According to a Reuters story, veteran impressario Robert Hossein is to put on a live sea battles, gladitorial combat, and the chariot race from Ben Hur, known to many from the 1959 movie directed by William Wyler and starring Charleton Heston. The chariot race will be 14 minutes long, and requires Ben Hur's enemy Messala to fall from his chariot and be dragged along the dirt. The event will take place in France's 17,940 square yard football stadium, the Stade de France, scene of France's 1998 World Cup victory.
The novel Ben Hur was published in 1880 by American Civil War General Lew Wallace (1827-1905), and tells the story of Judah ben ("son of") Hur, improbably described as a Jewish "prince," who is sent into slavery sometime before 70 C.E., when the Second Temple was destroyed and Second Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi's ancestors were hauled off to Rome by Titus. (Judge Calabresi is also a Finzi-Contini). Judah, amidst the spectacular sea battles and chariot races for which the book is well-known manages to witness Jesus of Nazareth's crucifion. Judah then converts to Christianity. There is a General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana, which hosts a website at www.ben-hur.com. Those who wish to plough through 576 pages of dense Victorian prose may do so in a 2003 Signet reprint.
Ben Hur has featured in two copyright cases. The first is Harper Bros. v. Klaw & Erlanger, 232 F. 609 (S.D.N.Y. 1916), in which Wallace's son was enjoined from mounting a motion picture version based on a judicially created (and outrageously erroneous) implied negative covenant not to destroy the value of rights previously granted to put on a play. Defendants later produced their own (silent) movie in 1925, directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro. Some regard the chariot races in that film (which cost $4 million to produce) as superior to those in the 1959 film. Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Harry Lloyd, Myrna Loy, and Lillian Gish appeared as extras ("spear-chuckers" in the vernacular).
The second dispute is Kalem Company v. Harper Bros., 222 U.S. 55, 64 (1911) in which Justice Holmes wrote: "Action can tell a story, display all the most vivid relations between men, and depict every kind of human emotion, without the aid of a word." In other words, copyright extends well beyond the literary text and includes dramatic action. Holmes wasn't breaking new ground; that was done in Daly v. Palmer, 6 F. Cas. 1132 (C.C.S.D.N.Y. 1868), in which infringement of a dramatic composition was found by what was regarded as a substantially similar scene (a man tied down to a railroad track as the train approaches), even though no dialogue was taken.
Which gets us back to Mr. Hossein, who is fortunate the book is in the public domain, since such a spectacle would no doubt otherwise have led to litigation.