Time to hit the books…
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is quite the novel and quite the enticing story for filmmakers. Every time it’s been brought to the screen it takes people’s breath away with the emotion, the politics, and the relationships, all woven together with the life and ministry of Jesus. Its author, General Lew Wallace, wrote it out of necessity: He was searching for answers. Those who have brought it to the screen were likewise searching for answers, but for different reasons.
Prior to Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace’s career went in fits and starts. For one thing, he didn’t have the greatest service record. Like, at all. At the Battle of Shiloh, instead of meeting up with Ulysses S. Grant’s division as he had been ordered, his company took a wrong turn and ended up at the back of the advancing Confederate Army. Some people say Grant told Wallace to take a certain route, and some maintain he had carte blanche, but either way, his performance was enough to have him relieved of duty. Wallace spent the rest of the war in the Army Reserves.
Wallace’s civic duties weren’t over, though. He was one of the lawyers at the trial of Abraham Lincoln’s assassins. He was governor of the New Mexico Territory from 1878 until 1881. He received several letters from one Billy the Kid, whose death warrant Wallace signed. Mr. Bonney apparently had this idea that Wallace would give him amnesty, but many thought Bonney was lying. Wallace left New Mexico right before Pat Garrett shot the Kid, so Bonney had his answer.
It wasn’t until Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ that Wallace’s life took on new meaning. According to Slate, Wallace started it in his home state of Indiana but finished it in New Mexico, publishing it in 1880. It became one of HarperCollins’ biggest titles, selling a million copies over a period of thirty years.
What inspired Wallace to write the novel? One night in 1876, on a train bound for Indianapolis, he had a long conversation with Robert Ingersoll, a prominent atheist, who he later compared to an “intellectual volcano.” Wallace became acutely aware of his own ignorance of Christianity and the existence of God, and he decided to remedy this problem by writing a book about the life of Christ. Ben-Hur was the result, and Wallace became a more devout Christian in the process.
For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, the title character, Judah Ben-Hur, is a prince of Israel. Since boyhood he’s been friends with Messala, a Roman who grew up in Jerusalem. Messala becomes the new Tribune, and he and Judah look forward to renewing their friendship.
However, Messala now looks down on Judah, and the two of them have a falling-out. When Judah’s sister, Tirzah, accidentally makes a tile slip off the roof, hitting the new Governor, Judah takes the blame. He tries to tell Messala that it was only an accident, but Messala is so mad at him that he puts Judah, Tirzah, and their mother, Miriam in prison. Judah is eventually sent to sea to be a galley slave, while his family languishes in a jail cell.
After Judah’s ship is sunk in a sea battle, he saves commander Quintus Arrius’s life. Arrius is so grateful that he frees Judah and then adopts him as a son. Judah becomes quite the athlete in Rome, wrestling and driving chariots. When Arrius dies, Judah inherits his fortune.
Meanwhile, Judah’s own fortune has been guarded by his faithful merchant and friend, Simonedes. Not even being tortured by Rome could persuade Simonedes to give up the whereabouts of the money, which he eagerly returns to Judah. Simonedes has a beautiful daughter, Esther, who eventually wins Judah’s heart.
Judah’s dealings with Messala aren’t over yet. Because of Messala being a complete hothead, Miriam and Tirzah are still in prison, where they have contracted leprosy. Judah and Messala face off in a chariot race, which Messala loses. He also winds up crippled and impoverished.
The life and work of Jesus are present throughout the story. Judah becomes a believer early on, makes friends with Balthazar, one of the Magi, and (spoiler alert) establishes a secret church. He even mounts an army to try and stop Jesus from being crucified, but is too late.
The novel is dramatic, exciting, and intriguing, although it’s a complicated, multi-layered plot, and some of the characters are periodically given to long monologues. Remarkably, all the characters speak King James English, despite the fact that first-century Hebrews and Greeks didn’t say “thee” and “thou,” but oh well. No biggy.
Ben-Hur seems made for dramatization. It was adapted into a stage play in 1899, which ran for twenty-five years, and hit the screen for the first time in 1907. Running at about fifteen minutes, the film centers around the big chariot race, which was accomplished in impressive fashion (See the film here). The filmmakers were sued for copyright infringement by the Wallace family.
Little Mighty Might can’t hold a candle to the next two versions, which were released by MGM in 1925 and 1959, respectively. The funny thing about these two films is that they bookend MGM’s heyday, because they first came out when the studio system was hitting its stride, and the other when it was petering out.
