From the South Wall: Ben-Hur Rides Again
by Andrea Neal
In 1959, a best-selling book by Hoosier Lew Wallace became a blockbuster movie, sealing Charlton Heston’s reputation as Hollywood’s leading man and winning a record 11 Academy Awards. Paramount Pictures hopes to repeat the phenomenon in 2016 with Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Ben-Hur starring Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman. It opens in theaters nationwide August 19.
If past history is an indication, Wallace won’t get the recognition he deserves. To the extent this Ben-Hur becomes a Box Office success, critics will credit the impressive cast, the special effects or the breathtaking Italian scenery. It’s Wallace, however, who developed the action-packed story of faith and redemption that continues to inspire directors, actors and theater patrons.
How fitting that the newest rendition of Ben-Hur is coming out during Indiana’s bicentennial year. Wallace counts as one of Indiana’s greatest Hoosiers. Born in 1827 in Brookville to Esther and David Wallace, the latter who would become the state’s sixth governor, Wallace seemed destined for legal, political and military careers, not writing.
In 1846, he served as a 2nd lieutenant in the Mexican-American War. In 1849, he passed the bar exam and set up law practice in Covington. In 1856, he was elected to the State Senate. Wallace first came to the nation’s attention during the Civil War when as a major-general he commanded troops in the battles of Fort Donelson, Fort Henry and Shiloh. Following the war, he served as a judge at the Lincoln assassination trial and presided over the trial of Henry Wirz, commander of the infamous Andersonville prison where thousands of Union soldiers died.
Despite his national celebrity, Wallace returned to Crawfordsville in 1868 and built a two-story Victorian home on land that had belonged to his wife’s father. Although the house is not preserved, his study still stands on the premises along with a museum dedicated to Wallace’s legacy. It is in the same location where, in 1875, he began writing Ben-Hur, the full title of which is “Ben-Hur — A Tale of the Christ.” Wallace did most of the writing outdoors in the shade of a beech tree. He finished penning the epic tale while living in New Mexico where he served a few years as territorial governor. The novel was published by Harper in 1880 with a first printing of 16,000 copies. Sales were initially slow, but it became the best-selling book of the 19th century, even more popular than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
As critics have noted the book is not really about the Christ. It is about a fictional man whose life is changed by an encounter with Christ. Judah Ben-Hur is a young Jewish noble who is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala, a Roman tribune. Ben-Hur is condemned to die as a galley slave and spends much of the rest of the novel seeking revenge. He becomes a Roman soldier to learn how to fight and a charioteer to have reason to challenge Messala. (Spoiler alert: Jesus’s miraculous powers are revealed near the conclusion.)
Long before the 1959 movie came out to rave reviews, Ben-Hur had inspired theatrical adaptations. In 1925, a groundbreaking silent movie starred Ramon Navarro. In 1907, Herman Rottger played the celluloid Ben-Hur in the first silent-movie version, a 15-minute one-reel short. Before Rottger, there was a Broadway version, which premiered in 1899 and cleverly used a treadmill to simulate a chariot race using eight live horses on stage. It was the only theatrical adaptation Wallace would live to see.
Earlier this year, Syracuse University Press published “Bigger Than Ben-Hur: The Book, Its Adaptations, & Their Audiences.” It is a collection of essays that probe such arcane topics as “Ben-Hur’s Mother,” “The Erotics of the Galley Slave” and “Holy Lands, Restoration and Zionism in Ben-Hur.” The book’s co-editor, Neil Sinyard, notes in his forward that Ben-Hur’s timeless messages lend themselves theatrical presentations. He observes, “Almost from the moment of its publication in 1880, Ben-Hur has proved to be a phenomenon.” It achieved that distinction, he says, because its powerful themes, “freedom from dictatorship, the evil of slavery and the renunciation of force as a means to political ends, are as relevant as ever.”
“My God! Did I set all of this in motion?” Wallace asked after the opening of the stage play in 1899. “It seems now that when I sit down finally in the old man’s gown and slippers, helping the cat to keep the fireplace warm, I shall look back upon Ben-Hur as my best performance . . .”
Historians would agree that of all his careers — politician, soldier, lawyer, writer – Wallace’s crowning achievement was Ben-Hur. Wallace died in 1905. Little could he know that he would influence future generations of moviemakers and Christian believers more than a hundred years after his book’s publication.
Andrea Neal is a history teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.