Ben-Hur (1925) A Silent Film Review

Religion. Politics. Chariot races. Pirates. Ben-Hur the novel has all the ingredients to make a great film. The 1959 version is the most famous but the 1925 film is the one that got it right. Big, beautiful and an epic’s epic, what’s not to love?

They shoulda called it Ben-Hurt.

For my 200th silent film review, I decided to do something special so I asked my readers to vote on which film I would cover. Ben-Hur emerged as the victor, barely squeaking by Clara Bow’s It. So welcome and enjoy.

Ben-Hur was one of the very first silent films I ever saw. My first few months as a fan were packed to the gills with as many silents as I could rent, buy or record from television. Inevitably, when there is a flood of new information, some of it is bound to splash over the sides. Ben-Hur didn’t make an enormous impact on me. I remembered liking Ramon Novarro and being impressed with the chariot race. I thought Francis X. Bushman overacted and I scoffed at Carmel Myer’s infamous white wig. Other than that, I drew a blank.

So, about fifteen years and a few hundred silent films later, I was looking forward to revisiting Ben-Hur and seeing what I missed the first time around. This is going to be a mammoth review with background information and a ruthless dissection of the film in comparison to its more famous 1959 remake.

What wonders shall we behold? (image courtesy of Christopher Bird)
What wonders shall we behold?
(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Religion and politics: Ben-Hur is full of ‘em. And the political views of Charlton Heston are also hotly debated (well, as hotly as classic movie star debates get when they don’t revolve around love lives or the Red Scare). I realize that given the very nature of this film, we cannot avoid these topics entirely. However, I do ask commenters to refrain from being combative or evangelical.

Second, I will be reviewing this film from a secular point of view. While I have no wish to poke fun at actual religious content, I will be having a bit of fun with the Hollywoodization of religious content. I beg your indulgence in this regard.

Third, I will be jumping around filming periods. For the sake of a simple narrative, I will be referring to the American film industry in general as Hollywood (even if the office in question was in New York or New Jersey). I will also be referring to all motion picture studios by their most common modern names.

Fourth, Ben-Hur premiered on December 30, 1925. As a result, some sources list its release year as 1926.

A classic tale of religion, revenge and men in very short skirts.
A classic tale of religion, revenge and men in very short skirts.

Before we dig into the background of the film, here is a basic rundown of the plot:

(I am going to be spoiling the heck out of this 135-year-old story, by the way.)

Judah Ben-Hur is a nice Jewish boy minding his own business in Jerusalem when Messala, his boyhood friend and Roman nobleman, frames him as an assassin. Judah is condemned to life as a galley slave but the fortuitous rescue of a Roman commander during a pirate attack leaves him a free man. He seeks revenge on Messala and paralyzes him in a brutal chariot race. Revenge turns out to be empty for Judah (even though he does have the love of the pretty and boring Esther) but the story is not subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” for naught. Conversion, redemption and a happy ending follow.

The 1925 version of Ben-Hur is almost as famous for its troubled production as it is for the spectacle that made it on the screen. To document every single issue would really take its own book (and it would be a long one) but I will hit on some of the highlights and lesser-known stories. Don’t feel sad if I have to leave out your favorite instance of mayhem, I hope to include plenty of other anecdotes to make up for any omissions. For a good overall rundown, do read the Ben-Hur chapter in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By. (I will provide a list of sources and recommended reading at the end of the review.)

It took forever but MGM finally did it!
It took forever but MGM finally did it!

This is a long and complicated story, with more plot twists than a barrel of Hitchcocks. To make things a little easier, here is a very, very basic summary of the production woes:

After years in development hell, Ben-Hur was finally greenlighted at Goldwyn and director Charles Brabin set out for Italy along with screenwriter/showrunner June Mathis, George Walsh (as Judah Ben-Hur), Francis X. Bushman (Messala) and Carmel Myers (Iras). Gertrude Olmstead was to play the heroine, Esther, but was not needed yet and stayed in America. Working conditions quickly deteriorated, everyone was fighting with everyone else, the production was hemorrhaging money and a studio merger was underway. Metro and Goldwyn were combining with Louis B. Mayer in charge and Irving Thalberg as his right hand. Seeing that Ben-Hur was in trouble, the new MGM bosses fired everyone except Bushman and Myers and sent in fresh writers, actors and Fred Niblo to direct.

There were more troubles in Italy with crew, contracts and weather and so the plug was pulled and the whole thing was moved back to California. MGM poured in even more money, with the final budget tallying around $4 million at a time when mega-budget blockbuster films were $1 million or less and mid-budget films cost in the ballpark of $100,000-200,000. (So, with modern super blockbusters costing $250-300 million, this would be like a movie today costing over a billion dollars.)

The finished film was an enormous hit but took years to earn back its budget. However, as publicity for the fledgling studio, it was priceless. Mayer and Thalberg were able to rescue a blockbuster in freefall and come out of the mess with an acclaimed and popular picture. It helped establish MGM as a power player in short order.

Now let’s engage in a cinematic post-mortem and see what went wrong with the cast and crew of Ben-Hur version 1.0.

Disastrous Italian shoot? $4 million dollars. The biggest picture of the year? Priceless.
Disastrous Italian shoot? $4 million dollars. The biggest picture of the year? Priceless.

I have a cunning plan.

