A life lived in full: Lew Wallace, the man behind "Ben-Hur"

The 1959 blockbuster "Ben-Hur" won 11 Academy awards and was seen by almost one hundred million people around the world. Directed by William Wyler, the movie solidified Charlton Heston's fame as one of the most popular actors of the 1950s and 60s. The movie was the most expensive film of its time (it cost $15 million). "Ben Hur" tells the story of a Jewish prince (Judah Ben-Hur) who is enslaved by his once boyhood friend, now a Roman tribune in the period of Rome's occupation of Judea. After many years away, he returns a free man and finds his revenge in the dramatic high point of the film, a violent chariot race. The film explores themes of redemption and spirituality in ways that moved audiences and critics.

A true classic of the American cinema, "Ben-Hur" remains a popular film that continues to be shown year after year by television stations, often around Easter. The film has endured because at its heart, it's a well-written story. It was based on the 1880 book by Lew Wallace, a novel that received even more acclaim in its own era than the film did in the next century. The book has remained in print since it was first published.

The story of Wallace's life, in many ways, is even more interesting than the book and the movie. Wallace was a Civil War general, the governor of New Mexico, and an ambassador; he painted, was an inventor, and at one time was wanted dead by Billy the Kid.

But it was his personal research and writing that left a lasting impression. The impetus for "Ben Hur" can be traced to a long conversation on a train with an agnostic military colleague who pushed Wallace hard on many questions related to Christianity. Wallace apparently felt ashamed by his lack of precise knowledge on the subject and embarked on a scrupulous study of First Century life in the Middle East. He then decided to write a novel based on historical accuracy. It changed his life.

I learned all about Wallace in Amy Lifson's revealing portrait in Humanities magazine. I've linked it here.


Movie poster is from posterwire.com.
More about the movie at the AMC film site by Tim Dirks.
General Lew Wallace Study and Museum

Dealing with demons in the Bayou; nature and a shot of Jack Daniel's

I came across a passage today that I hadn't seen for a while but that still resonates with me. It's written by the American writer, James Lee Burke. I like it because of its descriptive quality and its Louisiana imagery; so real you can smell the scent in the air and feel the sun on your face. But I also like it for another reason: it aptly describes the appeal of alcohol to someone who needs it to basically function.

Burke, a former alcoholic himself, lets his protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, do the talking in the 1989 novel Black Cherry Blues. It's interesting how he blends nature and drinking in a short, powerful paragraph.

"When these moments occurred in my adult life, I drank. I did it full tilt, too, the way you stand back from a smoldering fire of wet leaves and fling a glass full of gasoline onto the flames. I did it with Beam and Jack Daniel's straight up, with a frosted Jax on the side; vodka in the morning to sweep the spiders into their nest; four inches of wild turkey at noon to lock Frankenstein in his closet until the afternoon world of sunlight on oak and palm trees and the salt wind blowing across Lake Pontchartrain reestablished itself in a predictable fashion."

A travelogue through the bottom of a glass.

In case you were wondering what Jax is, it was a popular brand of beer once brewed in the New Orleans area.

James Lee Burke
Black Cherry Blues
Lake Pontchartrain
Burke talks about his career and past struggles with alcoholism

False Creek at night

There is a section of Vancouver that exhibits a dreamlike quality at night. Dreamlike because when you're in this area at night, you see nothing but soaring lights: visions of a surreal place. You could be forgiven if you think for a moment you're in a science fiction movie. Bridges are illuminated in warm tones and vehicles move rapidly in and out of a golden city on suspended lanes; you don't hear them much down here, only see headlights moving in the air above the bridges.

In the black water, colour spills and mixes in reflective pools and patterns, like molten metal. Occasionally a silver light will appear out of the gloom and a slap-slap sound tells you a canoeist or kayaker is out there, his helmet light turned on for safety. Then out of the dark, the soft sound now of a small wave being pushed in front of a rounded bow...it precedes the appearance of a green light and a red light; and the shape of a small water taxi takes form. It heads for a nearby pier.

A ring of bright pearls decorates the shore. The towers of light go up into the sky.

Seen from this vantage point, the city looks like an imaginary place, like Oz, or some far-off, extraterrestrial future city, or perhaps instead an image from the 1920s, a golden re-creation of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

It is, instead, False Creek at night, with its reflections of the condo towers, it's ten marinas and it's four bridges; quiet and peaceful, with it's walking path and parks ringing it, in the heart of Vancouver.

Photo by Jonesy22 shows False Creek, taken from the south shore at Charleston Park. Made available under creative commons license

Under Granville Bridge, Vancouver

Granville Island is a popular Vancouver attraction. From its days as an industrial area, the island was transformed in the 1970s and 1980s into a popular destination for both residents and visitors of the city. A colourful public market offers a plentiful selection of fresh food of all types, while art galleries, pottery studios, a university, waterside restaurants and many different shops give people good reason to stroll the area for hours at a time.

My wife and I stopped for a cappuccino at the Blue Parrot coffee shop under the Granville Bridge, and I couldn't resist taking out my notebook. The view here is looking towards the north shore of False Creek

How a woman survived a 75-floor elevator fall after a plane crashed into the Empire State Building

The September 11, 2001, tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York City was not the first time a plane crashed into a New York skyscraper: a previous incident in 1945 was tragic and miraculous at the same time.

On July 28th of that year, William F. Smith, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Air Forces, was trying to land his B-25 bomber at Newark airport when he became disoriented in low cloud. He narrowly missed hitting the Chrysler building, but unfortunately slammed into the seventy-ninth floor of the Empire State Building. Fourteen people were killed in the accident and ensuing fireball. However, the crash is also remembered for an unusual tale of survival. It's the story of an elevator operator who fell seventy-five floors and lived to tell about it.

The story was recounted by another bomber pilot, Col. Robert Morgan (ret.), in his 2001 autobiography ("The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot"):
"Just as in war, the crash produced its surreal acts of fate. A badly burned woman named Betty Lou Oliver was given first aid and placed in an elevator car to descend to street level. The weakened cable snapped and the woman plunged seventy-five floors... The rapidly falling car created an air cushion that slowed its descent as it neared bottom, and the steel cable underneath the car piled up, turning into a giant coiled spring that further absorbed the impact."
Five months later, the woman felt well enough to return to the scene of the accident and courageously took a ride back up in one of the elevators.

Not the kind of story one reads every day.


For more information, read the full account of the accident here.

Details about the elevator crash and repairs are found in this article from an industry trade magazine.

Amazing heists and burglaries from around the world

If you enjoyed movies like "Ocean's Eleven" and "The Italian Job," you will relish the true-life stories of some of the most amazing heists in modern history.

Two examples:

In 2003, Leonardo Notarbartolo and his gang, later named "The School of Turin," masterminded the theft of over $100 million in jewels from the diamond centre in Antwerp. The story behind the heist reads a lot like the script for "Ocean's Eleven." Three years in the planning, the gang copied keys, learned how the alarm system worked and even replaced the tapes in the security cameras during the robbery.

In August, 2005, a gang in Brazil tunneled for three months under the streets of Fortaleza to break into a bank and make off with over $70 million. The thieves worked in broad daylight and set up a storefront business while they dug underneath two city blocks before reaching the vault and calmly removing its contents during a weekend.

The stories of the detailed planning and execution of these and other recent movie-like robberies are collected in a fascinating post in Neatorama ("Hail to the Thieves: Famous Heists We Love.")