Next week, the new Ben-Hur hits movie screens around the world. Many of you who know me know about my love for this story. If a guy wrote a 400-page love letter to his girl, you’d say he was nuts for her. Well, I wrote a 400 page sequel to this story, so yes…I’m nuts. But let me explain why.
First, Ben-Hur has been a cultural phenomenon for more than a century. I’m not alone in my love affair with this story.
Written by a nondescript Union Civil War general named Lew Wallace, published in 1880, it became a monster best-seller. Year after year for decades the book was second only to the Bible in total sales (until “Gone With The Wind” knocked it from its perch in 1936.)
Adapted for the theater, Ben-Hur was then brought to Broadway in 1899, and became The Phantom of the Opera of its generation – seen by more than 20 million people around the world in its 20-year run. (The play featured live horses in the critical chariot race scene, running on a treadmill while a tapestry moved behind them.)
Naturally as movie-making took off, it came to the screen. In 1925, it became one of the most successful silent movies ever made. Remade 34 years later, the 1959 blockbuster with Charlton Heston became the most decorated movie in Oscar history (until “Titanic” and “Return of the King” tied its haul of 11 Oscars.)
See…I’m not making this up. It’s not just a personal fetish of mine. Modern filmgoers who think of the original Star Wars as an ancient classic need to broaden their horizons.
There is a second reason for Ben-Hur leaving its mark on every generation that encounters it. The story is simply put – an artistic masterpiece. It’s the tale of a fictional Jewish prince who is betrayed in adulthood by a childhood friend and sent to the galleys as a Roman slave. (The new film actually makes Judah and Messala half-brothers, which was an unnecessary innovation.)
Coming out of the Civil War, Wallace knew first-hand about friends and brothers turning against each other in warlike hatred. (Some scholars actually credited the novel with helping soothe the wounds between North and South because of its themes of forgiveness and family healing.)
Through providential fortune, in battle Judah rescues the Roman commander of his ship, and is consequently adopted by him. Given a new life, Judah returns to Jerusalem to find his family and seek vengeance on Messala, which brings them to their fateful showdown in a chariot race. (Sorry you young’uns, the race scene in Star Wars I was not original; it was George Lucas’ homage to Ben-Hur).
The story is brilliant in its emotional sweep. No pressure on the film-makers of the new movie, but it would almost be impossible to botch this. Just get Michael Phelps in the water. Just put the American men and women’s basketball teams on the floor. Just let the story drive itself, and they’ll be fine.
But Lew Wallace did something brilliant with his story that assured its legendary status. The third reason for its success is its subtle, yet dynamic spirituality. Wallace’s story actually began as a much shorter tale about the Magi (wisemen) from the Bible’s Christmas story. After a provocative conversation on a train with a verbose agnostic, Wallace felt challenged to probe the spiritual themes of his story far more deeply.
Consequently the book evolved in his mind into ‘a tale of the Christ’ (which eventually became the novel’s subtitle.) In returning to Jerusalem, Judah crosses paths with Jesus, whose message and sacrifice removes the thorn of rage from Judah’s heart and restores him to his family.
What Wallace did so masterfully – which few writers had successfully managed to do before him – was insert Christianity into his story in such a way that unsuspecting readers were not bludgeoned by it. Jesus doesn’t fully appear until the last section of the book. And when he arrives, it is with a compelling grace and dignity which ennobles the story and captures the heart.
The 1959 film, honoring Wallace’s intent, never shows Jesus’ face throughout it. The audience never hears him speak a word. We only see the impact of his words and deeds registered in the faces of those around him. Ironically, it is just that subtlety that magnified the movie’s spiritual potency. (I personally experienced the film’s power first-hand. Watching it alone in a student-lounge as a college freshman back in 1980, left me weeping uncontrollably, and shortly afterwards, I rediscovered a faith from childhood that I had lost.)
Wallace’s approach is a lesson that ought to be learned by many faith-based film-makers and story-tellers (and is hopefully the approach used by the makers of the new movie. My fingers are crossed.) Time-and-time again, they succumb to the temptation to use the hammer in their art, thinking this is what will win the audience. Wallace – imitating Jesus in his own story-telling – used nuance as the way to the heart.
Have no doubt about it. Ben-Hur is a big deal. Add it to your summer movie-schedule. I trust you’ll be glad you did.