What does a general do when he retires? In the case of Lew Wallace of the United States Army, our military man decided to become a writer and his religious novel entitled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was published in 1880. (You can read a public domain copy online here.) Using the life of Jesus as a background, it told a rousing tale of adventure in the Roman world. Okay, so the prose was purple and the story structure was clunky. No one seemed to mind and the novel became a runaway bestseller. Children, adults, from the laymen to the pope, everyone read it, everyone was talking about it and its religious content shielded it from complaints about its bloody elements. (It’s still among the top twenty bestsellers of all time.)

Lew Wallace looking quite literary.
Lew Wallace looking quite literary.

The novel was adapted for the stage and the centerpiece was the chariot race, which was run with real horses on giant treadmills. Future cowboy superstar William S. Hart played the villainous Messala on the stage and he was apparently something to see. It’s a real pity he was over sixty when the film finally opened as I am sure he was wonderful in the part.

ben-hur-cast

The biggest novel and biggest stage smash around? The movies wanted to get a piece of that but Lew Wallace and his heirs weren’t inclined to sell the rights to just anyone. In 1907, the rascals at Kalem (Gene Gauntier and Sidney Olcott chiefly) made an unauthorized version and were duly sued by Lew Wallace’s heirs. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and established copyright law between authors and the movie studios. (There is some speculation as to whether William S. Hart appeared in the 1907 production. As Olcott himself stated that he had merely filmed a chariot race being put on for local festivities, it seems highly unlikely that Hart was involved.)

Before he started packing a pair of six-shooters, Hart was a Roman terror.
Before he started packing a pair of six-shooters, Hart was a Roman terror.

Since the Ben-Hur ruling, the popular novel and stage play remained out of reach for most studios. The price was simply too high. The producers who owned both the theatrical and film rights were demanding $1 million for the privilege of making a Ben-Hur movie, which was more than the entire budget of a major epic.

Finally in 1922, the Goldwyn studios were able to cut a deal. Rather than pay the massive sum that was demanded, they would instead pay 50% of the film’s profits. With the ridiculous deal inked and half its profits signed away, Ben-Hur already had one stroke against its success.

Could even the chariot race save it?
Could even the chariot race save it?

Screenwriter and Goldwyn “Million Dollar Girl” June Mathis took the reins of the production and she set to work adapting the novel into a screenplay. Known for her sophisticated screen treatments, Mathis had been granted virtual autonomy at Goldwyn and she soon began to flex her muscles. Only genuine Italian locations would do for a production of this magnitude. While that matter was being arranged, Mathis began work on the single most important ingredient to assure the film’s success: the casting.

The omelet and the eggs

And so the stage was set and Ben-Hur was finally going to be a major motion picture. Fasten your seatbelts, kids, it’s going to get pretty wild from here on.

An important note before we continue: Ben-Hur’s troubled shoot became the stuff of Hollywood legend and a lot of people shared their memories over the years. When reading these accounts, one must keep in mind the social attitudes of the time. Tales of “lazy” Italian workers and “grasping” Jewish studio bosses are studies in stereotyped attitudes and racist dog whistles. These views would have been common in mainstream American culture in the 1920s but they were by no means shared by everyone. The challenge for modern students of film history is to sift these accounts together, filter out the racial/ethnic prejudice and self-serving narratives and hopefully end up with something resembling the truth.

June Mathis considers the options to play Judah Ben-Hur. (image courtesy of Christopher Bird)
June Mathis considers the options to play Judah Ben-Hur.
(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)

But let’s get back to June Mathis and her important task of casting. The role of Judah Ben-Hur was one of the most coveted parts in motion picture history prior to the great Scarlett O’Hara search of the 1930s. Actor after actor was considered and rejected. It seemed logical that Mathis would cast her discovery, friend and protégé, Rudolph Valentino, in the lead role but he was under contract with Paramount and in the midst of staging a one-man strike to protest the quality of his roles and pictures, not to mention his unsatisfactory salary. Even a loan-out was not possible under such circumstance and so Mathis had to look elsewhere.

The next logical choice was to have Rex Ingram direct and Ramon Novarro star. Ingram could handle big movies with big budgets, he had a winning collaboration going with Novarro and both men were very excited about the story. In fact, Ingram had arranged for a clause in his contract to allow him to be loaned out to whichever studio won the Ben-Hur bidding war. The problem: Ingram was in a feud with June Mathis.

Rex Ingram handled huge sets with ease, as shown in "Scaramouche"
Rex Ingram handled huge sets with ease, as seen in “Scaramouche”

As selection dragged on, one wag joked that Jackie Coogan would eventually win the lead and the film would be the hit of 1940 (that is, the quip continued, if there wasn’t a world war in the meantime). So all eyes were on the Goldwyn crew when they finally announced the cast.

The slate went over like a lead balloon. George Walsh and Gertrude Olmstead? If you are racking your brain to remember who they are, rest assured that twenties audiences felt the same way. The groans were audible. Former “king of the movies” Francis X. Bushman looked the part (he had been a model for Greco-Roman statues before entering the movies) but he was considered very last decade and had been embroiled in a scandalous divorce.

Bushman was quite the sex symbol in his day.
Bushman was quite the sex symbol in his day.

Carmel Myers got the part as Iras, the seductive Egyptian. In 1918, Myers had starred with Valentino in a very odd romantic comedy called All Night (nudge, nudge) and in a Cinderella variation called A Society Sensation. Mathis had Myers model Egyptian gear and hired her based on photos only. Gertrude Olmstead’s casting as good girl Esther seems to have been completely random but a fairly intelligent rock could play Esther so it wasn’t of much concern. (Olmstead would later appear with Valentino in Cobra.)

