The Undirectible Director

BuddBudd Boetticher led a life that had more ups and downs than an elevator, but his was a life from which legends are made. To this day, old-timers in both Mexico City and Hollywood still speak of him with great respect, even though he never broke into the pantheon of world-famous film directors like Ford, Hitchcock and Huston. In many respects, he was much like the immensely talented and flamboyant John Huston — but without Huston’s inexhaustible good luck.

The adopted son of a wealthy family, Boetticher first journeyed to Mexico in the late 1930s, and soon was hooked on what became two of the three great passions of his life: bullfighting and Mexico. (The third was film-making.) In time he became a full-fledged matador whose courage and skill earned him the admiration of Mexico’s most illustrious bull-fighters. It also paved his way into movies. Within the next ten years, he would co-write and direct two of the finest films ever made about the sport, The Bullfighter and the Lady with Robert Stack and Joy Page, and The Magnificent Matador with Anthony Quinn and Maureen O’Hara.

Later came a series of superb low-budget westerns starring the vastly underrated Randolph Scott, and a bus load of unknown actors who later became famous: James Coburn, Richard Boone, Lee Marvin, Rock Hudson, Anthony Quinn and Glenn Ford. All of them received their first big break under the gifted directorial hand of Budd Boetticher.

Then, at the height of his fame and top of his game, his luck went south. Unable to find work in Hollywood, he decided to go south himself—back to his beloved Mexico. Still obsessed with bullfighting, he embarked on a grand venture: a documentary film about the world’s most famous matador, the incomparable Carlos Arruza. But funding for the film proved elusive and Boetticher had to spend years trying to raise the financing — a quest which might have been comical except that it landed him first in a nightmarish Mexican insane asylum, and then a brutal federal penitentiary.

These mind- and career-altering events were only a warm-up for what followed: the development of an almost fatal lung infection, the near-loss of his most cherished project, the rupture of his marriage to the lovely film star Debra Paget, a long period of wretched poverty, chicanery and treachery at every turn, the death of the best members of his film crew, personal and professional disgrace and finally, devastatingly, the sudden death of the star of his project, Carlos Arruza, which left the documentary only half-finished.

But Boetticher had more inner reserves than the average man: having been a star athlete in his youth, he soon recovered his physical health, as well as the imperishable determination possessed by all truly dedicated men. Pulling his crippled career and life together, he eventually found a way to complete the Arruza documentary, which though never widely released, eventually found great favor with film critics and matadors alike.

Budd Boetticher died in 2001 at age 85, and with his passing died the era of natural-born storytellers, charismatic film writer/directors whose own lives would have made spell-binding movies, and whose blunt talk often masked a tenderness that usually showed only in their films. Such men stand in humbling contrast to many of the modern-day filmmaker nerds who understand special effects better than they do human nature and value the size of their budgets over the artistic merit of their movies.

Georgia O’Keefe: The Later Years — Peak Or Depression?

GeorgiaYour choice, but before you decide, consider this: There are certain parts of the brain that actually keep developing as we grow older — particularly if we give them plenty of exercise. Moreover, though we tend not to be as mentally acute as we age, experience can be an enormously rich resource. Don’t believe it? Try on the following:

• Benjamin Franklin invented bi-focal glasses at 78 to help correct his own poor vision.

• Georgia O’Keefe continued painting well into her 90s, despite failing eyesight.

• Martha Graham danced until age 76, then kept on choreographing for another 20 years.

• Frank Lloyd Wright worked on the design for the Guggenheim Museum until his death at 91.

• Michelangelo completed his final frescoes in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel at 75.

• Giuseppe Verdi finished Falstaff, his final opera, just eight months shy of his 80th birthday.

If the above proves anything, it’s that rigidity and despair are not inevitable with the advent of old age. Moreover, a growing body of scientific research stresses that creative or challenging activity can actually help keep a person physically healthy. Those who do engage in such activity make fewer visits to a doctor, fall less often, use less medication and are less likely to be depressed.

Studies at the University of California at Berkeley suggest that there are five ingredients for staying mentally vigorous: diet, exercise, challenge, novelty and love.

Experiments show that lab rats’ brains grow larger and sharper when they get new mazes to solve and a variety of items to play with. And they live longer, as long as 900 days instead of the norm of 600 days. Whether the rodents’ romantic attachments figured in all this is best left to the imagination.

A study of life here at Lakeside would prove many of these same premises.

