July 07, 2016

The Sword & Sandal Blogathon - Ben Hur (1907)

Thanks to Debbie of Moon in Gemini for hosting the blogathon. Please visit Debbie's fine blog. You'll be glad you did.

Lewis "Lew" Wallace was born April 10, 1827 in Brookville, Indiana and died February 15, 1905 in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He was an American soldier, lawyer, diplomat, and author who is principally remembered for his historical novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Wallace served in the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1847. In the Civil War he served with the Union forces and attained the rank of major general of volunteers.

In 1865 Wallace resigned from the army and returned to law practice. He held two diplomatic positions by presidential appointment. He was governor of the New Mexico Territory (1878-81), and then minister to the Ottoman Empire (1881-85).

Though Wallace also wrote poetry and a play, his literary reputation rests upon three historical novels: The Fair God (1873), a story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico; The Prince of India (1893), dealing with the Wandering Jew and the Byzantine Empire; and above all Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), a romantic tale set in the Roman Empire during the coming of Christ. Its main character, a young Jewish patrician named Judah Ben-Hur, loses his family and freedom because of the injustice of a Roman officer but eventually triumphs through his own abilities and the intervention of Jesus.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was an enormous popular success. It was published by Harper and Brothers on November 12, 1880, and considered "the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century." It became a best-selling American novel, surpassing Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) in sales. Ben-Hur remained at the top of the bestseller lists until the publication of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936).

Read or download the novel here.

It was made into a play in 1899, five films, and a television miniseries.

  • Ben Hur (1907 film), a one-reel silent film adaptation.
  • Ben-Hur (1925 film), an MGM silent film adaptation starring Ramon Novarro.
  • Ben-Hur (1959 film), an MGM sound film adaptation starring Charlton Heston; it won eleven Academy Awards.
  • Ben Hur (2003 film), an animated direct-to-video film adaptation featuring the voice of Charlton Heston.
  • Ben Hur (miniseries), a television miniseries that aired in 2010.
  • Ben-Hur (2016 film), directed by Timur Bekmambetov starring Jack Huston; it's scheduled to be released on August 19, 2016.

I'll be focusing on the 1907 one-reel, silent film version of Ben Hur in which Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, New York was used as the location for the Holy Land. At 15 minutes long, only a small portion of the story could be put on screen. The focus of the piece was the chariot race, which was filmed on a beach in New Jersey with local firemen playing the charioteers and the horses that normally pulled the fire wagons pulling the chariots.

To me, the film is a short, choppy highlights reel. It's filled with a few brief clips from the famed story by General Lew Wallace but doesn't tell a coherent story. Audiences at the time could only have enjoyed it if they were familiar with the novel.

Ben Hur (1907) was directed by Sidney Olcott and Frank O. Rose with Harry T. Morey as assistant director. The screenplay was written by Gene Gauntier. The film was produced and distributed on a reported $500 budget by the Kalem Company. It was released December 7, 1907. Herman Rottger starred as Ben Hur and William S. Hart played Messala.

Sidney Olcott was a Canadian-born film producer, director, actor and screenwriter. He was lured away from Biograph Studios by George Kleine, Samuel Long, and Frank J. Marion to work for their newly formed Kalem Company. The company was named for their initials K, L, and M.

After Olcott's success with 1907's Ben Hur, he demonstrated his creative thinking when he made Kalem Studios the first ever to travel outside the United States to film on location. He went to Ireland and made the film A Lad from Old Ireland (1910).

Gene Gauntier, born Eugenia Gauntier Liggett, was an American screenwriter and actress who was one of the pioneers of the motion picture industry. Gauntier became Kalem Company's star actress, dubbed by the studio as the "Kalem Girl," who also became their most productive screenwriter in collaboration with director Sidney Olcott on numerous film projects.

Most notably, Gauntier wrote and acted in 1912's From the Manger to the Cross. It was filmed in Palestine and was the first five-reel film. Turner Classic Movies considers it the most important silent film to deal with the life of Jesus Christ. In 1998 the film was selected for the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress.

Herman Rottger as Judah Ben-Hur

Herman Rottger (1881-1917) was an actor, known for Ben Hur (1907), Roughing the Cub (1913) and Love's Old Dream (1914).

William S. Hart (1864-1946) was a silent film actor, screenwriter, director and producer. He's remembered as the foremost western star of the silent era who "imbued all of his characters with honor and integrity."

William Surrey Hart as Messala
Ben Hur (1907) is most notable as a precedent in copyright law. The movie was made without obtaining the rights to the book, the usual procedure in the industry in that era. The screenwriter, Gene Gauntier, remarked in her 1928 autobiography Blazing the Trail how the film industry at that time infringed upon everything. As a result of the production of Ben Hur, Harper and Brothers and the author's estate brought suit against Kalem Studios, the Motion Picture Patents Company, and Gauntier for copyright infringement. The United States Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the film company in 1911. Kalem Company paid Lew Wallace's estate $25,000 in damages. The Supreme Court ruling established the precedent that all motion picture production companies must first secure the film rights of any previously published work still under copyright before commissioning a screenplay based on that work.

Watch Ben Hur (1907)


Leah Williams said...

I had no idea that the novel was this successful, or the role it played in copyright law. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

Silver Screenings said...

I didn't realize there were so many film adaptations of this story. The 1907 version sounds really interesting, and I'll be back at some point to watch it. (Thanks for the link!)

It was interesting to read about the copyright law and how filmmakers just helped themselves to the book! I gasped when I read that.

Thanks for sharing all your research with us. Great post!

Debra Vega said...

I have seen most film and TV versions of the novel (my favorite, hands down, is the 1925 film) but was unaware of this one. How interesting that it was the precedent for copywright law!

Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

LĂȘ said...

I agree that the film is not coherent - it was good that I was already familiar with the story when I saw it! And I could barely recognize William S. Hart!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)