Finally, we have the leading man. George Walsh? He had a few hits under his belt, his prospects were looking up and his brother, Raoul, was an important director but young George was by no means a major player.

photoplay-walsh-and-olmstead

As it turns out, it was a story as old as the movies, albeit usually with reversed genders. Mathis stated that Walsh was chosen “not only because of his ability as an actor, but for his physical attainments as well.” Good to know, June. (You’d better believe I am calling out Mathis for risking an expensive production because she cast a fella for his looks rather than his drawing power. I have called out male executives for doing the same. There’s no excuse. Do what DeMille did: give them a tiny part and stick them in the back.) Further, Mathis seemed to be suffering from Griffith-itis. You know, D.W. Griffith and his “I make stars and I will make a star of Carol Dempster!” thing. Look, just because someone invented Han Solo doesn’t mean they can make us love Jar Jar Binks. Just sayin’.

Charles Brabin (aka Mr. Theda Bara) was given the job as director, a real slap in the face to Ingram. Brabin was experienced with overseas productions (he had made one of the earliest overseas Hollywood epic features, 1913’s Ivanhoe for Universal, which featured an elaborate castle siege) and he was able to keep costs down, which is always a popular talent with the front office. Ben-Hur was to be made in Italy (crew would reportedly cost half the going Hollywood rate) and so these skills would prove valuable. June Mathis took Brabin’s selection as a chance to throw some shade Rex Ingram’s way, suggesting that Brabin taught the kid all he knew.

The knives were out at Goldwyn.
The knives were out at Goldwyn.

The production started cheerfully enough but that soon ended. Maybe it was the Italian scenery. Maybe it was the script. Maybe everyone was just plain fed up. What really matters for purpose of our tale is that Ben-Hur was not so much a film set as it was a collection of warring factions.

Mathis and Brabin began to fight and matters were made worse by the fact that Goldwyn had set up no real chain of command. Mathis thought she would be supervising the production but Brabin blocked her and banned her from the set and she had no way around him. Worse, she had not yet finished the script. To start a production of Ben-Hur’s magnitude without a completed script was (and still is) the height of irresponsibility. The failure to give Mathis any real power only magnified the issues already simmering.

brabin-and-bara
Brabin and Bara

Add to this toxic mixture a strong dose of political unrest and labor disputes and you have a recipe for disaster. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini himself was rumored to have stirred the pot in the background.

George Walsh was all but ignored and generally treated like a second-class citizen by the crew. Carmel Myers made the best of the situation by touring Italy. Francis X. Bushman did the same and later claimed that he made an impression on Mussolini himself. Il Duce thought Bushman was the hero of the film and considered him ideal for the role. (No one in Italy seemed to know the story of Ben-Hur and the production team thought it wise to keep it that way. No need to let on that the Romans were the baddies.) In return, Bushman taught Mussolini how to say “You are very beautiful” and “Will you have dinner with me?” which the dictator used to try to pick up American girls.

At least three people (Bushman, Myers and Mussolini) found pleasure in making the film. For most everyone else, it was war. The Italian shoot descended into chaos but what Mathis and Brabin had not considered was that Goldwyn was about to become the G in MGM. The dynamic duo of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer were tasked with making Ben-Hur a success. What they found was money pit.

Bushman and Myers enjoyed themselves. Everyone else... not so much. (image courtesy of Christopher Bird)
Bushman and Myers enjoyed themselves. Everyone else… not so much.
(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)

Back in California, Thalberg, Mayer and producer Harry Rapf had screened footage from the Brabin set and were horrified at what they saw. The acting was terrible, the costumes ill-fitting, everything from the makeup to the wigs looked awful. As Mayer’s daughter, Irene, succinctly put it, Mathis and Brabin had “lost contact with their own taste.” The film’s generous budget had long since been spent and still more was needed to finish the thing. Huge sets had already been constructed in Italy (plus, there was the possible embarrassment of admitting that Italy had defeated MGM) and so it made more sense to keep the production in Europe but just about everything else was on the chopping block.

The bloodbath began immediately. The MGM team brought in a new director, Fred Niblo, who is probably best remembered for The Mark of Zorro. (Rex Ingram was again passed over. In addition to feuding with Mathis, he also feuded with Mayer. Busy man.) They brought in two new screenwriters (Mathis still had not delivered a completed screenplay), Bess Meredyth and Carey Wilson. Most significantly, they decided to cast new leads. The role of Judah Ben-Hur came down to a choice between Ramon Novarro and John Gilbert. Novarro was known as the calmer, more cooperative and generally less neurotic of the two. Considering the drama-prone set, that was likely enough to put him over. The coveted role of Judah Ben-Hur was finally his.

The part was his!
The part was his!

The purge complete, Fred Niblo, his wife Enid Bennett and Novarro set sail for Italy.

Et tu, Francis?

Novarro arrived in Italy before anyone informed George Walsh that he had been fired. I feel sorry for him but I get annoyed with the sympathetic grumbling about Novarro’s casting and people throwing around the opinion that Walsh would have been a better Judah Ben-Hur.

Who would have been better? We'll never know definitively.
Who would have been better? We’ll never know definitively.