Some time ago, this writer wrote an editorial about the mysterious allure of Mexico, which dismissed many of the usually given reasons for living in Mexico, i.e., the lower cost of living, the weather, etc.

Instead, the article focused on the more subtle attractions of a country which encourages us to become more adventurous, more creative, courageous and compassionate; in other words, to become the person we always wanted to be, but rarely had the time, inclination or opportunity to do so.

One has only to check the list of Non-Profit and Charitable Organizations here at Lakeside to see the impressive array and variety of such groups — and behind almost every one of those organizations are senior citizens who have found great pleasure and satisfaction in excelling at something they probably would not have even tried back in “the old country.” Such activity reaps many personal benefits, not least of which it keeps us looking younger.

There’s a lovely story about a 90-year-old actress who was elated when she lost the part of an “84-year-old character” because the director thought she looked too young. Now, who among us can’t relate to that.

The Iron Horse

GerhigIn the great wave of European immigrants who came to the United States toward the end of the 19th century was a certain German family named Gehrig. In 1903, they had a son, Henry Louis Gehrig, who would become a legend in his own time.

Gehrig’s mother found work as a cook in a fraternity house at Columbia University in New York City, and Gehrig later enrolled there, hoping to earn a degree in engineering. But something stood between him and obtaining that degree: an awesome, God-given talent for playing baseball, a gift which would soon land him with one of the greatest franchises in the history of sport, the New York Yankees.

In time, Lou Gehrig would play on two of the Yankees’ most feared teams, “Murderer’s Row” and the “Bronx Bombers.” In seven of the 14 seasons he played, he batted in more than 150 runs, and in 1931, he established a major league record of 184 RBIs, a record which endured well in the 1980s. In 1932, he hit four consecutive home runs in one game. In 1934, he led the American League in batting average, home runs and RBIs. He left baseball with a career batting average of .340, 493 home runs and 1,990 RBIs.

But his most memorable achievement was playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record which went unbroken for more than 50 years, and earned the incredibly durable Gehrig the nickname “The Iron Horse.”

When Gehrig finally came out of the Yankee lineup, it was only because he had developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a hideous disease which is today known as Lou Gehrig Disease. A short while later, he was honored at Yankee Stadium, and before a crowd of more than 60,000, he gave the crowd one of the most emotional moments ever recorded in the history of American sport. His speech ended with “Some say I’ve gotten a bad break, but today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”

Gehrig died in 1941 at the age of 38.

One year later, the famous film producer Sam Goldwyn (equally infamous for his mangling of the English language) was offered the chance to make a movie of Gehrig’s life story; knowing little about baseball, he declined. Then he was shown a film clip of Gehrig’s farewell speech and with tears running down his face, declared “I’m going to make this film, even if it doesn’t make a dime…as long as millions of people see it!”

And millions of people did see it. The Pride of the Yankees starred the redoubtable Gary Cooper; perfect casting, for both Cooper and Gehrig epitomized what was best in the American character: good, strong, dedicated men who went about their work with little fuss or fanfare.

For most of his professional life, Gehrig had labored in the shadow of teammate Babe Ruth. Flamboyant, free-wheeling Babe Ruth, who leveled opposing pitchers, loose ladies and bourbon bottles with equal gusto, while Gehrig lived quietly, devoted to his wife and to his work with under-privileged children.

Today, in an era of pampered athletes, illegal strength-enhancing steroids, monstrous salaries, out-of-control egos and cynical media manipulators, Lou Gehrig still stands, some 65 years after his death, a silent sentinel guarding what´s left of integrity in the world of professional baseball.

Sometimes the greatest game of all is how a man lives his life.

In a Perfect World

flemingMost of us have experienced or heard about “coincidences” that seemed so mysteriously maneuvered that they took our breath away. On such occasions, it seemed that God was alive and well and still concerned about the universe. At such times, we might have thought that, despite millions of indicators to the contrary, there was order, justice and harmony in the world.

Looked at another way, we might have been reminded of Freud’s famous dictum that there are no accidents in life; or viewed from a third perspective, that all things happen for a reason.

I have experienced several such moments, but they pale in comparison with the marvelous old and true story which follows, a tale which might well satisfy proponents of all three of the perspectives mentioned above.

* * * * *

His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while working on his near-barren land, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog.

There, mired up to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.

The next day, a carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly-dressed man stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Fleming had saved.

