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The bit-part Saviour and that chariot race

09 September 2016

The new Ben-Hur is the first version to give Jesus a speaking part. Stephen Brown traces a line of creative decisions


Chariot of fire: Charlton Heston and his four white horses in one of the most famous scenes in film history

Chariot of fire: Charlton Heston and his four white horses in one of the most famous scenes in film history

PHILIP MARLOWE: Would you happen to have a Ben-Hur, 1860?
Agnes Lowzier: A what?
Marlowe: I said, would you happen to have a Ben-Hur, 1860?
Lowzier: A first edition?
Marlowe: No, no, no, no, no. The third. The third. The one with the erratum on page one-sixteen.

This mention of Ben-Hur in Wil­liam Faulkner’s screenplay adapta­tion of The Big Sleep (1946) is a typical example of how deeply Lew Wallace’s novel has penetrated our cultural consciousness. It’s a trick question, one designed by the priv­ate eye Philip Marlowe to determine whether the bookstore he is inves­tigating is phoney: any bookseller worth his or her salt would have known that Ben-Hur: A tale of the Christ was not published until 1880.

Marlowe’s question is also an acknowledgement that the book has been through endless editions. Never out of print, the book has, after a slow start, sold countless millions. The release this week of yet another film version offers an opportunity to reflect on the cultural phenomenon that Ben-Hur truly is.

Such is its fame that the title and contents, especially the chariot race, are frequently referred to by other writers and in the media (Buster Keaton’s 1923 spoof Three Ages; a Muppets episode that featured “Ben-Hare”; and a Beyoncé video). Merchandise that capitalised on the book’s eminence started early: Ben-Hur Cigars went on sale in 1886. Dozens of other products have followed: bikes, flour, perfume, cars, whiskey. There is even an Edin­burgh fish-and-chip shop so named.


THE protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, is a Jewish nobleman. He returns to Jerusalem, where he is reunited with his childhood friend, Messala, who is from a priv­ileged Roman family. The pair soon discover that, in the interim, they have developed conflicting views, and this culminates in Judah’s being falsely accused of an assassination attempt. His brutal lifelong punish­ment is to be a slave on a galley ship; his mother and sister are put in prison, where they contract leprosy.

Hundreds of pages of adventure then follow, but most important are the points at which Ben-Hur’s story overlaps with that of Jesus of Nazareth.

The two first meet when, as a parched galley slave, Ben-Hur receives a cup of water from Jesus, a stranger. Later, Ben-Hur encounters Balthasar, one of the Magi who worshipped the Christ-child, who tells him of a spiritual kingdom in contrast with those that rely on might. Chiefly, though, it is at the point of Christ’s Passion that the hero, long having aspired to be revenged, learns to forgive in accord­ance with his new-found Chris­tian faith. Judah, now restored to his estate, provides the means whereby Christians can practise their faith among the catacombs of Rome.


AMY LIFSON, the assistant editor for the magazine Humanities, called Wallace’s novel “the most influential Chris­tian book of the 19th century”. A survey carried out by the New York Evangelist in 1894 declared Ben-Hur the best Sunday-school book. But not everybody has liked it over the years. The iconoclastic literary critic Professor Leslie Fielder called it the worst American novel ever, second only to Thomas Dixon’s The Clans­man; and some religious journals at the time considered it too worldly a take on the gospel story.

It is true that Wallace was some­what unconventional with regard to regular worship. In his autobio­graphy, he states that he has never been a member of any church or denomination. While believing “absolutely in the Christian conception of God”, he did not think himself “good enough to be a communicant”.

None the less, the writing of Ben-Hur seems to be born out of Wallace’s own spiritual quest, which, he said, began as the result of a con­versation about faith, which he had with a man whose sceptical views left Wallace determined to understand the scriptures more clearly.