The couldawouldashoulda game is incredibly tedious. He didn’t play the part and we have no way of knowing whether he would have been great or a bomb so let’s not pretend otherwise. What we do know is that the entire studio was in peril and Ben-Hur had to be a hit. They wanted a name and Walsh’s simply wasn’t it. It might be argued that Novarro was a new star himself but comparing his performance in Scaramouche with Walsh’s in Rosita reveals that while Walsh was charming, Novarro was clearly the better actor. (Mary Pickford rather bizarrely claimed that Rosita was her worst film but this is nonsense. I’ve seen The Little American.) Further, Novarro carried all of Scaramouche on his shoulders while Rosita was clearly a showcase for Pickford with Walsh supporting.

No question who the star of "Rosita" was.
No question who the star of “Rosita” was.

That being said, by keeping Walsh occupied with Ben-Hur just when his career was building momentum and then unceremoniously tossing him off the project, MGM did irreparable damage to his prospects. Walsh probably did need to go (the June Mathis faction had to be uprooted) but the blow could have been softened by immediately casting him in a different film.

While the fired Charles Brabin could (and did!) sue MGM, Walsh had not been signed to a long-term Goldwyn contract and so he really had no legal recourse. June Mathis was in no position to fight for him as she herself was being shown the door. In addition to squandering the budget for Ben-Hur, her name was attached to Greed (directed by Thalberg’s old nemesis, Erich von Stroheim), which has since been praised as a masterpiece but had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Further, she had been the screenwriter for a few more Goldwyn flops. In short, she was seen as a liability and not an asset to the new MGM.

McAvoy in "The Enchanted Cottage"
McAvoy in “The Enchanted Cottage”

Gertrude Olmstead was replaced with May McAvoy, hot off her performance opposite Richard Barthelmess in The Enchanted Cottage. She also was not afraid to go toe-to-toe with studio bosses (she had just dumped Paramount and had become one of the few successful freelancers of the silent era, Valentino could have learned from her) but she kept a relatively low profile on the set of Ben-Hur. McAvoy later stated that she thought the part was dull but she knew that appearing in a prestige production would worth it for the exposure. She was correct.

(Unlike Walsh, Olmstead had never gone to Italy and her career did not suffer any major setback from the Ben-Hur ordeal. She was granted a role in the first screen adaptation of Babbitt, supported major stars like Lon Chaney and Milton Sills and generally did well for herself. Olmstead later claimed that she lost the part of Esther because she was too tall to be Novarro’s leading lady. I should also point out that based on the films I have seen from both actresses, McAvoy was the more skilled performer.)

In costume for "Ben-Hur"
In costume for “Ben-Hur”

As McAvoy was the last lead to be cast and as none of the costumes made for Olmstead would fit her (McAvoy claimed to be 4’11” but may have been even tinier) she found herself at liberty in Italy. McAvoy went shopping and saw the sights with her mother, she had a private audience with the pope, she even met Mussolini, though was somewhat embarrassed when her mother’s hired coach inadvertently blocked Il Duce’s own car. No word as to whether Mussolini’s first words to her were “You’re very beautiful. Will you have dinner with me?” McAvoy wasn’t needed for the more grueling sequences and so her stint in Italy was more like an MGM-sponsored vacation.

(In fact, McAvoy and Louis B. Mayer were quite fond of one another. McAvoy retired from films to raise a family but grew bored when her children reached school age. She met with Mayer and asked him to give her some work. He hesitated because he couldn’t offer her top billing or even major supporting roles but McAvoy assured him that she was just reentering the movies as a hobby. She stayed working for MGM for two decades, her last appearance was as an extra in the 1959 remake of Ben-Hur.)

"The Merry Widow" was the other thorn in MGM's side but it made a bundle at the box office.
“The Merry Widow” was the other thorn in MGM’s side but it made a bundle at the box office.

All of the Brabin footage was scrapped and the production started anew but Fred Niblo was having trouble bringing the thing to life. Seeing history begin to repeat, Louis B. Mayer sailed for Rome with his family to give the film his personal attention. (Much of the early MGM Ben-Hur drama occurred during the tumultuous production of The Merry Widow, which had Erich von Stroheim directing and Mae Murray starring—two of the most difficult personalities in the movies. Murray hated her director and he returned the sentiment with interest, Mayer slugged von Stroheim for calling Murray’s character a whore, Murray threw off all her clothes and walked off the set in her birthday suit, von Stroheim kept trying to sneak naughty bits into the film… But The Merry Widow was still not as crazy as Ben-Hur.)

Yes, fellow movie workers! Ramon Novarro is the man who keeps stealing all the maple bars from the donut table!
Yes, fellow movie workers! Ramon Novarro is the man who keeps stealing all the maple bars from the doughnut table!

Francis X. Bushman, meanwhile, was engaging in some of the most extreme method acting in the history of motion pictures. That or he was just being an enormous jerk. Bushman had become close friends with Walsh during the production and knew that being fired from Ben-Hur would destroy his career. In a Messala-worthy move, Bushman tried to torpedo Novarro by upstaging him and spreading gossip to the top studio brass. The brass didn’t bite. Replacing Judah Ben-Hur once had been scandal enough and anyway, MGM had big plans for the talented Novarro.

I just placed Novarro's hand in a bowel of warm water and replaced his shampoo with corn syrup.
I just placed Novarro’s hand in a bowel of warm water and replaced his shampoo with corn syrup.

Bushman then waited until the film was too far into production for recasting and demanded a handsome raise. This may have been motivated by outstanding alimony bills rather than malice but it didn’t sit well with his employers. Bushman was blackballed from MGM after Ben-Hur. (Our erstwhile Messala took to claiming that he was made persona non grata at the studio because of some accidental snub. Well, he could hardly cop to blackmail.)