“I want to repay you,” said the man. “You saved my son’s life.”

“I can’t accept payment for what I did,” the Scottish farmer replied. At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel.

“Is that your son?” the visitor asked.

“Yes,” the farmer replied proudly.

“I’ll make you a deal. Let me provide him with the level of education my son will someday enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll no doubt grow to be a man we both will be proud of.”

And that he did.

Fleming’s son attended the very best schools and in time graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, then went on to become Sir Alexander Fleming, known throughout the world as the discoverer of Penicillin.

Years afterward, the same boy who was saved from the bog was gravely ill with pneumonia.

What saved his life this time? Penicillin.

The name of the father? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son’s name?

Sir Winston Churchill.

* * * * *

Another “mysteriously maneuvered” series of events, this one fictitious but nevertheless inspiring: Small-town America, around the beginning of the 20th century. A man yearns for adventure and travel to exotic places but circumstances keep him mired in what he thinks is an utterly unrewarding existence. Finally believing that his life has never touched another soul, he descends into deep despair and attempts suicide.

But the man is saved from drowning and is taken back in time to realize just how much he actually did to benefit the lives of so many other people. One example was his once saving the life of his younger brother, who later saved the lives of hundreds of sailors during World War II. (Movie buffs will recognize the plot of the great Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.)

Yet such heroics cannot compare with those of Sir Winston Churchill who perhaps more than any other single person was responsible for once saving nothing less than Democracy itself.

Sometimes it seems that Divine Intelligence itself is writing the scenario.

“Behind Every Great Achievement Is a Deep Wound…”

peanutsErnest Hemingway once said that the one absolute requirement for becoming a good writer is to have had an unhappy childhood. The eminent playwright Arthur Miller put it like this: many successes in the arts were done by people who had lost a beloved parent early in life, and had spent their careers in trying to metaphorically replace that lost father or mother.

Along that same line, I remember a long-ago moment when my nine-year-old niece told me how lucky I was that I was a writer. Her reason: because I could take all the bad things that had happened to me, put them in stories and make them come out more interesting or more positive than they had been in real life.

I was reminded of this in recently reading a book by David Michaelis called Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography. If ever an artist used misery and romantic agony as his “tools” and hurt and anger as the taproot of his work, it was Charles Schulz, who considered himself as bland, boring and luckless as his comic-strip Freudian alter ego, “Charlie Brown.”

Freud believed that a person’s basic personality is determined by the age of five. From that early age on, we see life as either something to be enjoyed or something to be endured. Schulz’s dark outlook was conditioned by a cold, aloof mother. Early poverty also left him psychologically pockmarked. As a boy, he sometimes went hungry, a deprivation that would years later surface in a line in one of his cartoons: Security is knowing there’s some more pie left.

Like many artistic people, Schulz found grief more inspiring than happiness. The conviction that he never got what he deserved energized his sense of injury and was the inspiration for “Charlie Brown.” Another was the loss of the great love of his life, leaving him with a feeling akin to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, who died still looking for the “green light at the edge of the pier.”

Could Schulz have been helped by a psychiatrist? He didn’t think so, figuring that while a shrink might make him happier, psychoanalysis would also take away his talent — and the famous cartoonist knew which side of his psyche the butter was on: by the 1990’s, he was earning almost $40 million dollars a year.

What chord had he magically struck that created such resonance in the hearts and minds of people all over the world? In the ‘50s, it hit those who felt guilty over their vague discontent amidst postwar prosperity, and later the cartoons expressed the struggle of young people pondering the meaning of existence. (“Snoopy,” wondering why he was put on Earth: I haven’t the slightest idea.)

Sadly, even at the end, Schulz was still angry: at God, at his friends, at his fate. He died the day before his last cartoon was published. As “Peanuts” ended, so did his life — but how lucky we are to have had Charles Schulz and his beloved characters for as long as we did.

You’ve Come a Lot Way, Nena!

womanIn the past ten years, Mexican women have come farther than even the most optimistic of them could have imagined. Here at Lakeside, women now hold responsible positions at several banks and many important businesses. In Guadalajara, women can be found in the executive offices in virtually every industry and organization. Moreover, the modern Mexican woman has even created a vital place for herself in the world of politics, one of the last all-male bastions to finally fall.

