Interesting facts about the Lew Wallace book Ben-Hur, and its subsequent life on film
1. It was the bestselling American novel of the nineteenth century. Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur (1880) even outsold that other runaway bestseller, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). And this was despite slow sales: in the first seven months it didn’t even shift 3,000 copies. The novel’s protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur (a figure invented by Wallace, and not someone who is known in history), is a Jewish nobleman and prince who is taken slave by the Romans (fitted up on a false charge of attempted murder, when a piece of his roof accidentally dropped on the Roman parade passing his house) and becomes a charioteer in the Roman games. (The fact that poor Judah is falsely accused of a crime and is, as it were, had up on false charges suggests that the Ridley Scott film Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe, was considerably influenced by Wallace’s novel and its film adaptations.) The novel cleverly parallels Ben-Hur’s story with that of Jesus (the subtitle to the novel is A Tale of the Christ), another Jewish figure living under Roman occupation in the same part of the world, and at the same time (we don’t want to give too much away, but the two men’s lives interlink at key moments).
2. It was even beatified by the Pope. Pope Leo XIII blessed the novel, and so Ben-Hur became the first work of fiction ever beatified by the Catholic Church. The novel is often seen as the greatest Christian novel of the entire nineteenth century.
3. Oddly, though – or, perhaps, fittingly – the idea for the book arose out of Wallace’s own ignorance of Christianity. Wallace later attributed the germ of the book to a conversation he had on a train with Colonel Robert Ingersoll in 1876. They discussed Christianity and Wallace concluded that he didn’t know enough about the religion, so resolved to look into it more, with a view to writing about the history of Christianity and the life of Jesus Christ. Wallace himself was not a Christian and never belonged to any sect within Christianity. (Ingersoll, meanwhile – his interlocutor on that momentous train journey – was a noted agnostic.)
4. Lew Wallace corresponded with notorious outlaw Billy the Kid. In 1879, the year before he published Ben-Hur, Wallace – who had been made Governor of New Mexico in 1878 – struck a deal with Billy the Kid, promising to get him immunity from prosecution if the Kid – real name Henry McCarty – agreed to testify against some other criminals. After considering the offer, the Kid agreed – though the district attorney dismissed Wallace’s order and detained McCarty anyway. Billy the Kid would later escape from the jail, surviving on the run for two years until he was shot by sheriff Pat Garrett. You can read some of Wallace’s correspondence with Billy the Kid here.
5. Ben-Hur had already been filmed for the big screen twice before the blockbuster 1959 epic. The first film adaptation was in 1907, and the second in 1925. There are rumours that some of the extras involved in the pivotal chariot-racing scene died during the filming of the 1959 version, but this is untrue – though one unfortunate stuntman did die during the filming of the chariot-race scene for the 1925 movie. The screenplay for the 1959 MGM film, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the lead role, was the work of many hands, including Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry (best remembered for his historical verse drama The Lady’s Not for Burning). The 1959 film swept the board at the Oscars that year, winning an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards, a record that would not be equalled until 1997 when Titanic picked up 11 gongs.
Image: Poster from the Brodway premiere of Ben Hur, c. 1899 (author: Strobridge Lithography Company); Wikimedia Commons.