Is "Ben-Hur" the most epic of Hollywood epics? It's hard to top the birth of Christ, the Roman empire, the Holy Land, galleys at ramming speed, the most famous chariot race in movie history, the Valley of the Lepers, and, yes, Christ's crucifixion. As a box-office proposition, combining piety and spectacle is tough to beat.
The latest "Ben-Hur" opens Friday. It stars Jack Huston ("Boardwalk Empire") as the noble Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur, and Toby Kebbell ("Fantastic Four") as Roman bad guy Messala. Morgan Freeman, that Good Housekeeping Seal of Cinematic Approval, is Ilderim, the Arab sheik who befriends Ben-Hur and whose horses he uses in the chariot race.
This is the third feature-film version of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." That's along with an 1899 stage extravaganza, 1915 movie short, and 2010 Canadian miniseries, with Hugh Bonneville, no less ("Downton Abbey)," as Pontius Pilate. Surely, the only public hand-washing the Earl of Grantham ever did involved finger bowls.
To get a sense of how large "Ben-Hur" has loomed in the culture, and for how long, begin at The General Lew Wallace Study and Museum, in Crawfordsville, Ind. Yes, there is such a place; and, yes, Wallace really was a general. Before becoming a novelist, he rose to the rank of major general in the Union Army during the Civil War. He commanded a division at Shiloh and at war's end oversaw the surrender of Confederate forces in Texas.
Wallace's military experience might help account for the appeal of his novel. The writing is wooden and sententious, a kind of King James Version chop suey. It's the sort of novel where characters are constantly saying "Nay!" Yet Wallace knew how to maneuver his narrative forces and keep things moving. He never met a coincidence he didn't exploit.
Readers certainly responded. With sales of 50 million copies and counting, "Ben-Hur" has never gone out of print. It succeeded "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as best-selling American novel, holding that title until "Gone With the Wind," half a century later.
The stage production toured for 21 years, on three continents. Playing Messala in the original Broadway production was future movie cowboy star William S. Hart. A 25,000-candlepower beam of light — the CGI of its day — represented the character of Christ. More than 20 million people saw the adaptation, which earned some $10 million.
How could Hollywood resist?
Maybe it should have, since the 1925 feature film very nearly bankrupted MGM, the studio that made it. Costing $3.9 million, it was the most expensive silent movie ever made. The production, wildly over budget, was yanked back from Rome to be filmed in Los Angeles.
The chariot race was shot at what is now the intersection of La Cienega and Venice boulevards. Filming used 42 cameras and required 50,000 feet of stock. It became such an event that stars joined in as extras, the better to take in the show. Among them were Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, and Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Other extras included future stars Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable.
Although Ramon Novarro makes for a rather foppish Ben-Hur, Francis X. Bushman, as Messala, is to charioteers as Gronk is to tight ends. Those biceps, that nose.
MGM marketed "Ben-Hur" as "The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!" and "The Supreme Motion Picture Masterpiece of All Time." Many scenes are hand-tinted, with several in two-strip Technicolor (three-strip, which came along a decade later, is what we now think of as Technicolor).
One of the 62 assistant directors on the chariot race was William Wyler. Wyler directed the 1959 version. Knowing what he was in for, he asked David Lean to handle the chariot race. Lean declined.
The silent "Ben-Hur" has a positively svelte running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes. Wyler's film lumbers in at 3 hours and 44 minutes. It doesn't help that things begin with an overture lasting 6 minutes and 23 seconds, with a 4-minute musical interlude at intermission. Even more than the silent version, this "Ben-Hur" was An Event. Its winning a record 11 Oscars reflects that fact -- as does its taking in $75 million at the box office (on a then-astronomical budget of $15 million). Both "Titanic" and the third installment of "The Lord of the Rings," "The Return of the King," also won 11 Oscars — but with more available categories.
One of the Oscar winners was Charlton Heston, for best actor. In the title role, Heston is at his most Hestonish. Both Paul Newman and Burt Lancaster turned down the part. Rock Hudson was interested but had a schedule conflict.
Perhaps that's just as well. Karl Tunberg's script was the work of many uncredited hands, including the playwrights Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Berhrman, and Christopher Fry; that great old Hollywood pro Ben Hecht; and the novelist Gore Vidal.
Vidal's most famous, or notorious, contribution involved the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala. Boyhood friends, they become the bitterest of enemies after a five-year separation. What explains so extreme a reversal? Vidal suggested to Wyler that they had been lovers when young. Messala wants to resume the relationship, and Ben-Hur rejects his advances. Hell hath no fury like a Roman nobleman spurned? According to Vidal, Wyler loved the idea, on this condition: Tell Stephen Boyd, who plays Messala, but don't tell Chuck.
Heston later called Vidal's story preposterous. Hmm. With the Vidal explanation in mind, the intensity of the scenes between Heston and Boyd makes absolute sense, explaining both the vehemence of affection and how quickly it gives way to such vehement animosity. The many subsequent scenes during Ben-Hur's enslavement that show off the ropey beefcake of Heston's body don't exactly hurt the Vidal argument. Maybe there was just something in the movie air that year. In "North by Northwest," Martin Landau sure seems to have a thing for James Mason. Oh, and "Some Like It Hot" came out in 1959, too. Go figure.