Columns > Published on August 19th, 2016

What's the Big Deal about 'Ben-Hur'?

Lewis Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published in 1880 and has been adapted for the stage, silver screen, and television a total of seven times: a Broadway play in 1899; a one-reel silent film in 1907; another silent film, this one feature length, in 1925 starring the great romantic lead Ramón Novarro; MGM’s spectacular 1959 Biblical action-adventure extravaganza directed by William Wyler, with Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd as his best-friend-turned-mortal-enemy, Messala; an animated feature voiced by Charlton Heston (and others) that went straight to video in 2003 in which the lamed Messala walks again, thanks to the intervention of Jesus; a 2010 TV miniseries notable for the casting of Hugh Bonneville, the future Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey, as, of all people, Pontius Pilate; and a brand spanking new feature film that opens today (August 19, 2016).

This latest adaptation stars Jack Huston, grandson of the director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Misfits…) and great-grandson of the actor Walter Huston (Dodsworth, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Duel in the Sun, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre…). Anjelica Huston is his aunt. As an added plus, he looks great with his shirt off.

One choice detail is that Pope Francis personally blessed the guy who plays Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro).

What is it about this novel that makes it such a popular and adaptable property for Hollywood? Your decidedly unhumble LitReactor columnist read it – all of it - to find some answers.

Beginning by Digressing

Lewis Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, was, improbably, a Civil War general. He began writing it after the war while living in Crawfordsville, Indiana and completed it during his spare time while he was governor of the New Mexico Territory.

The Fifties was in fact a time when America was intrigued and horrified by homosexuality and homosexuals. A novel in which gay desire lies just beneath the surface was a perfect choice for source material for a 1959 movie

Being governor of the New Mexico Territory didn’t stop him from writing one of the most popular novels of all time. Ben-Hur was a bestseller – in fact, the bestseller of the late 19th century and the first third of the 20th, supplanting Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and remaining at the top of the charts from 1880 to 1936, when Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind came out. The 1959 film brought it back to the top. In Wallace’s lifetime, it earned the 2015 equivalent of $290,000 in royalties every year. In short, Wallace had a day job. I detest him.

The Story

Ben-Hur begins on a familiar, pious note: Three Wise Men see a brilliant star in the sky and follow it to Bethlehem, where they meet a woman, her husband, and the couple’s newborn son, who have taken shelter in a cave. The Egyptian Balthasar resurfaces throughout the novel; the Hindu Melchior and the Greek Gaspar disappear from the tale completely after performing their well-known roles ­– they bestow their gifts and that’s the end of them.

 Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, two young friends meet again after a five-year hiatus in their friendship. Judah Ben-Hur is the son and heir-apparent of a wealthy Jewish family; Messala, the son of a Roman tax collector and Judah’s bestie, has been in Rome for the last five years and has become obnoxiously Roman. The young men argue, and their reunion turns nasty. Messala leaves, saying, curiously, “Eros is dead. Mars reigns!” (See “Homosexual Panic,” below.)

Soon after, Judah and his sister Tizrah are on the rooftop terrace of their family’s fabulous palace watching the Roman prefect, Gatus, pass by on the street below. A tile from the roof dislodges itself and falls directly on Gatus’s head. Gatus can’t take a cosmic joke; he assumes that someone in the Hur household is out to assassinate him. Messala employs Gatus’s false assumption to his advantage: he rats on Judah. And before you can say vomitorium, Judah is a galley slave on a Roman ship and his mother and sister disappear into the Roman criminal justice system, which consists essentially of being wiped off the face of the earth.   

Vengeance keeps Judah alive. That and Olympian rowing skills. In chains on a warship sent out to combat pirates, Judah – who was always good-looking but now has a killer body thanks to all the rowing – manages to impress the ship’s wealthy captain, Quintus Arrius, who is startled (to say the least) when, upon asking Judah to tell his life story, discovers that this particular galley slave is actually the heir to the Hur fortune, which of course has been confiscated by Gatus. Arrius unlocks Judah’s chains, Judah saves Arrius’ life, Arrius frees Judah and adopts him, and Judah – all the while nursing his grudge against Messala – begins a five-year training program in wrestling. (See “Homosexual Panic,” below.)

