CHARLOTTE, N.C., Aug. 18, 2016 – When “Ben Hur” opens on movie screens across America on Friday, it will mark the sixth iteration on film of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, “Ben Hur: a Tale of the Christ.”
Actually, if you stretch the point a little, you might say it’s the seventh adaptation since many critics say that Ridley Scott’s Academy Award-winning Best Picture “Gladiator” (2000) was greatly influenced by Wallace’s novel.
The choice is yours, but the story behind “Ben Hur” and its author Lew Wallace has enough interesting background to be a movie all its own.
Among other things, Wallace was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. His military career nearly came to a crushing end in 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh, where Wallace had been ordered by Gen. Ulysses Grant to reinforce the army at Pittsburgh Landing.
Wallace’s Third Division was marching toward the river when one of Grant’s staffers rode up to inform him that the Confederates had been driven back. For whatever reason, Wallace slowed the pace and did not arrive at the landing until 7:30 p.m., after Grant’s forces had already barely held their positions.
Wallace was also a lawyer, politician, governor, diplomat and, of course, an author who had a Forrest Gump-like ability to be in the right place at the right time.
While riding a train in 1876, Wallace encountered another Shiloh veteran, Robert Ingersoll, who had garnered the reputation of being the “nation’s most prominent atheist.” During their prolonged conversation, Wallace, who knew very little about Christianity, became interested in learning more about the religion.
Realizing that researching old sermons and other documents on the subject of religion would not satisfy his curiosity, he decided to undertake what he termed “incidental employment” to learn more about biblical history.
In 1880, when his “incidental employment” concluded, Wallace published “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which became the best-selling book of the 19th century, topping Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Some authorities go so far as to say “Ben Hur” was the most influential book of its day. Ironically, the seeds of “Ben Hur” had been planted by the most famous atheist of his time.
The original adaptation to film was made in 1907 as a short. In 1925 a full-length version was made, and the more recent Charlton Heston blockbuster took the silver screen in 1959. Heston’s epic captured 11 of the 12 Academy Awards for which it was nominated and still holds the record for the most Oscars, though it is now tied with “Titanic.”
For the record, there was also an animated DVD adaptation (2003) and a television mini-series in 2010.
Judah Ben-Hur is Wallace’s fictional character in the novel who is wrongly accused of attempted murder. Over the course of the story, Ben-Hur’s life intermingles with Christ’s at several key moments.
In fact, so powerful was the novel that it was beatified by Pope Leo XIII to become the first work of fiction ever to receive such an honor by the Catholic Church.
Among Lew Wallace’s other “adventures,” he served on the tribunal that tried the Lincoln conspirators and presided over the trial that convicted Henry Wirz for his crimes at the prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. Wirz was the only Confederate soldier executed for war crimes.
They even had “hanging chads” in those days, or something close to them. Wallace oversaw the Republican recount in Florida that sent Rutherford B. Hayes to Pennsylvania Avenue. As a reward for delivering the presidency, Wallace was given the governorship of the New Mexico Territory in 1878.
Among his duties was to put down a range war in Lincoln County, which also brought Wallace in contact with William H. Bonney, better known as “Billy the Kid.”
Before publishing “Ben Hur,” Wallace corresponded with Billy the Kid in 1879 to offer him immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony against some other criminals.
The Kid agreed, but the district attorney overrode Wallace’s deal and sent him to prison anyway. Billy the Kid managed to escape and survive on the lam for two years until Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him.
Among the most famous urban legends about the 1959 version of “Ben Hur” is the false rumor that some of the extras involved in the chariot race were killed and the footage was so dramatic it was kept as part of the final release.
The only thing close to that story is that one stuntman did die during the shooting of the 1925 silent film.
For its era, “Ben Hur” had the largest budget in history at nearly $15.2 million. It also had the largest sets of any movie produced at the time.
Now go buy some popcorn and enjoy the show.
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Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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