Thanks to the astronomically famous 1959 movie, Ben-Hur is known mostly for its sick-ass chariot race (and the gruesome-though-debunked urban legend that somebody's death appears on film). But here's a fun Easter fact: It was originally based on a hugely popular novel published in 1880, written by a Civil War general. And that shit was all about Jesus.
This is one of my all-time favorite pieces of pop cultural history, which I first learned while browsing my school library as a bored tween history enthusiast. For starters, the original title was, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It opens with the three wise men meeting up in the desert. The last line of the novel is: "So wilt thou best serve the Christ. O my husband, let me not hinder, but go with thee and help." In between, Ben-Hur the character is essentially a device to tell the story of Jesus.
Two years ago, over at Slate, John Swansburg published a great recounting of the life of the novel's author, Lew Wallace. Before he was famous as the author of Ben-Hur, he was infamous as the U.S. general who showed up too late with reinforcements at the Battle of Shiloh. (A Union victory, but a bloodbath.) Wallace sat down to write his novel after a long conversation on a train with a prominent atheist, as a kind of creative way to explore Christian theology for himself.
Swansburg explains that the book hit several cultural sweet spots of the time. Ben-Hur is a prosperous and righteous man whose life is essentially stolen when a tile falls from his roof and kills the incoming governor of Judea. But he perseveres and is rewarded with—hey!—more riches. Very Gilded Age. Plus, Biblical novels were popular. And then there's the reconciliationist mood of the time, which painted the "late unpleasantness" as some sort of terrible family squabble (and pretty much writing African Americans out of the whole story):
Carl Van Doren, in The American Novel (1921), credited Ben-Hur with winning "practically the ultimate victory over village opposition to the novel," arguing that it was likely the first work of fiction many Americans ever read—or at least the second, after Uncle Tom's Cabin. As Howard Miller, a professor emeritus of history and religious studies at the University of Texas, has argued, if Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel played a role in dividing the Union in the 1850s, "Wallace's Ben-Hur helped to reunite the nation in the years following Reconstruction."
"Offering the satisfaction of a revenge plot while preaching the gospel of compassion,Ben-Hur resonated with a country that was moving from vengeance to forgiveness itself," Swansburg adds.
The media business hasn't changed THAT much; anything that popular was bound to be mined for every last dollar. It was adapted into a stage production that would tour around for the next two decades. It was adapted again into a short film in 1907 (a copyright infringement, according to TCM), then a silent feature-length film in 1925. Here's a trailer:
Several companies slapped the name on their products, as well. Do a little browsing on Ebay or Etsy and you'll find Ben-Hur spices and Ben-Hur perfume. There was even a Ben-Hur Manufacturing that eventually made Ben-Hur brand freezers. Because nothing says modern refrigeration like ancient Jerusalem!
If you've ever made it all the way to the end of the 1959 epic, suddenly things are making a lot more sense. Because while most of the movie focuses on Ben-Hur and Roman society and battle scenes and races and feasting, the last twenty minutes or so is BOOM, JESUS. Suddenly you're watching a passion play. For instance:
In the end, Ben Hur's mother and sister are cured of their leprosy (the most Biblical of afflictions) in a storm that comes after the crucifixion. There's a long shot in which Christ's blood mingles with the water flowing down from Calvary Hill. Basically, the final scenes skirt damn close to bringing out Johnny Cash to sing "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)." But still, by midcentury, it's pretty much Ben-Hur's story. Jesus is really a plot device, instead of the animating spirit. An "eh, eh, eh?" for the complacently devout America of the 1950s.
Oh, and it of course provided MGM the opportunity for a second round of frantic merchandising. According to TCM:
Merchandising tie-ins were lined up, including fashions inspired by the film, a chariot race toy set, a Ben-Hur candy bar, and children's costumes complete with swords, breastplates, helmets, and scooter chariots. Four different publishers put out paperback copies of the novel and Random House issued a hardback souvenir book to be sold in bookstores and theater lobbies.
Anyway, it'll be interesting to see where the coming remake—starring Jack Huston and directed by Timur Bekmambetov—goes with all this. In the meantime, just a little something to ponder the next time you catch Ben-Hur on TCM in the middle of the night.
Illinois theater poster via Everett Historical/Shutterstock; other images screencapped.