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General Lew Wallace and a first edition of Ben-Hur, 1880.
Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur, with Francis X. Bushman as Messala, 1925.
Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur, with May McAvoy as Esther, 1925.
Ben-Hur during chariot race, 1925.
Ben-Hur and Messala struggling with whip during race, 1925.
Ben-Hur and Esther, 1925.
Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur driving his own chariot, 1959.
Chariot race, 1959.
Chariot race, 1959.

BEN-HUR: A Tale Of The Christ

5-Star Masterpiece

Still the Greatest Christian Novel and Film of All Time

In 1880, a retired Union General named Lew Wallace completed his first historical novel while serving as governor in the territory of New Mexico. He wrote it in response to questions raised by a famous agnostic sharing a train from Chicago to Indianapolis. At the time, Wallace wasn't as knowledgeable of the facts surrounding the life of Christ as he would have liked. After doing extensive research, he was inspired to write what has become the definitive religious epic. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ helped Wallace sort out his own beliefs about God and Christ, and inspired others to do the same. Today, it stands as the most widely read novel of the 19th Century, and one of the most popular works of all time. It has never been out of print in its 130-year history, and has been made into several plays and four films.

Ben-Hur reflects the life and journey of Lew Wallace. At the Battle of Shiloah, through an accident, he and his men arrived too late to help, making the Union losses significantly higher than they would have been. As a result, Wallace was disgraced. Judah Ben-Hur, through the accident of a loose roof tile, loses his home and property, his family is sent to prison, and he is sent to the galleys. Through a miracle of courage and circumstances, Wallace worked his way back, became a successful statesman and author, and is today remembered in the Hall of Statues in Washington, DC. Through a similar miracle, Ben-Hur works his way back to save his family and get revenge over those who caused their calamity. Ben-Hur is a story of courage and revenge, but it is also a story of redemption and salvation. I believe Wallace saw his own life in the same light. Ben-Hur crosses paths with Christ more than once, so that, in the end, his hate and destructiveness are swallowed up in Christ's love and forgiveness. Wallace saw the same miracle in his life.

As a novel, Ben-Hur did not take off immediately; but, after several years of word-of-mouth, everyone was reading it, especially pastors and their congregations. In 1900, two producers, Klaw and Erlanger, bought the rights to bring Ben-Hur to the New York stage. It was an amazing production that boasted five teams of horses and chariots on stage at once for the great chariot race. They used treadmills for the teams, with moving scenery. There was also a great sea battle that was considered spectacular. The play ran for twenty years. Its success inspired showmen in the fledgling industry of motion pictures to take note.

The first film version of Ben-Hur was pirated in 1907, and ran for 15-minutes. This led to a law suit by Wallace that set the precedent for future book-to-movie copyright cases. Eventually, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights and produced the first legitimate adaptation in 1925. It was silent, 35 mm black-and-white (1.33:1 ratio) with some tinting and a few 2-strip Technicolor scenes. Fred Niblo directed Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur, Francis X. Bushman as Messala and May McAvoy as Esther in an outstanding production. But it was plagued with many problems, including a sea battle shot in Italy, in which one of the ships actually caught fire, sending the extras into the sea, some of which may have drowned. In the famous chariot race, which was shot in LA, there was a big pile-up of chariots that injured numerous drivers and killed quite a few horses. All of these scenes were left in the final cut.

In 1959, William Wyler directed a second Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production of the book, this time with sound, in 65 mm Panavision (2.76:1 ratio) and in Technicolor. MGM was on the verge of bankruptcy; so, in one bold move, they invested everything they had in the film - and it paid off, making top box office for that year. Charlton Heston, who had worked with Wyler in The Big Country the previous year, played the title role and won an Oscar for it. Stephen Boyd, who would again drive a chariot in The Fall Of The Roman Empire (1965), played Messala. Haya Harareet, the only native Palestinian in the cast, played Esther. All the Romans were played by British actors, including Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius. Hugh Griffith won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the wonderful Sheik Ilderim, owner of the four white Arabians that pull Ben-Hur's chariot.

There were 11 Oscars won in all - still the most ever, sharing honors with Titanic (1997) and The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003). The other Oscars won by Ben-Hur were Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography for a Color Film, Best Art Direction-Set Direction for a Color Film, Best Costume Design for a Color Film, Best Effects-Special Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Music-Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and Best Sound. The only one it was nominated for that it didn't win was Best Writing-Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

I found the novel by Lew Wallace to be more charming and less "big" than the 1959 film. Even the characters were more life-size. I pictured Robert Taylor in the role of Ben-Hur rather than Charlton Heston. The only actor from the film that seemed to fit the novel was Finlay Currie as Balthasar, the wise man from Egypt. He was perfect. The entire first of eight books, into which Ben-Hur is divided, is occupied by the three wise men, of which only Balthasar is carried through the rest of the book, and plays a significant role. In the film, in addition to playing Balthasar, Currie also narrates.

There is far more focus on Christ in the novel, the 1900 stage play (in which he is played by a beam of light) and the 1925 film than in the 1959 version. The book wrestles with the question of whether He will be an earthly King or a Savior of souls. Ben-Hur, who is a Sadducee, hopes he will be an earthly King, and actually trains three legions of Galileeans in preparation to help Him overthrow the occupying Romans. But Balthasar is convinced Christ will be a Savior of souls, and tries to convince Ben-Hur of that. It is not until the miraculous events of the last of the eight books that he accepts that fact, and accepts Christ as his Savior.

To date, Ben-Hur is still the greatest Christian novel ever written, and the greatest Christian film ever produced, as well as one of the all-time great classics. I don't agree with the AFI ranking of Ben-Hur at #100. I believe it, and the silent version, should share a position in the top 40 at least. There will never be another Ben-Hur, the 2003 animated version notwithstanding. It has been estimated that to reproduce Ben-Hur as it was produced in 1959, it would cost over a quarter of a billion dollars. That just isn't going to happen. And CGI won't cut it. You can't reproduce a live chariot race like the one in Ben-Hur using CGI and catch anyone's breath. So, this is a classic that will live as long as films are made. And, in my opinion, beyond that.

You can read the novel, which is now in the public domain, by going online to


Waitsel Smith, April 18, 2008

Text © 2008 Waitsel Smith. Images © 1925, 1959 MGM. All Rights Reserved.

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