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. After being betrayed by his former friend, Messala, Ben-Hur becomes a galley slave, saves a Roman fleet commander, and becomes a famous charioteer. When he finds that his mother and sister, who were imprisoned by Messala, have contracted leprosy, he races Messala and wins. He takes his mother and sister to seek a healing miracle from Jesus, but finds that Jesus is already on trial. They witness the crucifixion of Jesus, and his mother and sister are miraculously cured during the rainstorm that follows the crucifixion.
There is one scene from the film that everyone remembers: the breathtaking chariot race between Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd). Part of the race can be seen in a YouTube clip.
You might expect that the book that was the basis for the movie was written by someone who was familiar with Rome and the Holy Land. How could anyone accurately write about that time and those locations without at least having some personal knowledge of them? Perhaps the writer was a historian. No, in fact he was a Civil War general with a blemished record, and he had never traveled to Europe or the Holy Land as of the time of the novel’s publication.
Lew Wallace was born in Brookville, Indiana on April 10, 1827. Lew’s father, a graduate of West Point, became a lawyer after his retirement from the military, and Lew intended to become a lawyer like his father. However, when the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Lew joined the military and eventually became a Union general during the Civil War.
Wallace’s bravery and service during the Civil War brought him many promotions and he seemed headed toward a stellar career in the Union army until he seemingly faltered at the battle of Shiloh. What is known for sure is that General Grant ordered Wallace to keep his troops in reserve until needed. Then there were a series of messages from Grant as well as a decision by Wallace to take a road to the battle that Grant did not intend for him to take. As a result of Wallace’s decision and muddy roads following a rainstorm, his troops did not get to the front lines until the end of the first day of battle. The next day the Union army, with the help of Wallace’s troops, routed the Confederate forces, but many casualties were taken by the Union army during the two days of fighting. When Grant was accused of poor leadership he placed the blame on Wallace for not following orders, and Wallace was removed from his command. Though there is still controversy concerning who was really to blame, Wallace’s military career was effectively over though he did, in fact, see more action during the remainder of the Civil War. He later served as a diplomat to Turkey, and as governor of the territory of New Mexico.
Lew Wallace, who had always enjoyed writing, started a historical novel about Cortez’s conquest of Mexico in 1843, but The Fair God was not completed and published until 30 years later. His literary career really took off with the publication of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1880. The book is about a man who is falsely accused of a crime (sound familiar?), and about his struggle to overcome the consequences of the accusations against him. It is also a book about forgiveness. Judah Ben-Hur, in the book, seeks revenge on the man who has falsely accused him, but in the end puts aside his hatred and finds peace of mind.
Why did a Civil War general write such a book? It all began when a man called Wallace’s name as he boarded a train in Crawfordsville, Indiana to visit his brother who lived in Indianapolis. The man was Robert G. Ingersoll a former Union Colonel who had served under Wallace at Shiloh. Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in his car for a talk, and Wallace agreed on the condition that he would be free to choose the subject of the discussion. For some reason Wallace, who was not particularly religious, had religion on his mind that day. As it turned out Ingersoll was a noted agnostic, and he made a number of arguments which Wallace was unable to refute with his limited knowledge of the subject. Wallace tells the story:
“. . . I sat spellbound, listening to a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation of believers in God, Christ, and Heaven, the like of which I had never heard. He surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal.
“The speech was brought to an end by our arrival at the Indianapolis Central Station nearly two hours after its commencement. Upon alighting from the car, we separated, he to go to a hotel, and I to my brother’s, a long way up northeast of town. The street-cars were at my service, but I preferred to walk, for I was in a confusion of mind not unlike dazement.
“To explain this, it is necessary now to confess that my attitude with respect to religion had been one of absolute indifference. I had heard it argued times innumerable, always without interest. So, too, I had read the sermons of great preachers . . . but always for the surpassing charm of their rhetoric. But–how strange! To lift me out of my indifference, one would think only strong affirmations of things regarded holiest would do. Yet here was I now moved as never before, and by what? The most outright denials of all human knowledge of God, Christ, Heaven, and the Hereafter which figures so in the hope and faith of the believing everywhere. Was the Colonel right? What had I on which to answer yes or no? He had made me ashamed of my ignorance: and then–here is the unexpected of the affair–as I walked on in the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion. To write all my reflections would require many pages. I pass them to say simply that I resolved to study the subject . . . It only remains to say that I did as resolved, with results – first, the book Ben Hur, and second, a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the Divinity of Christ.”
Throughout his life Wallace occasionally attended Methodist services, but he never became a member of that church or of any other. “Not that churches are objectionable to me,” he explained, “but simply because my freedom is enjoyable.”
As I stated above Wallace, at the time of the book’s publication, had never visited either Europe or the Holy Land. His information about the lands, the animals, and the people came from research he did in libraries in Washington D.C., New York, and Boston. When he late visited the Holy Land he was delighted to learn that his depictions were accurate. “At every point of the journey over which I traced [Judah’s] steps to Jerusalem,” he wrote, “I found the descriptive details true to the existing objects and scenes.”
Sales of Ben-Hur started out slow but quickly increased. It is estimated that one million copies of the novel had been sold in the United States by 1912, and it has never been out of print during its 135 years of existence. An 1893 study of the most popular books in America’s public libraries showed that Ben-Hur was in 83 percent of the libraries surveyed. The book was popular even in the south because it could be seen as the story of oppression that is finally avenged. Also, it is seen as a book that promotes Christian forgiveness rather than vengeance as a way to alleviate hatred. And many rank Ben-Hur as the most influential religious book of the nineteenth century.
Broadway producers wanted to adapt the novel for the stage but Wallace wouldn’t allow it for years in part because he was concerned about having someone portray Jesus on stage – a taboo at the time which could lead to arrest. Eventually he allowed someone to produce a play based on his novel with the stipulation that Jesus would be represented on stage by a very bright light. The 1899 play ran for 21 years on Broadway and in road productions and was seen by more than 20 million people.
(As an aside, I remember when Jesus could not be seen in movies – only his voice could be heard. Later, actors could portray Jesus, but He was only seen from behind. It was considered sacrilegious to present a mere actor’s face as being that of Jesus. Also I once saw Jerome Hines, the great bass opera singer and devout Christian, in a production of an opera he wrote on the life of Jesus called I Am the Way. At the end of the opera the singers, still in their costumes, came on stage and took their bows to great applause – all except Hines who stood motionless while the others bowed. When asked why he did not bow, he answered that he was on stage still in the character of Jesus, and Jesus would never bow His head to anyone.)
In 1925 Ben-Hur was made into a silent film with the popular and handsome Ramón Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur, Francis X. Bushman as Massala, and May McAvoy as Esther. A YouTube video gives us some of the history behind the filming of the silent era epic and a thrilling commentary on the movie’s famous chariot race. This clip is fascinating! Take time to watch it.
A new movie version of Ben-Hur is being filmed in Italy right now and is scheduled for release in theaters on February 26, 2016. The movie will star Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell as Massala, and Nazanin Boniadi as Esther. It has been 56 years since Wallace’s epic story was last released on film, but I have to wonder if this new film can even match, much less surpass, the 1959 film.
Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ is available in many print editions. It is also in the public domain and is available in an inexpensive e-book format from many sources on the internet. But be forewarned: you might become hooked on it as did Ulysses S. Grant, Wallace’s one-time nemesis, who completed it in a single 30 hour long reading.