November 12, 1880 — Lewis (“Lew”) Wallace wanted to be remembered as a great soldier. But he turned to writing in his spare time and now he will always be best known as the author of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ", which was published on this day.
From an early age, Wallace, who was born in 1827, dreamed of winning fame and glory in battle. His father had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and his uniform made a lasting impression on his son. The “shining bullet-buttons of the coat captured my childish fancy,” he was to write in his autobiography.
Wallace went on to serve in the 1846 Mexican–American War, afterwards becoming a lawyer. He was then elected to the state Senate but served again in the Union army during the Civil War, reaching the rank of major-general.
While all the fighting and feuding was going on Wallace took time out to write and by the end of his life he had completed seven books including novels and biographies. They were all overshadowed by his most successful work, Ben-Hur.
According to the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum he had been researching and writing the novel for seven years and did most of his work on it underneath a beech tree near his home in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
It tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is enslaved by the Romans and becomes a charioteer and a Christian. Running in parallel with Judah's narrative is the unfolding story of Jesus Christ, from the same region and age.
Only 2,800 copies were sold in the first seven months after the book’s publication in 1880, but its popularity grew and it began to pick up readers around the world. By 1886, Wallace was receiving $11,000 a year in royalties ($300,000 today) and by 1889 it had been translated into several languages with sales of over 400,000.
In 1900, Ben-Hur became the best-selling American novel of the 19th century, knocking Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin off the top spot. In her 2009 book, Ben-Hur: The Book That Shook the World, writer Amy Lifson described it as “the most influential Christian book of the 19th Century.”
Long before that, Wallace, who died in 1905, aged 77, had written: “My God, did I set all of this in motion?”
His comment followed the 1899 opening in New York of the play based on his book. Wallace had said that a play would be impossible partly because the chariot race – an essential part of the story – could not be performed on stage. He had not taken into account the ingenuity of the designers.
According to the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum: “They solved the problem by training eight horses, pulling two chariots, to run on treadmills installed in the floor of the stage.
“While the horses ran at full gallop on the stage, the background scenery – installed on a cyclorama – moved behind the racing chariots to complete the illusion that the chariots and horses were actually moving.”
The play was performed around the world for 21 years, an estimated 20 million people attending the 6,000 performances.
Next came the question of a movie. Wallace’s son Henry was adamant: “I will oppose in every way possible all attempts to produce any of General Wallace’s work in moving pictures. The reason is because the average moving picture shows are wretched exhibitions utterly unworthy of dignified consideration.”
But in the end he gave in and he sold the film rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $600,000 in 1921. The first Ben-Hur film was released in 1925 starring 25-year-old Ramon Novarro in the title role. The silent film cost MGM $4 million and was one of the most expensive productions of the era. It received rave reviews but made only a slight profit.
However, when the studio came up with a re-make in 1959 with Charlton Heston in the lead, it grossed over $40 million on its initial release. And the movie won eleven of the twelve awards for which it was nominated at the Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), and Best Actor (Heston). Over 200 camels and 2,500 horses were used in the shooting of the film, with some 10,000 extras.
Perhaps Wallace, the would-be famous soldier, had a premonition of all this when he wrote ruefully: “It seems now that when I sit down finally in the old man’s gown and slippers, helping the cat to keep the fireplace warm, I shall look back upon Ben-Hur as my best performance.”
Published: October 6, 2020
Updated: December 3, 2020