Both thinking: I hate your guts and wish you would step on a Lego.
Both thinking: I hate your guts and wish you would step on a Lego.

I have to wonder if Bushman’s obnoxious behavior influenced Novarro’s performance. I mean, Judah Ben-Hur is supposed to hate Messala and Bushman would certainly have made that emotion easier to convey.

How to murder your cast.

The set of Ben-Hur was one of the most dangerous places in the film industry. The great pirate battle was particularly harrowing as the impoverished extras lied about their swimming ability. The cast and crew disagree as to whether any of these unfortunate men actually drowned but Fred Niblo, Enid Bennett and Claire McDowell (who was playing the hero’s mother) all stayed up late into the night checking for missing extras. The story goes that the American crew found some men missing and sank their clothes in a panic. A few days later, the extra or extras showed up (they had been rescued by fishermen) and demanded his/their property. Novarro and McDowell both stated that no lives were lost while Bushman and translator/editor Basil Wrangell believed that at least a few did die.

The chaotic ship-to-ship battle. (image courtesy of Christopher Bird)
The chaotic ship-to-ship battle.
(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)

Bushman also recalled that a stuntman was killed in the chariot race scenes shot in Italy, which were later scrapped in favor of the footage shot in California. The material was absolutely stunning but the beauty came at a price. Second-unit director Breezy Eason was ruthless with both stuntmen and horses. (His work Charge of the Light Brigade racked up so many equine injuries and deaths that new rules were put in place to protect animal actors.)

The lead actors had it almost as bad. In May McAvoy’s case, it was that darn chariot. Wait, Esther drives a chariot? Don’t remember that scene? There’s a good reason for that. It was cut from the finished film. McAvoy was supposed to be riding like the wind in order to warn Judah. Unfortunately, she was simply too small to control the horses and in her effort to hold onto the reins, both her wrists were popped from their sockets. She had to wear braces until they healed.

Hurts just thinking about it, doesn’t it?

They dislocated your wrists? Just wait until you hear what they did to me.
They dislocated your wrists? Just wait until you hear what they did to me.

Ramon Novarro, meanwhile, had his own problems to deal with. Niblo was out of control, raging and generally making himself disagreeable. As Novarro was in most of the scenes, he bore the brunt of the tirades. Niblo’s wife and Novarro’s co-star in The Red Lily, Enid Bennett, did her best to smooth relations between her husband and everyone else. (She deserves assistant director credit, I think.) Bushman walked for a time, which isn’t surprising, but even the usually cooperative and pleasant Novarro briefly went AWOL when it became too much. I don’t blame him.

Owch!
Owch!

The shoot was as taxing to the body as it was to the emotions. Novarro had to endure retake after retake (over thirty in all!) of scenes in which Roman soldiers dragged him around by the hair. And then there were the makeup problems. Collodion was used to make his skin look parched in these scenes and when he removed it, sometimes his skin went with it.

Apparently not content to scar and skin their star, the Ben-Hur crew decided to freeze him as well. Novarro’s stunt double chickened out on a scene that called for him to float in a raft in freezing water and so Novarro (wearing a skimpy loincloth) and the seventy-five-year-old Frank Currier (wearing a short Roman tunic) were obliged do it themselves. In addition to playing his part, Novarro also had to act as nurse, dosing Currier with generous gulps of brandy. Three days on the water with the wind blowing the whole time and wearing little more than underwear? Sounds like a picnic.

Do try to keep Frank alive, Ramon.
Do try to keep Frank alive, Ramon.

Well, that was enough of the cold, it was time for heat. Novarro later stated that he still had scars from Ben-Hur. The scene? The script called for Novarro to leap through some burning sailcloth in order to save a Roman commander. I am imagining the conversation.

That looks like fun.
That looks like fun.

Hollywood Type: Ramon, baby, sweetheart, we need you to jump through this flaming hole.
Ramon: Excuse me, through it? Can’t I just go around?
Hollywood Type: Ramon, kid, if I thought there was another way I would do it.
Ramon: Well, maybe if I wear long sleeves and dungarees…
Hollywood Type: Sleeves? Oh, sweetheart, you are going to be wearing… this! (holds up tiny scrap of fabric.)
Ramon: (gulps) Where’s the rest of it?
Hollywood Type: That’s it! Gotta give the audience something to look at, right?
Ramon: Like my burning flesh, for instance?
Hollywood Type: Oh, you kid!

Long story short, one singed Ramon. The lesson: always demand to wear trousers or at least Bermuda shorts. Put it in your contract. While you’re at it, add clauses demanding no caustic substances on your skin, no freezing of elderly co-stars and no getting dragged by the hair for take after take.

Novarro regrets not demanding an asbestos vest clause in his contract.
Novarro regrets not demanding an asbestos vest clause in his contract.

The injuries were not isolated to the cast. While in Italy, Mayer developed an abscessed tooth (this was before antibiotics, remember) and ended up having to have tooth after tooth pulled as the infection spread. He left Italy for his health but kept up with the production via telegram. While in Germany, he arranged a screening of The Saga of Gosta Berling and decided to import the leading lady, some actress named Greta Garbo.

One of the unexpected results of "Ben-Hur"
One of the unexpected results of “Ben-Hur”

These are just a few of the miseries the cast and crew endured. As I said before, recounting all the dangerous and deadly accidents on the set would require a book of its own but I think you get an idea of the working conditions. Now let’s move onto the script.

