Screenwriter, playwright and novelist Gore Vidal is linked to two famous quotations about whipping.
One is a funny quip about the old form of corporal punishment called “birching” (whipping someone with a bundle of birch tree rods):
“I’m all for bringing back the birch, but only between consenting adults.”
This quote appears in many books of quotations and on many websites, generally without any source.
The Yale Book of Quotations has traced it to an article published in the UK Sunday Times Magazine on September 16, 1973.
Official credit for the screenplay of Ben-Hur was given to veteran screenwriter Karl Tunberg.
However, at the request of the film’s director, William Wyler, several other writers did extensive but uncredited rewriting, including Vidal and the famous playwrights Maxwell Anderson and Christopher Fry.
At this point in the film Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston, is galley slave.
He’s chained there with dozens of other sweating, near-naked men who row the ship.
The Roman naval commander Quintus Arrius, played by British actor Jack Hawkins, comes down into the galley to inspect the slaves.
He asks Heston, who he calls by his seat number – Forty-one – how long he’d been “in service.”
Heston glares at Hawkins and says with a clear tone of hatred that he’d served a month less a day on the current ship and three years in others.
Hawkins seems to ignore Heston’s tone and walks on.
Suddenly, he turns around and lashes Heston on the back with the multi-stranded whip he’s carrying. (Called a flagrum in Latin.)
Heston rears up and looks menacingly at Hawkins. Hawkins looks down at him coolly and remarks: “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it.”
Then he says:
“Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”
It’s not certain that Gore Vidal was the writer who contributed those famous words to the script.
It could have been Tunberg, Anderson or Fry.
However, given Gore’s sexual preference (he was openly gay long before it was as acceptable as it is today), and given his oft-quoted quip about mutual birch lashings by consenting adults, Gore seems like he might have a special flair for writing a scene that included sweaty, scantily-clad men and a whip.
In fact, Gore claimed to have purposely put a homosexual subtext into the movie’s script in its depiction of the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala, played by Stephen Boyd.
Messala is a Roman. Ben-Hur is a Jew (who later becomes a Christian). They both grew up in Jerusalem in wealthy households and were close childhood friends. Messala left to pursue a career as a soldier. Years later he is sent back to Jerusalem as a commander of the Roman troops stationed in the city.
When Ben-Hur and Messala see each other again for the first time in years, it’s a happy and warm reunion.
Gore recalled discussing the nature of their friendship with director William Wyler in an interview in the excellent 1996 documentary The Celluloid Closet.
“I said, ‘Well, look, let me try something. Let’s say that these two guys when they were 15 or 16…they had been lovers and now they’re meeting again and the Roman wants to start it up…Willie stared at me, face grey. And, I said, ‘I’ll never use the word; there will be nothing overt, but it will be perfectly clear that Messala is in love with Ben-Hur.’ Willie said, ‘Gore, this is Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ I think is the subtitle,’ he said, rather vaguely, looking around. And Willie finally said, ‘Well, it’s certainly better than what we’ve got. We’ll try it.’”
Wyler later denied this conversation with Gore ever took place.
Either way, once you know about the anecdote, it’s hard to not to think of it when you watch the scene in Ben-Hur when the two childhood friends see each other again after years apart and give each other a long, warm hug.
Of course, as the plot progresses Ben-Hur and Messala become arch enemies. They have their final showdown in the famed chariot race near the end of the movie. In that sequence of scenes, the whipping is done to the horses.
Most viewers of the movie may not give it any thought. But I see it as a reflection of mankind’s age-old cruelty to animals, especially knowing that nearly 100 horses died during the shooting of the movie.
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