This success has changed the way many women in Mexico now view their country, children, and husbands — a switch in viewpoint and attitude that has filtered down to a younger generation. The message is clear: no longer will the Mexican woman place her deepest dreams and fondest hopes on indefinite hold. The right to self-fulfillment is no longer reserved only for the men of Mexico.

And yet, both the men and women of Mexico still have a long way to go. Consider the following true story. Only the names have been changed (as they used to say on the old Dragnet TV shows) to protect the innocent; and in this case, the guilty, as well.

Maria is in her late 20’s, was born and raised in Ajijic, and as a young girl often migrated north with her family to work in the apple orchards in the state of Washington. Maria married while still in her teens, and today has two young children. She also has a husband, Ektor, who thinks honest work should be outlawed, and who wastes most of his ample free time swilling beer and chasing skirts. Maria has been the sole support of the family for the past several years, usually working as a domestic here at Lakeside.

But Maria has a dream. Two years ago, while up in the States, she enrolled in a trade school and soon mastered shorthand and typing, graduating first in her class (out of a class of 36) and was thought by her teachers an ideal candidate for a good secretarial job. It probably also didn’t hurt that Maria is a very pretty and slim young woman, with a marvelous personality. (Already I can hear the “politically correct” crowd starting to grumble.)

Her husband, however, has other ideas, and recently eloquently conveyed his wishes by breaking Maria’s nose. She is now seeking a divorce. But the first lawyer she went to consented to take her case only if she would have sex with him. Another lawyer in Guadalajara, this one middle-aged and slightly more subtle, advised Maria that he would commence legal proceedings against her husband the moment she was safely settled in his “casita,” that euphemism for a second dwelling, well away from the main house and the not-so-understanding wife.

Yet the biggest disappointment has been Maria’s own mother, who when she first learned of the beating, took sides with her daughter’s husband. It was Maria’s fault! She had given her husband only two children, and he had every right to punish her. The mother had herself given birth to ten kids, and could not understand why Maria had not tried for the same even number. Moreover, as of late, the mother has become convinced that Maria is possessed by a demon, and has asked a local padre if Maria should submit to (ready for this?) an exorcism!

If all this sounds like something out of the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials, that’s also part of the problem. It has been said that in Mexico, the past, present and future always sit facing each other like hostile neighbors.

Maria’s story is as yet without an ending — and another somber reminder that while the women of Mexico have made great strides in the recent past, they still have (to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost) miles to go before they sleep, and promises to keep — mainly to themselves.

My Most Embarrassing Moment

chimpMany years ago and seemingly in someone else’s lifetime, soon after graduating from SMU, I married into a prominent family in Dallas. My wife was a wonderful person and so was her father, who invited me to come into the family business. But I was hell-bent on making a career in the movie industry — an aspiration he thought indicative of mental instability.

For a while, it seemed he was right. But three years later, while still working for an insurance company in Los Angeles, I set out to co-write, produce and direct my first feature film, even though I had never even seen a movie being shot. The film, No Return Address, would eventually make a profit — but the money did not come in time to save my marriage.

Over the next 15 years, I made several more low-budget movies, some warmly received by the critics but most tanked financially. Then, the past reappeared in the lovely form of my ex- wife. To my surprise, she was still living in LA, but would be finally moving back to Dallas in the next few days.

She suggested we have a farewell dinner, and mentioned Chasen’s, a restaurant I had never been in but knew as once having been favored by Humphrey Bogart and many other of filmdom’s rich and famous.

Hey, dinner with a woman who had once meant so much to me, Bogart, Chasen’s, great, right? Wrong — because at that moment in my heavily checkered career, I had some seventy five dollars in my pocket — which might, from all current indications, have to last me for the rest of my life. But the money should be, I thought, enough to get me through the evening with my pretentions unperturbed.

Wrong, again. One look at the menu prices and I immediately considered bolting for the door. Instead, I feigned a slight discomfort that had “robbed me of my appetite.” My comely companion said that my spirits would improve after I’d had a drink — and promptly ordered an expensive bottle of wine.

For the next hour, she sweetly asked me about the state of my film career and personal life — to which I blah-blahed about how wonderful everything was. In reality (a place I occasionally visited but never stayed for long) I had recently lost my Mark VII Jaguar sedan and apartment in Hollywood and had been living with a friend for the past few weeks.

When the check came, it was some $72. Miraculously, I could cover it! But when I got my change, the fair lady whispered that the few dollars on the tray would not be nearly enough to cover the tip — to which I confidently confided that I was a regular customer and would settle the matter after I had escorted her to the parking lot.

