In Thursday's special Christmas River Bits column I told the story of Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur: The Tale of Christ." After publication in 1880 Ben-Hur went on to become a worldwide smash and is still in print – even in eBook format.
Walker Whiteside was able to resolve Wallace's objection to making his book into a play with his "beam of light" depiction of Christ solution. The stage play opened on Broadway on Nov. 29, 1899. It was an instant hit! The first production ran until May 10, 1900, with a total of 194 performances. It reopened in September 1900 and ran until April 1920. After running 21 years, about 20 million people worldwide viewed the play. Estimated earnings were around $10 million. Oh, you may ask how they solved the chariot race in a playhouse problem. The producers engineered an ingenious contraption consisting of treadmills that the horses and chariots ran on. After seeing the play Wallace quipped: "My God, did I set all of this in Motion?"
Lew Wallace passed away on Feb. 15, 1905, but that did not stop Ben-Hur from being produced in new media forms. Ben-Hur's next production was set on the silver screen. In 1907, a 15-minute long silent movie was produced by the Kalem Co. The movie industry was new at that time and Kalem was especially green. They did not get screen rights for the book, and were quickly sued by the Wallace family for copyright violations. Kalem lost in court and forced to pay $25,000 plus expenses. Quite a bit at that time.
Although the 1907 Ben-Hur film production was under a cloud of controversy, there was a keen interest to produce a full-length screen version. Lew Wallace's son, Henry, was the Wallace family representative and he objected to a film version. He felt the movie industry, as a whole, lacked any redeeming qualities and could not possibly create a film to the standards his father would approve.
This did not stop the pursuit by film companies. Klaw and Erlanger produced the 1899 stage adaptation of Ben-Hur and they began negotiations with Henry for a film production. Henry relented after seeing the quality of "Birth of a Nation." Shooting began in 1923 and the film premiered on Dec. 30, 1925. The film was a huge success and grossed $9 million worldwide. Tragically, Henry Wallace fell ill while attending the premier and passed away on Jan. 9, 1926.
The next Ben-Hur film opened on Nov. 18, 1959. At that time it was the costliest film to date at over $15 million. That would be $125 million in today's dollars. The gamble paid off. The 1959 Ben-Hur film made a $21 million profit on its initial release–saving MGM from bankruptcy.
I believe that Ben-Hur is much more than a story about a Jewish noble who after many hardships and tragedies finds the path that leads him to become a follower of Christ. I feel that Ben-Hur is actually a story about a Civil War general from a small Hoosier city on the banks of the Wabash River who struggles to rediscover his personal Christianity. Ben-Hur confirms that Wallace found his Christ and the comfort that it gave him for the rest of his days.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion.