Ancient Judea, Ancient Rome, Ben Hur, Charleton Heston, Gore Vidal, Jesus of Nazareth, Karl Tunberg, Lew Wallace, Mark Burnett, Messala Severus, Ramon Navarro, Rodrigo Santoro, Roma Downey, Toby Kebbell, William Wyler
The new Ben-Hur (2016, dir. Timur Bekmambetov) is constantly talked about as a remake of the 1959 version starring Charleton Heston as the title character. But that’s not really true. The reality is that Ben-Hur is a complex enough body of material that it’s almost its own minor genre.
The origins of the film lie more than a century ago, in 1880 when Lew Wallace published his novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It’s a sprawling novel of more than 500 page that interweaves the lives of Judah Ben-Hur and Jesus’.Iin fact Judah only makes his first appearance in Part 2 (out of 8); Part 1 is devoted entirely to a retelling of Jesus’ birth. So basically, Wallace took the Biblical account of the life of Christ and used it as a background to the life of his hero, with Judah periodically running into Jesus or meeting his followers.
Wallace himself was an interesting character. Trained as a lawyer, he served as a Union general during the American Civil War and served on the military commission that tried the conspirators involved in Lincoln’s assassination. He supported Rutherford B Hayes in one of the most controversial elections in American history, and was rewarded in 1878 after Hayes’ victory by being appointed Governor of New Mexico Territory. It was during his time in that office that he wrote Ben-Hur (having already written a novel and a play). He also found time to arrange for Billy the Kid to testify in exchange for immunity for his crimes. In 1881 he was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Sales of the novel were slow at first, but within a few years the novel took off, and by 1900 it had becomes the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It remained at the top of the charts until 1936, when it was knocked off by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
Wallace initially resisted allowing the novel to be turned into a play, out of a concern that no one could properly portray Jesus, but in 1889, he agreed to an adaptation in which Jesus was represented by a beam of light. That production was a run-away success, drawing an audience of religious men and women who had previously been uncomfortable with theater for moral reasons. It became a touring show and only ceased to be performed in 1921. The production used a system of horses running on treadmills with a moving background.
Ben-Hur in Films
Given the story’s intense popularity at the start of the 20th century, it was a fairly natural choice for movie-makers. In 1907, Sidney Olcott made a 15-minute silent movie that focused entirely on the chariot race, using New Jersey firemen as the charioteers and horses that normally pulled fire wagons. However, Olcott never bothered to get permission from the Wallace estate, triggering a landmark lawsuit that established that film makers were legally obligated to obtain the rights to any previously published work that was still under copyright. If you’re interested in this version, you can watch it on Youtube.
In 1922, Goldwyn Studios secured the rights to Ben-Hur and made an epic silent movie staring Ramon Navarro in the title role. Filmed in Italy, this version told the whole of Ben-Hur’s story, but stripped out most of the material about Jesus and his followers. It was the most expensive silent movie ever made and when it was released late in 1925, it managed to lose money even though it was a blockbuster (in part because the licensing deal gave the Wallace estate 50% of the profits). The film made Navarro one of the leader Hollywood actors. Its version of the chariot race was highly influential, and provided the template for racing scenes in the 1959 version of the film, as well as the 1998 Prince of Egypt animated movie and the pod-racing scene in The Phantom Menace.
The production was extremely troubled; among other catastrophes, May McAvoy, who was playing Esther, dislocated both her wrists; it was rumored that several extras died during the naval battle scene because they couldn’t swim; and the racing scene involved the death of quite a number of horses. The chariot race drew the whole pantheon of Hollywood royalty to watch it, and if you looked closely, you can see Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lilian and Dorothy Gish, Sid Grauman, Samuel Goldwyn, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Fay Wray in the stands. If you’re a fan of cinema history, it’s worth reading about the production.
The film is also quite explicit about its pro-Christian stance. It opens with the Nativity. Jesus cures Judah’s mother and sister of leprosy, while Judah attempts to lead an anti-Roman rebellion in the name of Jesus. It ends with the whole Hur family converting to Christianity. Like the stage play, Jesus is never show full-on, and is sometimes represented by a shaft of light.
In 1959, the story got its most famous cinematic treatment when it was directed by William Wyler, with Charleton Heston playing the lead. Like the 1925 version, it was a huge hit, winning 11 Academy Awards (a feat not equaled until 1997’s Titanic). It is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made.
But getting the script written was a challenge; it went through 12 different drafts. Karl Tunberg got the script after numerous re-writes and stripped out a good deal of material that had been in the novel, including a substantial chunk of material that follows the fate of the characters after the Crucifixion.