Ben-Hur has a complicated storyline, so I’ll skip the part about Simonides, the Hurs’s former slave, who has invested the Hurs’s former riches so well that he is now a wealthy Antioch businessman, as well as the part about Simonides’ daughter, Esther, who is the Biblical epic’s idea of a hot babe, and move swiftly forward to the reappearance of Messala, who turns up as the honorary emcee at an orgy, the centerpiece of which is a beautiful boy served up for the amusement of the guests (see You Know What, below).

Messala prepares for a chariot race. It’s exciting. Judah wins. Messala loses and gets trampled by horses, rendering him lame. That’ll show him.

Gratus is replaced as prefect by Pontius Pilate. This is not a good sign as far as the Jesus subplot is concerned. But for the Hur family, it’s great news, for Pilate sets about the task of examining a notorious Jerusalem prison and discovers that an extra cell has been constructed behind the cells he knows about from a diagram. They open up this secret cell and out pop Ben-Hur’s mother and sister. That’s the good news. The bad news is, they’re lepers.

Things begin to take a religious turn when Judah journeys to the Jordan River to see what all the fuss is about a scraggly man who dips people in the riverwater  — people including a Nazarene. Balthasar is overjoyed to reencounter the baby from the cave, now a grown man. During the next three years, Judah becomes one of the Nazarene’s followers, though he misunderstands the whole King of the Jews thing. (He thinks the kingdom exists on an earthly level. Ha!) Rumors of miraculous healing surround the Nazarene, and they’re proven correct when He heals Ben-Hur’s mother and sister’s leprosy. His mother stops crying “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever anybody approaches them, which is a big relief for the reader.

Judas Iscariot leads a parade through the streets of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane. The rest of the novel virtually tells itself: Jesus is apprehended, tried, and sentenced to crucifixion. Ben-Hur turns up at the foot of the cross and offers Jesus some vinegar, the sky darkens, and Jesus dies His gruesome death.

Five years pass. Judah and Simonides’ daughter Esther are now married with kids. They have become what’s known as “Christians,” followers of the Nazarene. Messala, having become irrelevant to the story, has been killed by Iras, Balthazar’s very fucked-up daughter. Ben-Hur and Esther plan to build an underground church – literally – in Rome. It becomes known as the Catacomb of Callixtus.

Why They Keep Remaking Ben-Hur

It should be apparent from the story that Ben-Hur’s enduring popularity stems from its mix of piety and brutality, the cornerstones of many religions, especially Christianity. By “brutality,” I am not referring to any of the many horrible things the church has done in Jesus’ name (burning Jews at the stake, burning witches at the stake, burning Joan of Arc at the stake….) I’m thinking more about the central symbol of the faith — Christ on the cross suffering an appalling, extraordinarily painful death. Suffering is central to Christian theology, and Ben-Hur provides both the pious and the brutal in nearly equal measure.

Interest in the so-called “swords and sandals” epic peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s. Quo Vadis, The Robe, Spartacus, Hercules, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules…. These films sprung, I think, from two cultural trends. First, Hollywood – facing competition from television – understood that it could offer something American audiences couldn’t get at home: vast color images that made their black and white television sets look positively puny. Cinerama, CinemaScope, VistaVision, and Panavision all expanded what had previously been the standard aspect ratio, the so-called Academy ratio, which was 1.375:1, meaning that the screen’s width was about 1 1/3 of its height. Norma Desmond, in Sunset Blvd, could only get away with saying, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” because Cinerama, the first of the widescreen processes, hadn’t yet been invented when Billy Wilder’s masterpiece came out in 1950. This Is Cinerama, the first film to use that process, was released in 1952.

With gigantic images came gigantic movies, and the swords and sandals epic filled the screen with gigantic, muscular men.

That leads to the second cultural trend: the 1950s were all about beautiful men. From heartthrobs like Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue and Ricky Nelson to big, muscly men like Victor Mature and Steve Reeves, the 1950s were awash in male beauty. Groucho Marx said of Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, “No picture can hold my interest where the leading man's tits are bigger than the leading lady's.” The swords and sandals epic provided audiences with images of powerful masculinity – an all but obscene attention to men’s bodies that Ben-Hur’s piety successfully justified by counteracting.

Homosexual Panic!

Gore Vidal was one of the writers of the 1959 remake. Referring to that film, Vidal later wrote: “The only way one could justify several hours of hatred between two lads—and all those horses—was to establish, without saying so in words, an affair between them as boys; then, when reunited at picture's start, the Roman, played by Stephen Boyd, wants to pick up where they left off and the Jew, Heston, spurns him.” At the time, he’s said to have mentioned this gay subtext to Wyler, who approved it but cautioned Vidal, “Don’t tell Chuck.”

Amazingly enough, the novel itself is rife with suggestions that there is more to the boys’ friendship than one might imagine, coming as it all does from the pen of a Civil War general. Take that strange “Eros is dead. Mars reigns!” line. Eros? Never mind that Eros was a Greek god, not a Roman one. (Cupid was the Roman one.) He was in both cases the god of desire, and it was not the desire for material objects. Eros was all about sex. So when Messala makes his transition from Judah’s friend to his enemy, he alludes to their former status as two boys in love.

Then there’s that set-up scene to the orgy; that one leaves no room for misinterpretation.

As if that wasn’t enough, Messala writes a letter to Gratus the morning after the festivities. Referring to Judah, Messala writes: “inasmuch as I loved him in childhood – I used in much admiration to call him my Ganymede….” If you read the dirty parts of Greek and Roman mythology as a youth, you know that Ganymede was a beautiful mortal boy raised up to Mount Olympus by Zeus himself, supposedly to pour the head god’s wine. Yeah, right! Plato saw through that euphemism and flatly declared that the Ganymede myth was about pederasty.

How does this fascination with gay imagery fit into my theory of why the novel spawned so many remakes, not to mention a Broadway play? Well, I can’t speak to the other versions of Ben-Hur, but the Fifties was in fact a time when America was intrigued and horrified by homosexuality and homosexuals. A novel in which gay desire lies just beneath the surface was a perfect choice for source material for a 1959 movie. It was an era in which film audiences were regularly invited to gaze upon male pulchritude (as Groucho so eloquently described it) and/or beauty. Ben-Hur gave audiences an opportunity to watch two handsome muscular men play out a rivalry that, at its core, is rooted in a thwarted sexual relationship.

One More Thing

Strangely, this Biblical drama contains not a whit of forgiveness or redemption on the part of Ben-Hur. He actively hopes to destroy Messala, and for the most part he succeeds — after the chariot race Messala is a broken man, and it's all because of Judah. For a book that finds the protagonist at the foot of the cross and ends with his conversion to Christianity, one expects some sort of moral reckoning for Ben-Hur.

But no. He goes on his merry way, leaving Messala a cripple. It's a curious absence. There is no confession of Ben-Hur's sins, most particularly his single-minded vengeance and its consequent destruction of Messala; no absolution; no redemption. Ben-Hur feels absolutely no responsibility for Messala's ruination. Could this lack account for at least some of the book's popularity? One might call it Christianity with a vengeance. Whatever the reason, we just can't get enough Ben-Hur.

About the author

Ed Sikov is the author of 7 books about films and filmmakers, including On Sunset Boulevard:; The Life and Times of Billy Wilder; Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers; and Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis.

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