Famed Hoosier author and Civil War general Lew Wallace penned what became America’s bestselling novel from 1880 until Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” overtook it in the late ’30s. “Ben Hur: a Tale of the Christ” ultimately begat three feature-length motion pictures, a successful Broadway and traveling stage show and countless other adaptations.
The 1959 film version starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler garnered the most-ever Academy Awards – eleven. The historic epic takes place in occupied Jerusalem during the life, and ultimate crucifixion, of Christ. It tells the story of adopted brothers, one Roman and one a local prince. Ultimately, they are separated by circumstance, their own choices and the sometimes-misanthropic nature of we humans.
When Wallace returned from our Civil War, his own life was changed irreversibly by the jarring impact of the conflict. Like it, he imbued in his characters the naivety, and oddly, bloodlust, that marches our young into combat. The story follows an arch from the love these young men feel for each other as children, to the pain of their separation as they each strive to find their own way in the world, and to the inevitability of rivalry that would rise. Ultimately, reconciliation is withheld by death – leaving one to hope it’s found after. Interestingly, a modern remake of the film changed the ending so that the brothers reunite in life. Perhaps, it is a comment on the modern state of faith among us.
Ultimately, Wallace raises questions about forgiveness, hate, superficialities and the pointless nature of endless longing for retaliation. Although Christ is only a minor character, he urges peace. These and other questions were hotly pursued in the years following our own Civil War. Can coming to understand this context prevent us from living it again?