The annual Academy Awards recognize cinematic achievement on a grand scale, but few films have matched the success of Ben-Hur—chosen best picture of 1959 and winner of 10 other Oscars. It also broke many of the records of its time, including racking up a then colossal production cost of $15 million.
Although two silent movies and a successful stage play telling the story of Judah Ben-Hur had previously been released, the movie as we know it was based largely on the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, a former Union army major-general.
Wallace’s best-selling American work of 19th century fiction, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, has a close Santa Fe connection, which is mostly well-documented. Wallace wrote part of the manuscript, especially the last part, in the old Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe in the late 1870s. Yet I can’t help but think there’s more to the story: The plot of Ben-Hur is a little too much like Wallace’s experience in New Mexico to be simple coincidence.
The idea for the story came to Wallace in 1876. As he stated in a posthumous autobiography in 1906, he did most of the writing in Crawfordsville, Ind., but he wrote the last part in Santa Fe.
Appointed governor of New Mexico territory in 1878 by President Rutherford B Hayes, Wallace had been charged with ending the violence of the so-called “Lincoln County War,” a complex faction fight between competing and often corrupt economic interests.
One of the protagonists in the quarrel was the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid, or Henry McCarty, who was also known as William Bonney. At first, Wallace tried to enlist the Kid’s cooperation to bring charges against various guilty parties, but that effort ended with the Kid threatening to kill Wallace. Friends warned Wallace to close the shutters in the old Governor’s Palace at night while working on his book by lamplight.
Wallace took the threat seriously, as the Kid had assassinated a sheriff earlier in the Lincoln County conflict. Moreover, the killing of a public official, even a corrupt one, was an indication of the breakdown of public order in the region. (The story of the conflict focusing on Billy the Kid has been most recently retold on the PBS network.)
Here is where art begins to imitate life. In the novel, Judah Ben-Hur’s fall from nobility to slavery parallels Wallace’s arrival in New Mexico in a way that is quite striking. For Ben-Hur, the plot begins with the arrival of a new governor to the Roman province of Judaea, a rather remote part of the empire with a partly desert topography.
This man, Valerius Gratus, has been appointed by the central authority, the emperor, to be procurator of Judaea to quell the region’s political turmoil. As the new procurator passes one of the finest houses in the city, that of the Ben-Hur family, a roof tile accidentally falls on him. The procurator’s men treat the incident as an assassination attempt and destroy Ben-Hur and his family. So I’m naturally left to believe that Wallace inserted something of his actual New Mexican experiences into the plot of his book. Wallace was the new governor. Perhaps the Kid’s assassination threat linked to the false assassination charge against Ben-Hur. The harsh, dry landscapes of the two places are similar, although Wallace quite liked the beauty of New Mexico.
The novel Ben-Hur never mirrors Lew Wallace’s New Mexican experiences line for line. On the other hand, the author’s situation in Santa Fe in the late 1870s may have informed his framing of this most popular work of literature. And so, when the film version of Ben-Hur won the Academy Award for best picture in 1959, one could say that New Mexico was a contributor.