Outside, when she asked about my car, I politely said that we should get her car first. Another surprise: for a petite, demure and still svelte woman in her mid-30s, her car was a growling Corvette, more the kind that an Indy 500 driver might have been driving.

As we said goodbye, she kissed me and said how happy she was that everything had turned out so well for me — and with that she roared away. I turned to the young valet. The parking was free, but patrons were expected to tip the help. I had just started to go through my song and dance when the punk sneered, “Forget it, pal. You need the money worse than me.”

I must have turned beet red before starting the long walk back to my friend’s place. He had recently rented a sparsely-furnished house, and having but one bed, he had put blankets and a pillow into a long, empty window flower box — and that very same embarrassing night, a would-be burglar opened the window and easing himself into the house planted a foot right in my face.

Ah, but that’s another humiliating story.

Life Can Be a Bitch

Ajijic ManI first arrived in Chapala some twenty-five ago with a motor home, two cars, two dogs and a distinctly dismal-looking future. I was coming off a couple of years in Hollywood where I had developed an acute case of the Midas Touch in Reverse and had finally decided that if I couldn’t change my luck, at least I would change my location.

Quite by accident, I found a lovely little trailer park right down by the Lake Chapala where a space cost only sixteen dollars a month. The park was owned by a Mexican family that had been there since 1936, and in accordance with ejido law, was still farming a small portion of the property. The family’s youngest grandson, Carlitos, was in charge of the park. He was an industrious, fun-loving young man and because I knew no one else at Lakeside, we soon became good pals.

Then one day, two attorneys arrived from Guadalajara to inform the family that they were squatting on private property. Stunned, the family quickly collected legal documents going back several decades. Undeterred, the lawyers came again, this time with a pickup truck brimming over with black-shirted police. When one of the cops poked a pistol against the head of the matriarch of the family, the matter was “legally” settled. The lawyers brusquely informed the park’s gringo tenants that they had 15 days to move out.

Many of them, elderly and living on Social Security, didn’t know what to do or where to go. In desperation, they petitioned the American Consulate in Guadalajara, and a young officer happened to arrive at the trailer park just as the lawyers were berating the remaining residents. When the young consul officer voiced a mild objection, the attorneys yelled at him, as well, saying he had no authority to intervene.

I’ll never forget what came next. The young man, in a cool, measured voice, said that where he did have authority was in the US Consulate, where he was in charge of approving all visa applications to the United States filed by residents from the state of Jalisco — and perhaps someday the lawyers or their families would be standing before his desk.

Had he slapped them across the face, their expressions could not have looked more startled. Instantly, contempt turned to cordiality as the shysters did everything but fall to their knees and ask for forgiveness. At that moment, I was very proud of the good ole US of A.

But the retort only stalled the eventual final outcome. Carlitos, along with the rest of his family, was thrown off of his own property. Later, he made a shack down by the water and became a fisherman. He also became addicted to alcohol in its crudest form (this included mixing rubbing alcohol with various ingredients) and only a few years afterward suffered a severe stroke which left him while still in his 20’s with a shuffling gait and garbled speech.

Today he can be seen limping along the highway in his big straw hat, his black dog trailing behind him. I often stop to talk to him, though he does not remember me. But I remember him. He was the first friend I made at Lakeside and I have often wondered how things might have otherwise turned out, had those lawyers not arrived that afternoon of so many years ago to completely blacken out his future.

Years ago, an American president with enormous power and prestige nevertheless observed that life is unfair. I can’t imagine what my old friend Carlitos must think, if indeed he can still think?

The Mexican-American Soldier

When the United States first entered WWII in December of 1941, there were more than two and a half million people of Mexican descent living in the US, eighty-five percent of whom resided in five states: New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California and Texas.

But in early 1941, an order had already been issued by the commander of the 36th Infantry Division that a new unit be formed, comprised only of Hispanic-Americans. The mandate included both officers and enlisted men.
Whether the order was discriminatory cannot be easily judged. What is indisputable is that it gave rise to what later became one of the most highly-decorated fighting units in American history.

The new unit, called E Company, became part of the 141st Regiment of the 36th Division, later to be known as the Texas Volunteers. The all-Hispanic rifle company quickly drew many recruits from every part of the Southwest, including many men who had long been members of the National Guard in their home-states.

