Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Tale is in the Telling

It all starts with a crime.

A shoemaker named Pierre Picaud, living in France in 1807, was happily engaged to a beautiful, wealthy young woman. But the marriage was not to be.

Three men who Picaud considered his friends plotted against him and had him falsely accused of spying for England. Arrested and found guilty, Picaud was sentenced to Fenestrelle Fort, where he was assigned as servant to a rich Italian cleric. The cleric, over the years, grew to view Picaud as something of a son, and when he died he bequeathed him his fortune.

Upon his release from prison, Picaud decided to seek his revenge.

The first of his accusers was found dead with a knife in his throat. The words “Number One” were engraved on the handle.

The second accuser was found poisoned not long after.

The third was different. He had married Picaud’s fiancé, and so something more elaborate had to be planned. Loupian, as the third man was called, was father to a son and daughter. Picaud lured the son into a life of crime and arranged for the daughter to become a prostitute. It was all very elaborate, and everything went according to plan.

Until a fourth man entered the picture.

Unbeknownst to Picaud, his three friends had asked for the aid of a fourth in framing him. The fourth had declined, but had known of the plot, and so was worried his life was in danger. He deduced Picaud’s identity, and fatally stabbed him.

The police report was found, some years later, by a Parisian true crime archivist by the name of Jacques Peuchet. Peuchet published it in a collection of other intriguing murder tales in 1839.

Always on the lookout for inspiration, popular author Alexandre Dumas picked up a copy of Peuchet’s crime stories. Though Peuchet had a good idea of which stories would be interesting, he had an archivist’s skill for narrating (it’s cool, Peuchet, so do I). But Dumas saw the potential in the Picaud story.

He and his writing partner Auguste Maquet set about building a novel around the revenge tale. They changed numerous elements, drawing on an earlier novel they’d done called Georges, about a vengeance obsessed young man lashing out at the bigotry he’d suffered at the hands of his racist community.

For good measure, the Italian cleric was exchanged for actual historical figure Abbé Faria, and an enormous secret treasure was added, as well as some really good stuff about tunnelling out of an island fortress.

In 1844, the first instalment of The Count of Monte Cristo appeared and took France by storm. It was, and remains, a terrifically good story.

My BFF Richard Chamberlain as the Count in 1975

And it was popular! It was an international sensation the likes of which had never been seen before! Normally, a serialized novel would be published gradually in its originating language, then collected, then translated. But with Monte Cristo, each installment was translated right away, and published in magazines around the world. Everyone waited with bated breath to see what would happen to Edmond Dantés in his obsessive quest for revenge.

Time to move forward thirty years and across the Atlantic to the battlefields of the Civil War.

By this time, Monte Cristo was well rooted in the literary consciousness, but it was far from the mind of Major General Lew Wallace after the Battle of Shiloh. The number of Union casualties reported climbed higher and higher, and it was becoming apparent that the Confederates had won the meticulously planned battle. When Lincoln demanded an explanation from generals Grant and Halleck, Halleck blamed Wallace and his unit for the loss.

Wallace felt betrayed and slandered. He wrote to Grant several times asking for a formal enquiry, and tried to encourage William Tecumseh Sherman to help clear his name. Sherman urged patience.

The Shiloh controversy branded Wallace an ill-equipped leader who had failed his country and his fellow soldiers.

After the war, Wallace decided to try his hand at writing fiction. His first novel was about Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. Wallace, like many other officers of his generation, had fought in the Mexican-American War, and it was a subject that fascinated him. That first novel was called The Fair Hand, and it wasn’t much of a success, but the writing of it had so pleased Wallace that he decided to tackle a more ambitious project.

He would combine his own bitterness about the Shiloh affair with the plot and structure of one of his favourite books, The Count of Monte Cristo; and since he had enjoyed the researching of his first novel, he would choose another historical setting. This time, it would be Ancient Rome during the life of Jesus. He was an agnostic and totally uninformed about the place and time he chose, but he diligently studied all resources available at the Library of Congress, and imbued the Roman military with his experiences in the Union Army.

Veterans of the Civil War would find much familiar; unlike Monte Cristo, there was no need to understand the social impact of French politics in the Napoleonic era. All you had to know was the basic story of Jesus, and in 19th century America, most people did.

Wallace called his second novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It was first published in 1880.

Author Lew Wallace
In the story of Judah Ben-Hur, three wrongful accusers became one man in the Roman tribune Messala. When the betrayed Ben-Hur finds himself working the oars aboard the slave ship, with every push forward he swears his revenge. Just as Edmond Dantés, he finds someone to educate him and help him make his fortune. Then he reappears in glitzy high society to begin his much, much simpler plan of running over his nemesis with a chariot. Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t like to waste time on panache.

Like Monte Cristo before it, it was a runaway smash hit. It was the first novel to be blessed by a Pope. It didn’t get a sandwich named after it, but it did have its own brand of flour. (Tie-in marketing wasn’t really cohesive back then.)

Ben-Hur changed everything for Wallace, even getting him a position as US ambassador to Turkey. Unfortunately, he could never quite escape was the black eye of Shiloh. It wasn’t until after Wallace’s death that Ulysses S. Grant officially explained that the loss had not been Wallace’s fault.

By 1907, the story of Ben-Hur was tightly woven into American popular culture. It was so ubiquitous that Canadian silent film director Sydney Olcott decided to make a quick and cheap fifteen minute silent film depicting the famous chariot race. Neither he nor the producing studio had obtained the rights to do so, and the book was still under copyright, at this time to Wallace’s widow.