Some film fans like to debate which iteration is superior, and after watching them both many times over the years, my opinion is that neither one is better than the other. They just approach the story differently.
The 1925 movie is a broad overview of the novel, covering most of the main events. The film was inherited by MGM from Goldwyn after the company’s incorporation and already way over budget. Ergo, the question L.B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg asked was, “How can we do this film justice without completely ruining ourselves?”
To say they succeeded is an understatement. Ben-Hur feels spacious and epic, with amazing sets that seem to go on forever. The costumes are beautifully designed, with all the main characters looking like royalty. It’s pretty gritty as well–in the sea battle scene there are snakes thrown around and a few of the Greek pirates have Roman heads on spears. As it’s pre-Code, there is a wee bit of nudity, but it’s fairly understated.
The acting in the film is excellent. Well, except for Francis X. Bushman, who went ham but not in a good way. I think that plumy helmet he wore for much of the film may have had something to do with it–he strides around like a Roman peacock. It’s a laughingly bad performance from an actor who had been a major sex symbol and who was trying to make a comeback.
Meanwhile, Ramon Navarro’s performance as Judah is heartwrenching. If the Oscars had existed back then, he could easily have been a contender, because he really went from the gut with this one. He’s ably matched by a luminous May McAvoy as Esther, who has an odd habit of kissing birds, which I guess was a thing in some silent films.
The 1925 movie was so expensive that even though it was successful at the box office, it still lost money. Still, Ben-Hur helped cement MGM as a force to be reckoned with. For a while, anyway.
When the movie was remade in 1959, the studio era was on the downhill slide. Since studios weren’t allowed to own theaters anymore, there was a general scramble for cash flow, and profit margins were wafer-thin. MGM was no different–everything was riding on Ben-Hur. However, the 1925 question remained: “How can we come out of this with everyone’s dignity intact?”
MGM still had plenty of tools in the shed, though, like 70 millimeter widescreen, Technicolor, and a glorious sweeping score by Miklos Rosza. The film was shot at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome, where a gigantic stadium and court set was built, emphasizing the grandeur that used to be the Roman Empire.
There are plenty of differences between the 1925 and 1959 versions. For one thing, in 1925, Ramon Navarro’s tunic was miniskirt length, whereas Charlton Heston’s was cocktail length. Where Jesus was represented by a luminescent arm in 1925, in 1959 Claude Heater portrayed Jesus, silently and always filmed from the back.
However, the differences go deeper than that. The 1959 version focused more on the relational aspects of the story, mainly between Judah and Messala (Stephen Boyd). Both characters were motivated by their hatred for each other. While this was present in the earlier film, the later interpretation adds resonance by letting the audience hear more of their backstory. Judah and Messala have inside jokes and even a catchphrase: “Down Eros, up Mars!” These characters have more to lose, especially Messala. In this version, he dies right after the chariot race.
Esther (Haya Harareet) gets in on this history as well, because she and Judah reminisce about their childhood together. Later on she challenges Judah when his hatred of Messala begins to color his entire life–if he doesn’t forgive and let go, he will become what he hates. Judah has to take this in.
The other common thread is the presence of Jesus. In both films, Christ is integral to the plot. We see His birth in Bethlehem. We see Him in Nazareth, where He gives Judah a drink of water. And in both movies we see the Crucifixion. Neither movie shows the Resurrection, but Judah wouldn’t have had the priviledge of hindsight. What’s important is that Judah lets go of his hate and comes to a place of belief.
The movie was one of the first widescreen films to use closeups, which the studio was afraid would overwhelm the audience, but they shouldn’t have worried. The character studies make all the difference in grounding the story, and audiences ate it up. Ben-Hur dominated the box office for six months running and later netted Charlton Heston and MGM twelve Oscars.
In 2016 Ben-Hur returned to the big screen with a remake produced by Mark Burnett and wife Roma Downey. I haven’t seen it but I’ve read unfavorable-to-mixed reviews, and I’m not sure I want to go there. The film has been called everything from a Gladiator rip-off to an empty husk to a cheap Chinese clone. Ouch. I guess the moral of this story is the proverbial “Go big or go home.”
Ben-Hur serves a lot of purposes. For those looking for a massive, sprawling epic, it hits the spot. For those looking for a study of human nature or first-century politics, it works. For Lew Wallace, however, it introduced him to a Christianity he thought he knew, and he was never the same after that.
For more of the 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon, please see Paul at Silver Screen Classics. Thanks so much for hosting, Paul–this was fun. As always, thanks for reading, everyone, and see you tomorrow for the Doris Day Blogathon…