Have you Ben-Hur before? (hee hee heeeeee)

The film opens with a standard Protestant Lite version of the birth of Jesus and fifteen minutes pass before the story begins in earnest. Betty Bronson (formerly Peter Pan) plays Mary as a sort of serene female Obi-wan Kenobi, able to cause everyone around her to bend to her will. The holy baby is duly born in Technicolor splendor with the expected number of wise men in attendance and then we fast-forward some years to Jerusalem under the Roman yoke.

These aren't the droids you're looking for.
These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) is a prince of a guy and an actual prince. He lives with his mother (Claire McDowell) and little sister Tirzah (Kathleen Key). In the marketplace, Judah runs into Esther (May McAvoy). He helps her catch her escaped dove and much silent movie bird smooching commences. (The weird silent movie bird thing is a particular pet peeve of mine.) However, Esther is leaving the city and Judah is off to find his newly-returned childhood friend, Messala the Roman (Francis X. Bushman).

We may need to stage an intervention.
We may need to stage an intervention.

Messala is a bit embarrassed to have a Jewish kid claiming him as a friend. It’s clear that any friendship that once existed is over. Things go from bad to worse when Judah accidentally knocks a roof tile onto the governor’s procession. Messala has Judah, his mother and sister arrested.

Our hero is in a pickle, ladies and gentlemen, and after a brief stopover in Nazareth (lest we forget that this is a religious tale), our plucky hero finds himself chained to an oar. He’s absolutely seething and ready for revenge, which catches the eye of Roman poohbah Quintus Arrius (Frank Currier). But then pirates attack and there is a spectacular sea battle. In the mayhem, Judah saves Arrius and his adopted as his son.

The annual poohbah inspection.
The annual poohbah inspection.

So now Judah is living as a Roman and making a name for himself as a charioteer. He hears word of a servant of the house of Hur living in Antioch and rushes to investigate. Old Simonides (Nigel De Brulier) held the title of steward but he was actually a slave to Judah’s family. And guess who his daughter is? Yep, the blonde from act one, Esther.

Simonides has preserved the Hur family’s massive fortune but hesitates to reveal himself as he isn’t sure about condemning his daughter to a life of slavery. But it doesn’t really matter because Judah is sweet on Esther so the matter gets dropped. No biggie. Anyway, Simonides conducted his own search for Judah’s mother and sister. He fears they are dead.

Way to break to him gently, Simonides. Sheesh!
Way to break to him gently, Simonides. Sheesh!

It seems that a sheik is looking for someone to drive his chariot and hopes that Judah will do the honors. Judah refuses until he hears that his opponent will be Messala. With nothing to live for but revenge, our hero decides to crush his enemy using his own weapons.

Messala is having a mad affair with an Egyptian named Iras (Carmel Myers). He asks her to investigate his mysterious new opponent. Iras puts on her best yarn wig, her finest lizard barrette, wears her sexiest perfume and generally vamps Judah up hill and down dale. It doesn’t work, he ain’t giving nothing away. But then Simonides shows up and Judah forgets that tent walls are made of cloth and gives everything away while Iras is in the other room.

Terrific. I'm all ready to race and I'm stuck here with some cross between Jean Harlow and Raggedy Ann.
Terrific. I’m all ready to race and I’m stuck here with some cross between Jean Harlow and Raggedy Ann.

The race is one! Messala cheats but he’s no match for Judah’s skill and his fine Arabian horses. One wrecked chariot later, our villain is no more. (In the book, a paralyzed Messala attempts to make trouble for Judah from his sickbed. The film just lets us believe that he died of his injuries or slunk off in defeat.)

But now Judah has had his revenge and is feeling pretty empty. Sure, he has Esther’s love and that’s swell but he wants something more… Then he hears all about a prophet named Jesus who claims to be the messiah. Excited at a new mission and a chance to rebel against the Romans, Judah rushes about to form an army for the man who must be his new king.

Not QUITE dead.
Not QUITE dead.

Meanwhile, Judah’s mother and sister are not dead, they contracted leprosy in prison and are heading into exile. They bid a silent farewell over Judah as he sleeps but Esther sees them and realizes that they can be healed by Jesus. Unfortunately, he is on his way to execution.

It becomes a race against time. Esther much retrieve his mother and sister from the frightening Valley of the Lepers and get them to Jerusalem in time to be healed. Judah must get his army to the city in time to save the king. Of course, we know that he will be too late but Esther succeeds in her mission. The reunited Hur family decide to become Christians and the film ends with a smiles and religious imagery.

A grand Technicolor reunion.
A grand Technicolor reunion.

Now, I may have cut a bit from the synopsis but not much. The story seems a bit choppy because it is. The original book was a whopping tale and there was much to cut but even with the story cut to the bone, it is still a rather long and involved tale. Further, there are certain aspects to the novel that make is far more challenging than your average book-to-film adaptation.

Your mileage may vary

Ben-Hur remains one of the most popular silent films but some parts are more popular than others. This is a long, long film, especially by silent movie standards and there are some slow passages.

I have absolutely no problem with long movies. My all-time favorite film is Lawrence of Arabia, for heaven’s sake! But I view lengthy runtime the same way I view CGI: what matters is how you use it.

Religion with few specifics.
Religion with few specifics.

The problem in this case is that story of Ben-Hur has basic structural flaws and every film adaptation inherits these flaws as there is no way to restructure the story without the whole edifice crashing down.

