Lew Wallace and the “Ben Hur” Phenomenon

Today we add yet another Indiana scribe to a chronicle that already includes Booth TarkingtonTheodore DreiserGeorge Ade, James Whitcomb Riley, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert John Wildhack. Because Lew Wallace (1827-1905) was so accomplished in so many fields of endeavor, and because he is best known for a single book, there may be an unfortunate tendency to regard him as a literary dilettante, but that’s coming from a place of ignorance. Wallace wrote over a dozen works, including novels, book-length poems, memoirs, biographies, and at least one original play. That he was also the Governor of New Mexico (when it was still a territory), an important General in both the Civil War and the Mexican-American War, and the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, seem almost to cloud the picture. There is a Lew Wallace Museum with an excellent website: find that here.

Wallace was from a political/military family. His grandfather Andrew Wallace served in the War of 1812, and was close friends with William Henry Harrison; Lew later became Benjamin Harrison’s biographer. Lew’s father, David Wallace (1799-1859) became Governor of Indiana and a U.S. Congressman. His uncle William Wallace (1811-1879) was Governor of the Territories that later became Washington State and Idaho.

So there is tendency to privilege the political context in portraits of Wallace’s life, despite the fact that he wrote one of the most popular and beloved American novels of all time. That “one work of literature” upon which Wallace’s entire reputation now unfairly rests is of course Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880). This book became a popular phenomenon, eclipsing even Uncle Tom’s Cabin in sales (until finally unhorsed by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind in 1939), and was once a fairly universally known American cultural bellwether, although during the late 20th century it fell from its lofty perch, along with the religion in which it was steeped.

Ironically, Wallace himself was not a “church-goer”, although he was a Christian, loosely defined. One perceives a confusing ambivalence even in the book’s title. It’s “Ben-Hur”, but it’s also a “Life of the Christ”? Well, which is it? And it turns out to be both; two interwoven plot threads, one about the trials and tribulations of fictional Jewish aristocrat Judah Ben-Hur, the other about the life of Jesus. What ties the stories together are the time and place, and the theme — Ben-Hur spends a good deal of the book seeking revenge for wrongs that have been done to him, but later has a Christian epiphany, and realizes that acting out of hatred is unworthy. I think one of the reasons that the story has fallen out of favor is the wisdom of this moral, which is no longer fashionable. “Revenge” as a worthy and legitimate end in its own right has been a popular theme in American cinema at least since the importation of Spaghetti westerns in the 1960s. Your correspondent loathes revenge as a movie plot. I think it has been destructive to the American character. You don’t have to be Christian to know that revenge is garbage as a human motivation. It’s what keeps the cycle of violence eternally in motion, Not just art but history have shown that that the cycle can be escaped. “With malice toward none and charity for all” was one of the most famous utterances of Wallace’s Commander-in-Chief.

Still, I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. Even among fans of Ben-Hur, the appeal for many was the scene of the hero winning the big chariot race. Winning a big sport event — isn’t that what’s important? That (and not turning the other cheek) is almost certainly the marketing hook for the many products that bore the hero’s name:

Mm! Jesus — and winning! Tastes like…chocolate!

We had a children’s edition of Ben-Hur in our house when I was growing up; as a kid I was always burning with curiosity about the fact that the author was credited as Governor Lew Wallace; as we have said, that was his office at the time of the book’s publication. In addition, I also relished this knock-knock joke, the meaning of which would be meaningless to 99.99% of contemporary American children, I would imagine:

A: Knock, knock!

B: Who’s there?

A: Ben Hur.

B: Ben Hur Who?

A: Ben Hur waitin’ an hour fer you to open this damn door!

You see? Ben-Hur just lends itself naturally to dramatic adaptation!

In 1899, Klaw and Erlanger produced the first stage adaptation of the novel on Broadway, with no less than William S. Hart in the role of the villain Messala, and Edward Morgan as the title character. Jesus was rendered as a beam of light. The highlight of this show represented the very cutting edge of stage effects for its time: the famous Roman chariot race, accomplished by four live horses running on a treadmill with a moving cyclorama behind them. This moment would be a treasured part of every screen version afterwards. The stage version was a blockbuster that toured the nation nonstop until 1921. Meanwhile, it was also revived on Broadway in 1900, 1903, 1907, 1911, and 1916. By those years of course, there was competition from another quarter: another kind of horse race.

In 1907, two years after Wallace’s death, the Kalem Company released a pirated version of the story, co-directed by Sidney Olcott and Frank Oakes Rose. It ran about 15 minutes long, which was 1-2 times longer than the average movie of that era; feature length would not be a factor for years. The chariot scene was filmed at a racetrack in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, adjacent Coney Island (the neighborhood had several racetracks back then, hence the equine theme of Steeplechase Park). This film was thought lost for many years. Nowadays, you can watch it any time you like on Youtube!

In 1925 came the first feature length version, produced by MGM. As I wrote here, though silent, this remains my favorite screen version. Directed by Fred Niblo, the all-star cast included Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Claire McDowell (a niece of Fanny Davenport), Carmel Myers, Nigel de Brulier, and Leo White, with a huge number of Hollywood’s top stars in the coliseum audience for the big chariot race scene. Paul Swan and Rudolph Valentino were originally considered for the title role. It then went to George Walsh, who was fired and replaced with Novarro. With a budget of $4 million, it was considered a very expensive movie for its day, with location shooting in Italy, massive amounts of film footage shot (including a color reel), and a cast of thousands. Most egregiously, dozens of horses were killed for this movie. But audiences flocked to it, and it made a healthy profit.

The 1959 version of Ben Hur is the one many of us grew up with on television, and to this day it remains the ONLY version many people know. It was one of the biggest Hollywood cinematic events of all time. Even the poster has been much parodied. Its budget of $15 million was the largest in history up until its time. The one-two punch of widescreen format and Technicolor, combined with the lavish sets, costumes, and crowd scenes made it an unprecedented spectacle. It was directed by William Wyler, with a cast that is kind of sparing in star power, which I’m guessing is a factor of budget. Other than Charlton Heston as the lead (the chariot scene is remembered as one of the highlights of his career), the cast also includes Stephen Boyd (Jumbo, The Oscar), Martha Scott (also, like Heston, from The Ten Commandments), Hugh Griffith, Sam Jaffe, and Finlay Currie. I’ve probably seen it on television a half dozen times but I find it deadly dull for all that, at least in that small screen format. The way to watch it is in a theatre, I imagine, on the rare occasion when that’s an option.

There have been recent occasions to see Ben-Hur in a theatre, by the way. There was a 2016 re-make, which tanked and lost millions of dollars. I had never even heard of it until this morning. Why would you DO that? Why would you remake a major classic and then NOT exceed its predecessors in the level of spectacle, and not cast it full of stars? (This one has Morgan Freeman and one of the lesser Hustons). Spectacle and stars: isn’t that producing 101? Nowadays, it’s all CGI, which, not to put too fine a point on it looks like cheap crap. There have also been: a recent direct to video animated version (2003) and a 2010 Canadian TV mini-series. And there have been some live Ben Hur spectacles produced in London.

Thus this old warhorse continues to be resurrected. In keeping with the season. Easter’s in a week! With a birthday of April 10, one wonders if this was a factor that made the Christ theme attractive to him?

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For more on silent and classic cinema, please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.