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

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