With Hollywood’s penchant for remaking classic movies, it was inevitable that Ben-Hur would be adapted for a 21st century audience . You may be surprised to discover the fictional story of Ben-Hur dates back further than the 1959 blockbuster starring Charlton Heston and was enjoyed by previous generations of Queenslanders.
In 1880, Ben-Hur : A Tale of the Christ was published by Harper & Brothers. Its author was Lew Wallace, then governor of the New Mexico Territory, who had been researching and writing the novel since 1873. The story focuses on the fictional character Judah Ben-Hur, a 1st century Jewish prince falsely accused of an assassination attempt on Valerius Gratus, Roman Prefect of Judea. Ben-Hur is forced into slavery. The story of Jesus is woven into the narrative.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Queensland audiences enjoyed the story of Ben-Hur told through the use of a magic lantern, an early type of image projector. For example, on Christmas night in 1905, an audience at Brisbane’s His Majesty’s Theatre were treated to a lecture (and retelling of the story) of Ben-Hur : A Tale of the Christ by Rev. Loyal L. Wirt from the Wharf Street Congregational Church and 70 coloured magic lantern slides, illustrating key events from the book. The Telegraph reported on the success of the event – “After the shortest possible account of the author of the story, Mr Wirt passed directly to the story, and soon the figures of Magi, Joseph and Mary, the Messala, Ben Hur, Tirzah, Simonides, Arrius, Malluch, Esther, Balthasar, and Iras became familiar to the audience, and were woven neatly into the summary, into which, since the book has been so widely read, we need not follow here.”
On March 12, 1928, the first feature length film of Ben-Hur had its first public screening in Queensland at Brisbane’s Wintergarden Theatre. The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) silent epic cost an estimated US$3.9 million making it one of the most expensive silent film ever produced. On the evening of the film’s Brisbane premiere the Trocadero Dansant in South Brisbane held a special Ben Hur Costume Dance. A prize was awarded to the best representation of Ben Hur. Other prizes included best representation of any movie star, best dressed lady, best looking gent and best lady impersonation of a boy.
So popular was the film in the first week of screening at the Wintergarden, that the theatre extended its season; according to the Sunday Mail, “[d]ue to the tremendous crowds that have endeavoured to see Ben-Hur at the Wintergarden Theatre, and have not been able to gain admission, the management has pleasure in announcing that the season has been extended for another week. This will give those who were disappointed an opportunity of seeing the mighty production.” As an added attraction noted tenor John Priora sang The Star of Bethelem during afternoon and evening sessions.
A few weeks later, on April 4, the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM) trackless train arrived in Brisbane as part of its world tour. The train commenced its journey on March 30, 1924 and had already reportedly travelled more than 125,000 miles, having visited North and South America, Canada, England and Scotland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Russia and other European countries. The Telegraph newspaper described the trackless train – “The train consists of a miniature engine and a single carriage of the Pullman type. It is run on gasoline, and both the engine and carriage are fitted with large motor tyres…The train is being used as an advertising medium, and on the sides of the carriage appear the names of some of the stars of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture productions.”
Two days prior to the premiere of Ben-Hur in Ipswich at the Wintergarden Theatre, the MGM trackless train made a special appearance in a “Ben Hur Wintergarden Chariot Street Procession”. All traffic in Brisbane Street, between Bell and Nicholas Street was stopped.
A photograph from the State Library of Queensland shows the trackless train in an unidentified location. A visible sign on the engine is promoting the film Ben-Hur. The photograph is part of collection M 443 John Lawrence Gasperino Photograph Album.
Myles Sinnamon – Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland