Ben Hur

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The 1959 film version Ben Hur cost MGM $15 million to make — in 1959 dollars, over $100 million in today’s money — won a record 11 Oscars, sold ninety-eight million tickets in the United States, and was the only Hollywood movie to make the Vatican’s official list of approved religious films — and thus enjoyed nowhere near the success of the 1880 novel:

Since its first publication, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has never been out of print. It outsold every book except the Bible until Gone With the Wind came out in 1936, and resurged to the top of the list again in the 1960s. By 1900 it had been printed in thirty-six English-language editions and translated into twenty others, including Indonesian and Braille.

Victorians who swore off novels because of their immoral influence eagerly picked up Ben-Hur — were even encouraged to by their pastors. It became required reading in grade schools across the United States.

For those who considered theater sinful, the spectacle of the Broadway version lured them in for twenty-one years, not to mention the touring show that required four entire trains to transport all the scenery and livestock. More than twenty million people saw Ben-Hur on stage between 1899 and 1920, complete with live horses running on hidden treadmills to recreate the chariot race. One reverend from San Francisco, who had never attended a play, was finally tempted into seeing the much-hyped production. He described the experience as both “delightful and disappointing,” noting the clunky stagecraft and stilted acting. Yet he was won over enough to declare that he would return to the theater again.

The book made Lew Wallace a celebrity, sought out for speaking engagements, political endorsements, and newspaper interviews.

Wallace was an interesting character himself:

“I would not give a tuppence for the American who has not at least tried to do one of three things,” Wallace told a New York Times reporter in 1893. “That person lacks the true American spirit who has not tried to paint a picture, write a book, or get out a patent on something.” Or, he added, “tried to play some musical instrument. There you have the genius of the true American in those four — art, literature, invention, music.”

Not coincidentally, Lew Wallace himself excelled at all four. Besides being a Civil War hero, the governor of New Mexico, and later the ambassador to Turkey, the Indiana native made and played his own violins, sketched and painted with skill, and held eight patents for various inventions, including a retractable reel hidden inside a fishing rod handle. But it was in literature that Wallace truly made his mark. He is the only novelist honored in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. With a life full of distinctions, none of Wallace’s accomplishments made such an impression as his novel Ben-Hur.

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