The rifle company soon became noted for its excellence. The remaining question was how well it would do in actual combat, a doubt that was resoundingly settled when the Texas Volunteers stormed the Italian beach at

Salerno and began blasting up toward its ultimate goal: the Eternal City of Rome.

But then came several elements which in combination dealt the American forces a stunning counter-punch. The Germans held the high-ground at Monte Cassino, from where they could shell the US troops below with shattering accuracy. The terrain had also grown steep and rocky, and with the driving sheets of rain, the entire area became a swamp. Hundreds of Sherman tanks sat stalled alongside washed-out roads.

The Italian campaign had boiled down to that most basic element in any army: the foot soldier. It was now his war to either win or lose. The first major objective was to successfully cross the raging Rapido River. To accomplish this, the 156 men of E Company were ordered to make the crossing first, though it was known they would be facing more than 3000 Germans on the other side, armed with heavy machine guns, mortars and even light cannons.

Why such a pitifully small group of men, all of whom had been in combat for three straight weeks and some of which could barely walk, was sent out on such an impossible mission is something that even now, some 70 years later, is still hotly debated. Of the original striking force, only 23 men made it back to their own side of the river and of those, a dozen later died.

Even so, by the end of the war, E Company had won more medals for bravery than some entire regiments, while overall, Hispanic soldiers had been awarded more Congressional Medals of Honor (in ratio to their numbers) than almost any other ethnic group.

Yet despite their outstanding combat record, these same heroes were initially denied membership in both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. But that history of outstanding achievement has had its way over the past several decades and today every branch of the US military is packed with high-ranking Mexican-American officers.

Moreover, the leadership of both the VFW and the American Legion has often been held by Mexican-Americans.

The philosopher who once said that “the wheels of fate grind slowly but they grind exceedingly fine” was not wrong.

If Life Could Only Imitate Art

ChristArt must always — if it is to have any claim to legitimacy — imitate Life. Yet how sad that life cannot more often imitate art, which can sometimes contain a higher truth than reality itself. I was reminded of this recently when I saw (for the fifth time) one of the most inspirational movies ever made, the monumental 1959 version of Ben Hur.

The film is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” and like its earlier silent version was adapted from a novel written more than 140 years ago by General Lew Wallace, who had fought in the American Civil War. The story, set at about the time of the birth of Christ, is about a Jewish nobleman, Ben Hur, and his closest childhood friend, Messala, a Roman. When Messala is later given an important post in Judea, he savagely turns on Ben Hur and sets out to destroy him and his family.

But Ben Hur miraculously survives years of brutal labor — first in the salt mines of Abyssinia, later as a galley slave in a Roman war ship — to eventually return to Judea to join forces with an Arab to vanquish Messala in a chariot race (perhaps the most spectacular action sequence ever filmed, which purportedly resulted in serious injuries to several stunt men). His victory is vitiated, however, when he learns that his mother and sister, after enduring years of confinement in a hideous Roman prison, have become lepers.

Cancerous with rage and haunted by spiritual emptiness, Ben Hur later learns of a young Jewish prophet who has been condemned to death by crucifixion. Standing among the crowd as Jesus of Nazareth finally expires, Ben Hur ruminates that “even as he died, I could feel his voice take the sword from my hand.”

Consider these two elements — all the more relevant in these current days of slaughter and strife in the very part of the world where the story is set: A Jew links his hand and destiny with that of an Arab to defeat the despicable Roman (i.e. terrorists), then this same Jew finds inner peace through the example of a martyr whose life and death become the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Yet the film was made by Jews: William Wyler (director), Sam Zimbalist (producer), and Karl Tunberg (screenwriter).

Consider also that the film itself is today greatly admired by Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, Jews and Christians alike. One reason is that the film-makers chose to keep Christ’s miracles to a bare minimum, in effect saying that even if Jesus had not performed the many miracles mentioned in the New Testament, indeed was perhaps not really the Son of God, His was a life and death that nevertheless should inspire men for all time.

But take the case one step further to ponder whether Jesus ever actually existed, for most of what we truly know of Him was written much later by men who never knew him. The film’s answer (and mine as well) is so what? Those who wrote about Him were nonetheless inspired, for they have left us with what tens of millions of people have always regarded “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Those same millions believe that story gave the world the most beautiful blueprint for living that has ever been put to paper — and for me, that is more than good enough.

Now if only life could, for a change, imitate art.