How 'Ben-Hur' Helped Launch Motion Pictures

By Beckerman, Jim | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), August 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

How 'Ben-Hur' Helped Launch Motion Pictures


Beckerman, Jim, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


No surprise that "Ben-Hur" has come back to the movies (the latest remake opened Friday).

In some ways, you could say "Ben-Hur" created the movies.

The biblical-era story of the Jewish prince Ben-Hur (Jack Huston in the new film) and his rivalry with his Roman frenemy Messala (Toby Kebbell) that culminates in a titanic chariot race, was a monster hit from the moment General Lew Wallace -- he was a Civil War veteran -- launched it into print in 1880.

But it soon created an even bigger sensation when it became the basis for an 1899 stage spectacular. And thereby hangs a tale.

The stage show came at a time when spectacle and realism, in the theater, were all the rage. Producers spent untold thousands of dollars creating realistic shipwrecks, cyclones, actual waterfalls, and medieval castles for their casts of 600 or more (not to mention, in some cases, animals) to emote in front of. "Ben-Hur," which sold 25,000 tickets a week when it opened at the Broadway Theater, was the greatest show of them all. For the chariot race, teams of horses pulled the chariots on a treadmill, while a cyclorama revolved behind them in the opposite direction to give an impression of speed.

"The desire for quote 'realism' unquote becomes very important in 19th century theater," says Teaneck film historian Richard Koszarski ("Fort Lee: The Film Town"). "There are all these big, heavily mechanical theater productions."

But there was a problem. This kind of super-production could only be staged in a gigantic venue, with the most elaborate machinery. When "Ben-Hur" went on the road -- and hit shows, back then, spawned dozens of national touring companies -- audiences in Dubuque and Kansas City were sorely disappointed. "Once they had traveled to the big cities and seen 'Ben-Hur' with three horses to each chariot, they could scarcely be content with the one-horse versions that turned up in their local opera houses," wrote film historian Arthur Knight. …

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