In the early days of film, copyright infringement was par for the course. Nobody in Hollywood cared, and the copyright holders felt that there was little they could do about it.

Until Wallace’s widow and the publishers of Ben-Hur, Harper & Brothers, sued the pants off of Kalem Studios and The Motion Picture Patents Company, dragged them all the way to the Supreme Court and in 1911 had the law changed forever. From then on, if anybody wanted to make a film of any previously published work still under copyright, they had to obtain the production rights first.

And that brings us to our next batch of three men. These three weren’t planning on framing anybody for treason, or scapegoating their way out of a Civil War failure, they were trying to make a movie. It was 1925, their names were Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg. They needed a good idea, a framework for their next major project.

Ben-Hur hadn’t been on anybody’s to-do list since the massive lawsuit, but as long as they could get the film rights, why not?

It was a little more expensive than they were hoping. After the copyright debacle in 1907, if you wanted to see a dramatization of Ben-Hur, you had to hit up a long-running play produced by Abraham Erlanger. The play had run, enormously successfully, for twenty-five years. The curtain had barely dropped on the final tour when the Goldwyn Company came a-knocking. Erlanger would not budge on his price for the production rights.

Expensive as it was, the three producers shilled out. There was this vision of the chariot race being shot to look like a painting by Alexander von Wagner, and nobody could shake it. It was a brilliant idea.

Wagner's painting. Click to embiggen.

1925’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was shot on location in Rome, at further expense. Everything was replaced at least once, including the director and the stars. The finished film was helmed by Fred Niblo, and featured Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur. The scenes featuring Jesus were shot in two-tone Technicolor, and the chariot race remains a spectacular feat of filming. The film clocks in at a comparatively lean two and a half hours, most of it concerning the race.

For a fun Easter egg, you can look at the gallery of stars watching in Roman garb as the chariots thunder by. There’s Louis B. Mayer himself, a very young Joan Crawford, the Gish sisters, the Barrymore brothers, Marion Davies, John Gilbert, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, all chilling at the circus maximus.

The production was expensive and nobody made back what they put into it, but the film itself was a critical darling and scored big time with audiences. The publicity was excellent, and helped establish the new MGM studios.

Thirty years of relentless innovation and cut-throat deals later, MGM was no longer the new kid on the block. But things weren’t going so well financially. Television had begun to cut considerably into the profits of every studio, and MGM was among those struggling to keep afloat. Discussions of a remake of Ben-Hur had started in 1952, but it wasn’t until Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments raked in major cash for Paramount that the discussion became serious.

In 1957, MGM studio head Joseph Vogel announced that a new, glorious adaptation of Ben-Hur would begin shooting in 1958 and reach theaters in 1959.

One problem: nobody wanted to play Judah Ben-Hur.

The original choice, back in 1952, had been Marlon Brando. By 1957, that seemed like a terrible idea, so MGM approached the ever-golden Burt Lancaster. Lancaster shot down the offer right away. He thought the script was boring, and the way it used Jesus as a side character was kind of offensively weird (I love you so much, Burt Lancaster). Paul Newman declined because his first major film had been 1954’s The Silver Chalice about Ancient Greece, and he hated the beefcake ethos of epic films so much he’d vowed never to do another. “I don’t have the legs to wear a tunic,” he quipped. Rock Hudson, Leslie Neilson, and Geoffrey Horne also all said no.

Messala was easier to cast, since Messala is pretty much the best role. Director William Wyler had gotten his first choice, Charlton Heston. With nobody playing Judah Ben-Hur, though, there wouldn’t be a movie, so Wyler asked Heston if he’d be willing to switch roles.

About two seconds after this happened, Kirk Douglas offered to play Ben-Hur if they were really stuck and willing to pay him a ton of money. Heston was cheaper and had already agreed, so it was all settled.

The production is best described as “lavish” and “costly” – like every epic ever, it was too expensive and took too long to film.

But it did make its 1959 release date.

With a four hour runtime, of particular note is the chariot racing sequence. Again. It was an almost shot-for-shot copy of the 1925 version, with some extended tension and an extra stunt or two.

At the Oscars, Ben-Hur won an unheard of eleven Academy Awards; a record that would not be broken until 1997’s Titanic.

In 2001, the chariot race was once more diligently recreated, this time for the Boonta Eve Classic podracing sequence in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

And tomorrow, you’ll get a chance to see another adaptation of Ben-Hur or another adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, depending on how you want to look at it. This time it stars Jack Huston of The Huston Dynasty, who was originally cast as Messala but had to switch roles when they couldn’t find anyone to play Judah Ben-Hur.

Director Timur Bekmambetov is especially pleased with (surprise!) the chariot race. He hasn’t copied the 1925 version, he’s decided to take a cue from how Nascar is filmed on mobile devices by audience members. So, like a YouTube video from Ancient Rome.

No matter how you feel about this latest version, no matter whether it sucks or does just fine, no matter how nauseated those chariot sequences make you, it’s a good thing that they’re trying something new with an old favourite.

Everything from the Parisian archivist to the Wallace novel to the 1959 version of Ben-Hur happened because somebody was “out of ideas.” And from one accounting of a true story, there have grown abundant retooling and retellings of a fictional story, which has doubtless indirectly influenced and melded with others on the road to creating new stories.

There’s often a sense, when a new remake or reboot comes out, that you shouldn’t mess with the classics. But that’s malarkey. Every idea needs to come from somewhere. So what if the beloved film version of Ben-Hur comes from Monte Cristo which comes from an essay on Picaud, which comes from real life? It’s probably a safe bet that Picaud got the idea for his revenge scheme somewhere else, too.

Maybe even from fiction. 

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