Lew Wallace's Ben Hur: Much more than swords and sandals

Next week sees the UK theatrical release of 'Ben Hur'.

It is the fifth big screen version of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, but will inevitably be compared to just one, the 1959 epic starring Charlton Heston which picked up 11 Oscars.

At the time it boasted the biggest budget (and biggest sets) of any film ever produced. But it wasn't a huge risk. The investment was based on the enduring popularity of the book, which, soon after publication, became the biggest selling American novel of all time (usurping Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin) and retained the title until the arrival of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind in 1936.

Stuff sales though, Ben Hur: A Tale of The Christ (to give it its full title) received an official blessing from Pope Leo XIII, the first work of fiction ever to be honoured in such a way.

The reason for such a beatific bestowing is that whilst modern day audiences probably think 'chariot race', the novel was initially heralded as the most influential Christian book of the 19th Century.

It starts as a classic tale of revenge, of a wrongly accused man rising up to gain vengeance. But it comes to be about Judah Ben Hur's acceptance of Christian values of forgiveness and tolerance.

Our hero's life and, indeed, 'journey' (sorry, but for once it's kind of justified) even interacts with Christ's at various points. Cinematically, though, you would still focus on the chariot race.

The new film has had mixed reviews (it's currently scoring 38% on Metacritic), so it seems unlikely to supplant Charlton Heston's still-definitive version.

It might, however, alert more people that it is based on a book, not an MGM marketing meeting, and that its message is about much more than swords and sandals.

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