Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ben Hur Rides Again

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.


Edward Lee said...

I saw this classic first in high school. Supposedly, the stunt man who got run over in the chariot scene died.

Many say the claim is not true, and that no one died: http://www.snopes.com/movies/

What's your take?

William Patry said...

Its a killer movie

Anonymous said...

You mean "spear carrier," the nickname for a minor acting part. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spear_carrier)

Your similar phrase is "A derogatory phrase for a black male used in reference to his primitive abilities to hunt animals with a long sharpened object." See http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=spear+chucker

Time for a bit of editing?

Anonymous said...

"Spear-chucking" is stunt work, in the venacular of the film business, which I guess the urbandictionary.com missed and when applied to Mary Pickford, Myrna Loy and Lllian Gish, could not have been used accurately with either definition.

Anonymous said...

Problem child wrote Ben Hur: a tale of the Christ

Parents should never despair of a problem child.

Lew Wallace was one, and yet in the end, God was able to change his heart.

Born in Indiana in 1827, Lew simply had too much energy to be caged up.

In and out of scrapes, he refused to so much as whimper when whipped. He seemed to know neither fear nor how to give in.

His mother died when he was 7, and he refused to accept his 19-year-old step-mom until she nursed him through croup he had caught while living in the wild.

When he was 9, he joined a brother at a boarding school several miles away.

Hating it, he ran off and made his way home alone.

At 13, he was truant from school for twelve days, attending a Whig rally.

He became an instant hero with the Whigs when he climbed a roof and tore down a petticoat flying in mockery of Harrison, their Presidential candidate.

The only thing that tamed Lew for long was an interesting book. He devoured adventure novels and histories--and began writing his own stories.

But unsatisfied with mere words, he ran away, hoping to join the fight in Texas. It was the last straw for his dad. Firmly but kindly, he ordered 15-year-old Lew out of the home.

Lew found work with a law firm. Although he detested law, he stood for elections as a public attorney, even fist-fighting if it helped him win. Once he pulled everyone away from a rival's speech by playing the violin.

He married his sweetheart Susan Elston. Her family didn't like him, but he won her father's respect when he leapt onto a burning roof to fight a fire.

Civil War Hero

During the Civil War, Lew fought for the Union. His greatest fame as a general came when, outnumbered six to one, he held off the enemy at Monocacy long enough for the Union to move defenders to Washington, D.C.

When people realized he had saved the capitol, he was smothered with praise.

He wrote, "...a defeat did more for me than the victories I've engaged in."

He was in debt most of his adult life.

In 1878, Lew accepted appointment as the governor of lawless New Mexico, where ruthless cattle barons and badmen made life miserable for everyone else. He restored order, then left to serve as U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

Measuring Christ or Measured by Christ?

While Lew was drafting Ben Hur he had not even cared if there were an afterlife.

But as he wrote, his outlook changed.

He came to recognize that Jesus must be taken for who He says He is.

Ben-Hur had looked for a king to defeat Rome. Instead, he got a suffering Savior.

Lew saw what this meant: "It is not an easy thing to shake off in a moment the expectations nurtured through years...He [Ben-Hur] persisted, as men do yet today in measuring the Christ by himself. How much better if we measured ourselves by the Christ?"

The famous skeptic Colonel Robert Ingersoll inspired Lew to write Ben Hur!
Taking a train to Indianapolis one evening, Lew Wallace heard someone call his name. It proved to be the notorious agnostic Robert Ingersoll, who, as a colonel with the 11th Illinois Cavalry volunteers, had fought under General Wallace at Shiloh. Ingersoll invited Lew into his compartment to talk.

Lew claimed the right to choose the subject. His themes were all of a religious nature.

He gave them to Ingersoll and here is Lew's description of what happened.

He was in prime mood; and beginning, his ideas turned to speech, slowing like a heated river. His manner of putting things was marvelous;

I sat spellbound, listening to a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation of believers in God, Christ, and Heaven, the like of which I had never heard. The speech was brought to an end by our arrival at the Indianapolis Central Station nearly two hours after its commencement.

Upon alighting from the car, we separated, he to go to a hotel, and I to my brother's, a long way up northeast of town. The street-cars were at my service, but I preferred to walk, for I was in a confusion of mind not unlike dazement.

To explain this, it is necessary now to confess that my attitude with respect to religion had been one of absolute indifference.

I had heard it argued times innumerable, always without interest. So, too, I had read the sermons of great preachers...but always for the surpassing charm of their rhetoric.

But--how strange! To lift me out of my indifference, one would think only strong affirmations of things regarded holiest would do.

Yet here was I now moved as never before, and by what?

The most outright denials of all human knowledge of God, Christ, Heaven, and the Hereafter .

Was the Colonel right?

What had I on which to answer yes or no? He had made me ashamed of my ignorance: and then--here is the unexpected of the affair--as I walked on in the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.

It only remains to say that I did as resolved, with results--first, the book Ben Hur, and second, a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the Divinity of Christ.

Unknown said...

Ramming speed!

Lew Wallace was perhaps inspired to write the sea battle in Ben Hur by his experience of Civil War fights on the Mississippi between iron clad steamships armed with rams as well as cannon.

At the Battle of Memphis, the collision of these leviathans literally sent shudders through spectators on shore. This Union victory allowed the Indiana Brigade to occupy the city. Shortly thereafter, General Wallace took command of the garrison.