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As a novel, a play, two silent films, and a wide screen spectacular, Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ set the standard for the religious epic, inaugurating an amazing series of firsts in American popular culture. Published in 1880, the novel tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a young, aristocratic Jew, and his encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. The book begins with the Messiah's birth and then moves ahead 30 years to Ben-Hur's reunion with his boyhood friend, Messala, now a Roman officer. The latter's contempt for Jews, however, ends their friendship. When the Roman governor's life is threatened, Messala blames Ben-Hur, unjustly condemning him to the galleys and imprisoning Ben-Hur's mother and sister. As pirates attack Ben-Hur's ship, he manages to escape. Returning to Judea, he searches for his family and also raises a militia for the Messiah. Meeting Messala again, Ben-Hur beats him in a dramatic chariot race during which the Roman is crippled. Discovering that his mother and sister are now lepers, Ben-Hur searches for Jesus, hoping for a miraculous cure. They finally meet on the road to Calvary. Jesus refuses his offer of military assistance, but cures his family. Converted to Christianity, Ben-Hur resolves to help fellow Christians in Rome suffering persecution.

The book moved slowly at first, selling only some 2,800 copies in its first seven months. Eventually, word of mouth spread across America, particularly through schools and clubs. By 1889, 400,000 copies had been sold, outstripping Uncle Tom's Cabin, but falling just short of the Bible. Sales swelled to 1,000,000 by 1911, with translations appearing in German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Arabic, among other languages. A braille edition also was available. For many Americans, Ben-Hur was an example of edifying reading, the first work of fiction often allowed on their bookshelves. It was also the first book featured in the Sears Catalogue.

Wallace, a retired Union general from Indiana and one-time governor of the Territory of New Mexico, was quickly besieged with offers to dramatize his work. In 1899 he settled on a production adapted by William Young of Chicago, directed by Joseph Brooks, and featuring later cowboy film star William S. Hart as Messala. Ben-Hur ran on Broadway for 24 weeks and was, according to the New York Clipper, a "triumphant success," generating "enormous business" and "record-breaking attendance." It continued to tour nationally and abroad for some 20 years, making it the first play seen by many Americans. Ben-Hur set precedents both for an author's control over rights to his/her work (rejecting one offer, Wallace declared, "The savages who sell things of civilized value for glass beads live further West than Indiana") and for control over the adaptation of material. Wallace insisted, for example, that no actor would portray Christ. Instead, the Messiah was represented by a 25,000-candle-power shaft of light. Similarly spectacular effects—such as a wave machine for the naval battle and, for the chariot race, actual horses and chariots running on a treadmill before a moving panorama of the arena—set the standard for later epic films.

A 1907 film version, produced two years after Wallace's death and without the copyright holders' authorization, set a different kind of precedent. The Wallace estate sued the film's producers for breach of copyright, receiving a $25,000 settlement. The case marked the first recognition of an author's rights in film adaptations.

In 1922, two years after the play's last tour, the Goldwyn company purchased the film rights to Ben-Hur. Shooting began in Italy in 1923, inaugurating two years of difficulties, accidents, and eventually—after the merger of Goldwyn into MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer)—a move back to Hollywood. Additional recastings (including Ramon Navarro as Ben-Hur) and a change of director helped skyrocket the production's budget to $4,000,000. With its trials and tribulations, then, this Ben-Hur helped set another pattern for later epic films. More positively, on the other hand, its thrilling chariot race changed the face of filmmaking. Following in the tracks of the stage play, its considerable expenditure of money and horses made this sequence a brilliant tour-de-force that established the lavish production values now associated with the Hollywood epic. Although audiences flocked to Ben-Hur after its premiere in 1925 and critics praised the film (more for its "grandeur," however, than its story), MGM was unable to recoup its $4,000,000 investment. As a result, the studio imposed the block booking system on its other productions, another precedent. While not a financial success, however, the film still proved so popular that MGM was able to release it again in 1931, adding music and sound effects for the sound era.

In 1959, a decade that saw the resurgence of epic productions, MGM remade Ben-Hur for the wide screen, using state of the art Panavision techniques and stereophonic sound. Directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur, this film again features a spectacular, thundering chariot race that took four months to rehearse and three months to produce. The sequence nearly overshadowed the rest of the movie, leading some to dub Ben-Hur "Christ and a horse-race." The film was a box office and critical success, earning $40,000,000 in its first year and garnering 11 Academy Awards. Enjoying tremendous popularity and continuing Ben-Hur's tradition of establishing precedents, it was broadcast uncut on network television in 1971, earning the highest ratings at that time for any film. It has been rebroadcast and re-released in theaters several times since then.

Few works can claim to have made the same impact as has Wallace's Ben-Hur. As a novel and a play, it offered many people their first entry into the worlds of fiction and drama. In its various film adaptations, it elevated Hollywood's production values and defined the genre of the religious epic. It also established many legal precedents for stage and screen adaptations. The key to its enduring popularity, however, is that it provided audiences around the world with an exciting spectacle that combined piety and faith.

—Scott W. Hoffman

Further Reading:

Babington, Bruce, and Peter William Evans. Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1993.

Forshey, Gerald E. American Religious and Biblical Spectaculars. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger, 1992.

Searles, Baird. Epic! History on the Big Screen. New York, Harry N.Abrams, 1990.

Towne, Jackson E. "Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur." New Mexico Historical Review. Vol. 36, No. 1, December, 1961, 62-9.