Monday, February 18th, 2008

I just — finally — got around to seeing the film classic, Ben-Hur, and certain parts had me asking, “Did this play really differently in 1959?” It turns out that a Wikipedia contributor noted the same thing:

In interviews for the 1986 book The Celluloid Closet, and later the 1995 documentary of the same name, screenwriter Gore Vidal asserts that he persuaded director Wyler to allow a carefully veiled homoerotic subtext between Messala and Ben-Hur. Vidal says his aim was to explain Messala’s extreme reaction to Ben-Hur’s refusal to name fellow Jews. Surely, Vidal argued, Messala should have been able to understand that Ben-Hur, his close friend since childhood, would not be willing to name the names of his fellow Jews to a Roman officer. Vidal suggested a motivation to Wyler: Messala and Ben-Hur had been homosexual lovers while growing up, and then separated for a few years while Messala was in Rome. When Messala returns to Judea, he wants to renew the relationship with Ben-Hur, but Ben-Hur is no longer interested. It is the anger of a scorned lover which motivates Messala’s vindictiveness toward Ben-Hur. Since the Hollywood production code would not permit this to appear on screen explicitly, it would have to be implied by the actors. Vidal suggested to Wyler that he would direct Stephen Boyd to play the role that way, but not tell Heston. Vidal claims that Wyler took his advice, and that the results can be seen in the film. Vidal is the only person ever to make this claim, and Heston insisted that Vidal had little to do with the final film. However, Vidal responded by producing extracts from Heston’s 1978 biography An Actor’s Life, in which the star described Vidal authoring most of the final screenplay.

On a more serious note, the novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, was a phenomenal success in its day:

The novel was a phenomenal best-seller; it soon surpassed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as the best-selling American novel and retained this distinction until the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. In 1912, Sears Roebuck published one million copies to sell for 39 cents apiece: the largest single-year print edition in American history. The book was also the first work of fiction to be blessed by a pope.

One last thing: Roman naval ships did not use galley slaves at the oars. Oarsmen were trained professionals in the classical world.

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