It’s been brought out before but I will repeat that your enjoyment of the first fifteen minutes and the last half-hour of Ben-Hur depends very much on your religious beliefs and how you feel about them being turned into popular entertainment. Because if the viewer in question does not subscribe to the generic Christianity that the film endorses—or if they want a bit more detail on the actual teachings of the Christ—for all intents and purposes, the film comes to a complete stop.

A slow beginning.
A slow beginning.

The opening is taken up with a nativity scene, which means there is a fifteen minute delay in getting the main narrative started. The finale follows up the incredible chariot race with Judah’s crisis of faith, a few scenes of his mother and sister and then off to Golgotha for a crucifixion. It’s a jarring shift in tone.

Out of an abundance of caution (understandable, by the way) MGM played things so safe with the portrayal of Jesus that an alien seeing this movie would be hard pressed to actually understand what Jesus taught and why it was important. Again, I do not blame MGM for this as the topic is highly emotional.

A limit on how much of the Christ they were permitted to show on the screen.
A limit on how much of the Christ they were permitted to show on the screen.

The thing is, what this feels like is being fed a steady diet of cake for much of the movie and then being forced to eat your greens at the end. “You want chariot races? You’ll have to go to Sunday school afterward!”

Again, I must emphasize that your mileage may vary with these scenes and it depends very much on your belief system but I feel that by playing it safe and staying on the fence, both Lew Wallace and MGM wasted a chance to make a stronger story. In short, I wish they had either entirely eliminated the religious narrative or increased it dramatically so that it is clearer why Judah converts. (The original novel is more religious than the film but it still has that same generic quality to it.) If you like these religious elements, fine. However, please realize that the enjoyment is not universal.

When all else fails, a beam of light.
When all else fails, a beam of light.

(Another gentle reminder that this blog is about silent film, not religion or politics. Please bear that in mind when commenting.)

Well, throw more money at it!

Back to the woes in Italy. (There’s more? Oh yes.) Poor weather and spotty electricity were the last straw. A fraction of Ben-Hur had been shot and the Italian production had been grinding away for well over a year. No end was in sight and the production was costing hundreds of thousands of dollars with each passing month. Louis B. Mayer made the call to pull the plug and bring the production back to Culver City.

One of the backgrounds. (image courtesy of Christopher Bird)
One of the backgrounds.
(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)

Very little of the Italian footage made it into the final film. The California production was essentially the third time that Ben-Hur had been restarted from scratch. As it turned out, the third time was the charm.

Cedric Gibbons and A. Arnold Gillespie under the direction of Andrew McDonald created epic sets through a combination of actual size and clever trickery. Their weapons of choice? Hanging miniatures and matte paintings. Ben-Hur is undeniably one of the most gorgeous creations ever to grace the movie screen. A fortune was splashed out to make the film. A lot of it was wasted but with four million dollars to spend, it’s not surprising that a lot of it ended up being spent making the thing exquisite. When silent film fans wax poetic about the sheer scale and beauty of silent productions, Ben-Hur is the perfect example of what they mean.

Glorious set design.
Glorious set design.

If I had to put my finger on a precise style for the films design, I would say that it is like a living medieval religious portrait. The headdresses and tunics have a decidedly Dark Age flavor, as do the portrayals of the holy characters. Internal consistency of design is underappreciated but extremely important. There are many films with gorgeous sets and costumes that are a mishmash of whatever the designers liked. These disparate elements can be jarring and pull the viewer out of the film.

Ben-Hur, on the other hand, is an egg tempera icon come to life. The giant sets (enhanced by the trickery I mentioned above) do not overwhelm the characters because they are all part of an organic whole. It’s an astonishing accomplishment considering the troubled shoot.

The characters fully inhabit their world.
The characters fully inhabit their world.

What’s more the characters interact with the sets as though they actually live there. We believe that Judah wanders the streets of Jerusalem looking for young ladies in distress. We believe that the Roman soldiers who dragged him to the galley had made the journey hundreds of times and would make it a hundred times more. We believe that the pirates have a home to return to and that each galley slave has a story.

To make a long story short (too late!) much of Ben-Hur’s appeal is due to the combined efforts of the cast and crew, which resulted in some most convincing world-building.

Chariots and Pirate Ships

The two main set pieces of Ben-Hur are the naval battle between Romans and pirates and the chariot race between Messala and Judah. Often, famous scenes do not live up to their reputation but I am happy to report that both the ship battle and the raise exceed all expectations.

Preparations for a battle. (image courtesy of Christopher Bird)
Preparations for a battle.
(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)

One of the great things about naval conflicts in the silent era is that big budget films would build full-size ships for the action. This was the case for Ben-Hur. Labor difficulties meant fewer ships than they intended but the results are still spectacular. Smoke and fire cover over any shortage of vessels and imaginative touches like jars of snakes tossed onto the enemy deck and a Roman soldier affixed to the pirate ship’s ram give spice to the scene.

That's gonna hurt.
That’s gonna hurt.

There is simply no substitute for the atmosphere that a real ship on a real sea can bring to a film. No matter how clever the miniature or how accomplished the CGI, something is missing. The feel of the salt spray doesn’t come through or some such poetic reason.

The ship-to-ship combat of Ben-Hur looks harrowing and dangerous because it was just that. Clever cutting brings order to the chaos and the result is one of the very best naval battles in motion picture history.