CERTAINLY, a great amount of research went into his book: so much that when, during his time as United States govern­ment minister to the Otto­man Empire (1881-85), he even­tually visited Rome and the Holy Land, such was the accuracy of his original work that he saw no need to amend it in any way. He had been a lawyer before taking up a career in politics in Indiana, and became the state governor before being elected to the US House of Representatives.

He was also one of the youngest generals during the Civil War. Apparently, after the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, the commanding officer blamed Wallace for the many Unionist casualties. The perceived injustice haunted Wallace to his dying day, and a parallel could be drawn with the similar situation experienced by Ben-Hur in the film.

After the Civil War, Wallace was made governor of New Mexico, during which time his magnum opus was completed and published.

Ben-Hur took the religious novel into new territory. Its forerunners were works such as J. H. Ingraham’s The Prince of the House of David (1856), and Herman Melville’s Clarel (1876), but Wallace’s genius lay in making Jesus, despite its subtitle, A tale of the Christ, only a bit-player in the work. It was a device of Walter Scott, an author revered by Wallace. Alexander Dumas was another favourite, and, indeed, Ben-Hur’s plight resembles that of the central character in The Count of Monte Cristo. It was this combination of romance-adventure with religious nuance that made Ben-Hur a bestseller.

It was no surprise when spin-offs began to emerge. The Broadway producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger staged the first play version in 1899, written by William Young. A sense of spectacle seemed to be the primary objective: horses and camels were roped in, and under-stage treadmills, cradles, and cyclo­ramas were used to create the chariot race. In 1907, Sidney Olcott directed an on-screen version of this Ben-Hur production for the Kalem Company. Klaw and Erlanger, by then also venturing into the film industry, successfully sued Kalem, a legal action that established sig­nificant copyright laws in film-making.

In actuality, the 15-minute-long Kalem film contained only a fraction of the stage play’s content. Manhattan Beach, in Brooklyn, replaces the Holy Land, and Jesus does not appear at all. Hardly “a tale of the Christ”, it is more a toga-and-sandals epic where Roman oppres­sion is overthrown — a crowd-pleaser of a film. You could even say that the crowds in the film are the real stars, because it is they who are the ultimate victors, thanks to their saviour, Judah Ben-Hur.


BOTH the play and the film shied away from using an actor to portray Christ, in expecta­tion of common religious objections to the impersonation of Christ and because Wallace had forbidden any human representations of Christ on stage. So, in the play, the unseen Christ is symbolically depicted as a beam of light. For some audiences, this might be felt as a denial of the incarnation, but, for increasingly secular societies, this gave scope for each spectator to decide how to in­­terpret this light.

Indeed, this idea lay at the heart of the first feature-length remake of Wallace’s story, a screenplay drafted by June Mathis, who was deemed the most powerful woman in Holly­wood at the time. She is now chiefly remembered as the writer and pro­ducer of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).

Mathis’s religious affiliations were with Spiritualism, which led to a treatment of Ben-Hur which was not specifically religious, just vaguely spiritual, and there are some homo­sexual and feminist elements. The Mathis script was thrown out, how­ever, in favour of one by Carey Wil­son, and, after a number of false starts, the job of directing was taken over by Fred Niblo, who was con­sidered a safe pair of hands.

The silent film starred Ramon Novarro, a largely unknown Mex­ican actor. While Ben-Hur is por­trayed with a skin-colouring that might approximate an Israelite prince, the racial identity of Jesus is never on show. All we get are rear views, together with the hand that offers the galley slave a cup of water. Cinematically, this is highly effect­ive. Jesus remains a mysterious fig­ure on to whom viewers can place their own interpretations. Claude Payton, playing Jesus, is not even in the credits.


AS WITH many Jesus drama­tisations, huge interest focuses on the Judas character. It has been suggested that, in this 1925 version, the Ben-Hur and Judas characters are two sides of the same coin. Both men seek a Messiah who will rid them of their oppres­sors. One scenario has Iscariot clinging on to the notion of this will be accomplished by a mighty war­rior, while Ben-Hur is converted to an understanding of a saviour who is the Prince of Peace.