Wyler intensely disliked Tunberg’s dialog, which he felt was too modern, and so he hired Gore Vidal to re-do the dialog. In 1995, Vidal famously claimed that he felt that the dynamic between Judah and Messala only made sense if the two men had once been lovers and that Messala was hoping to get back together with Judah but felt rejected after Judah spurned his advances. According to Vidal, he persuaded Wyler to accept his reading, and told Stephen Boyd, who was playing Messala, to play the scenes that way, but did not tell Heston. When the notoriously conservative Heston learned about Vidal’s claim, he vehemently denied it, but if Vidal’s story is true, Heston wouldn’t have known about it.
Decide for yourself if you believe Vidal’s story.
Regardless of whether Vidal added a homoerotic subtext or not, the film made other changes to the novel. Wallace’s novel is unabashed in its treatment of Christianity being superior to Judaism; the major Jewish characters mostly wind up converting to Christianity after all. Wyler’s version, which was made about a decade after the establishment of the modern state of Israel, was more respectful to Judaism. Jesus’ face is not shown and the actor who played him was not given any lines. Although the ending strongly hints at Ben-Hur’s conversion, it doesn’t make it explicit.
In 2003, Charleton Heston reprised his role in an animated version of the story, produced by his own production company. This version returns to Wallace’ approach to the religious issue. Jesus (voiced by Scott McNeill) is seen and given dialog. Ben-Hur’s sister and mother are both miraculously healed of leprosy, and Messala is miraculously cured of the injured leg he received in the chariot race. Mary Magdalene witnesses Jesus’ resurrection and ascent into Heaven, and the film closes with Judah teaching his children to be Christians.
There was also a 2010 Canadian miniseries of the story, with a cast that included Hugh Bonneville, Alex Kingston, Ray Winstone, and Ben Cross in supporting roles, but I haven’t been able to find enough about it to know how closely it adheres to the original material.
The 2016 Ben-Hur
I think it’s important to see the 2016 film in this light. Many people who’ve commented on the film seem unaware of any version other than the 1959 one, and consequently assume that the Heston version represents a sort of baseline from which the 2016 version has deviated. In fact, the Heston version is really the outlier. With the exception of the 1907 silent version, which is just the chariot race, most of the other versions have been explicitly Christian in their sympathies, and it’s the Christian element of the story that really attracted its executive producers, Roma “Touched By an Angel” Downey and Mark Burnett. Downey and Burnett have been nicknamed “Hollywood’s Noisest Christians” for their unabashed interest in pursuit of the evangelical film market. They produced the History Channel miniseries The Bible, and they have said they viewed the film as “a story of forgiveness with an underlying story of Jesus”.
So the film’s decision to cast Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus and to give him several scenes beyond just the Crucifixion is in fact quite true to the source novel. It represents a movement away from Classic Hollywood’s desire to avoid directly showing Jesus on screen, but that’s a convention that no longer has much force.
Given the explicitly Christian background of this version, it’s perhaps surprising that the script isn’t even more Christian than it is. Until the Crucifixion scene, none of Jesus’ dialog comes from the Gospels, and you might be forgiven for not figuring out that this anonymous carpenter is supposed to be Jesus instead of some New Age political thinker. The film even has a clever twist. Dismas (Moises Arias) is an angry anti-Roman zealot whose attempt to assassinate Pontius Pilate causes the ruination of the Hur family, but at the end of the film he’s one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus, the one who declares that Jesus has does nothing to deserve this punishment.
Unfortunately, the film’s treatment of its Jewish characters is rather awkward. Given the anti-Semitism that was so common in American culture in the late 19th and early 20th century it’s not surprising that the novel and the earlier cinematic versions were so explicitly pro-Christian. The 1959 version, as I noted, downplayed that. But in 2016, having literally all the Jewish characters convert feels rather culturally insensitive.
At no point does the film make any real effort to establish what Judaism involved in this period, except that it doesn’t involve the worship of multiple gods. There are a few minor details in the sets; for example, the individual graves in the Jewish cemetery have small stones placed on them in keeping with the modern Jewish custom of doing just that. But that’s about it. None of the Jewish characters ever does anything that seems distinctly Jewish in either a cultural or a religious sense. For example, there are no shots of the Second Temple or depictions of any Jewish religious rituals, no references to Jewish dietary rules, or anything like that. Combined with the conversions at the end of the film, it seems clear that Judah and the rest of the Hur clan aren’t really Jews so much as proto-Christians.
And perhaps the expanded Christian elements of the film are part of the reason that it did so poorly at the box office. The story isn’t Christian enough to draw a large evangelical audience, but it’s Christian enough that its tenor feels out of step with what contemporary film-goers are looking for. It’s a bit like Toby Kebbell’s Messala, too Roman to fit in with his Jewish adoptive family and not Roman enough to please the Romans he serves. In the end, both Messala and the film failed to win out.
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Or think about reading the original novel, which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It’s still one of the 20 best-selling novels of all time.