It could also be argued that, after a bloody First World War, this was an appeal to the nations not to rely on military means of settling their differences. The film shows ad­­vancing armies laying down their arms when they are reminded, by means of an intertitle — dialogue flashed on the screen between the scenes of a silent film — that Jesus “bade us hold our peace, forgive our enemies, love one another, and pray”.


THE best-known version, how­ever, is undoubtedly the 1959 film that stars Charlton Heston. The greatly admired William Wyler was much bemused, as a Jew, to be asked to direct this Christian epic, but he was fired up by the potential of drawing parallels between a besieged Judaea and a modern Israel, and Ben-Hur man­ages to remain a faithful Jew while becoming a Christian.

Wyler’s skill was to incorporate themes of forgiveness into what is essentially a compelling action movie. His approach is to come at the Gospels obliquely; for example, Judah is en route to meeting Pontius Pilate when he passes a man preaching a sermon on a mount near by, and Wyler also continues the tradition of keeping the face of Jesus out of shot.

The title credits may state that it is A tale of the Christ, but it could be argued that Jesus is not only off-screen, but is not much more than an incidental player, who, at best, motivates those who are dealing with their oppressors. It could be said, rather, that it is a tale of one who becomes Christlike, and who, as with the 1925 version, remembers and lives out Jesus’s teachings.

The famous chariot race has no background music, and seems to want to express that this is not a victory of a subject-nation over Roman grandeur. Heston even expresses this sentiment in a line that says that conflicts fuelled by hatred and revenge can have no winners. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the heroes in Wyler’s two preceding films — Friendly Persua­sion (1956), and The Big Country (1958) — are both pacifists.

There is also an amusing, if apocryphal, story that Wyler, at Gore Vidal’s suggestion, introduced a homo-erotic dimension to the friendship of Ben-Hur and Messala that everyone but Heston was privy to. Another possible subtext that is less disputed is the film’s critique of Senator McCarthy’s infamous in­­ves­tigations into Hollywood’s sup­posed Communist leanings.

Wyler was one of many film­makers who opposed to these inquiries; in the film, Messala’s inter­rogation of Judah, demanding that he names comrades hostile to Roman rule, could be said to echo the McCarthy Committee investigation.


SINCE 1959, there have been several other Ben-Hurs, includ­ing a television mini-series. There is also an animation video, in which the face of Jesus is revealed, and there is a resurrection appear­ance. The new film is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, best known for his vampire movies, and stars Jack Huston as Ben-Hur, and the Bra­­zil­­ian actor Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus. It is the first Ben-Hur cinema version where the Christ is fully visible, and frequently speaks on-screen.

The decision to give Jesus a voice may be, in part, an assumption that today’s audiences will need help to familiarise themselves with the Gospel accounts. My own quarrel is that casting someone with an accent so different from other char­acters makes Jesus not one of us, and undermines the incarnation.

The official tie-in novel of the new film is written by Carol Wal­lace, Lew Wallace’s great-great-granddaughter (most famous for co-writing To Marry an English Lord, which was the inspiration for Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey). Ms Wallace has trimmed the novel down, tidied up the archaic lan­guage, and added some resurrection appearances from those mentioned in St John’s Gospel.

Although the new Ben-Hur has underperformed at the American box office, the film has received favourable reviews in church circles — especially among Evangelicals — for its message of grace, forgiveness, and redemption. A Christian communications group, Damaris Media, is providing free official community resources to accompany the new film, including a youth activity pack, and a discussion guide designed for use by churches. If they are effective, they will move viewers into a deeper understanding of Christ that transcends the lim­itations of Wallace’s narrative and its various dramatisations.


'Still awaiting a gentler world' - Stephen Brown reviews the new Ben-Hur film

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