Real chariots, real racing. (image courtesy of Christopher Bird)
Real chariots, real racing.
(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)

As for the chariot race, what more can be written about that scene? I could go on about the technical skills, the crashes, the danger and the stuntmen but that’s been covered many times before. And so I will simply say that it is exciting, beautiful and has never, ever been matched.

People sometimes ask what movie-related event I would witness if I could go back in time. This is one of them. Filmed in California (the Italian footage proved unusable) it was the social event of the season with a virtual who’s who of Hollywood in the audience. What a sight it must have been! Oh well, at least we can admire what the cameras (42 of them!) captured.

While still images cannot really do the scene justice, I hope you enjoy these:

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Cut! Cut like the wind!

Okay, so Ben-Hur looks great and has two impressive set pieces. However, all this would have been for nothing if it hadn’t been for Lloyd Nosler and his editing team. Nosler was tasked with attacking the mountain of footage that had been growing for years and turning it into a coherent and enjoyable film.

A mountain of footage to cut. Which scenes would go?
A mountain of footage to cut. Which scenes would go?

First, all the footage (a million feet of exposed film!) had to be cataloged. Once that was done (“done” being a relative term as new footage was constantly being shot throughout the year), the actual cutting could begin. Basil Wrangell, who had been hired in Italy as an interpreter and whose singular status as the longest-standing member of the crew made him ideal to help catalog the mass of film, recalled that he spent most of 1925 working until midnight every day and only receiving two Sundays off during that time. That million foot mountain had to be whittled down to a mere 12,000 feet for the finished film.

A rough cut was screened on December 2, 1925 and while the reception was generally positive, the audience agreed that the film was a bit on the slow side. Irving Thalberg (then bedridden, recovering from a heart attack) ordered another round of cuts and retakes before its New York premier on December 30. How much was cut? Enough, as it turns out.

(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)
(image courtesy of Christopher Bird)

I cannot emphasize enough how good the editing is, particularly during the action scenes. Sure, it’s not flashy like Battleship Potemkin but the narrative is clear (if slightly choppy), the action is dynamic and comparatively little fat is left on the meat of the major set pieces. As brought up previously, the narrative comes to a screeching halt at some passages but it is still amazing that the film turned out to be as lean and nimble as it is. I hope Lloyd Nosler, Basil Wrangell and the rest of the editing/cataloging team got a nice little vacation after the monster task was completed.

A question of casting.

Flippant casting choices had almost doomed Ben-Hur from the start. Of the main cast, only Francis X. Bushman and Carmel Myers survived the MGM purge. The replacement players were chosen with far greater care and this pays off in the film.

Novarro had a flair for the historical.
Novarro had a flair for the historical.

Novarro’s greatest talent is seldom mentioned. You see, he brought a lightness to his parts and exceled at being playful and boyish. Now all these words (light, playful, boyish) would suggest that he was exactly wrong for dramatic costume roles. After all, the massive sets and elaborate costumes of the silent era had a way of eating a performer whole if they weren’t careful.

The thing is, Novarro was never swallowed up by his films. While he maintained his light performance style, he still managed to rise above all the gingerbread that surrounded him. Do you have any idea how rare that is? It’s no coincidence that his three best silent roles (Ben-Hur, Scaramouche, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg) were all lavish costume productions.

Never overshadowed by surroundings or aggressive co-stars.
Never overshadowed by surroundings or aggressive co-stars.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. managed something similar in the sound era (both actors made excellent Ruperts in The Prisoner of Zenda) but his costume films tended to be light adventures with plenty of humor. Novarro’s content, arguably, was often darker and deeper.

Now I’m not going to deny that Novarro carries on a bit in this film. He needed an extremely firm hand guiding his performances or he descended into mugging. Niblo was obviously not equipped to keep Novarro’s pantomime under control. However, even though Novarro has a few “We can see you in the back, Ramon” scenes, he also has some moments of very good acting.

Should he climb up?
Should he climb up?

One of Novarro’s finest scenes is not one that gets talked about very much but I think you will agree that it is extremely impressive.

After the ship battle, Judah and Quintus Arrius are rescued by a Roman galley. As he is climbing up the side of the ship, Judah sees a galley slave staring back at him through the oar hole. He freezes. Could he be thrown back into slavery? Novarro’s whole body shakes as he continues his climb. It’s wonderfully done and manages to convey complicated emotions without a single word. In short, it’s the sort of scene that makes silent films such a powerful art.

Frayed nerves.
Frayed nerves.

Francis X. Bushman is all bluster and swagger and he overacts outrageously. However, I liked him far better this go-round. His old school stage gestures seem to work for his part. Perhaps it is because Messala himself is an awful ham. In any case, Bushman is broad but not bad by any means.

Did we even want a subtle Messala?
Did we even want a subtle Messala?

May McAvoy looks lovely, if a bit anachronistic in her Mary Pickford wig. She was a good actress but there really isn’t that much to work with. Esther’s main character trait is that she’s nice. That’s it. That’s her entire personality. What can you do with someone like that? Her one important scene (which wasn’t even hers in the original book) is when she goes into the valley of the lepers to retrieve Miriam and Tirzah. It’s an eerie, wonderful sequence and serves to make Esther slightly less boring. Slightly.

Do you, like, want to go dancing after the Pearl Jam concert?
Do you, like, want to go dancing after the Pearl Jam concert?

Carmel Myers, meanwhile, rips out bleeding chunks of scenery as Iras, Messala’s Egyptian lover. Her character can be summed up as follows: schemer. Nothing more, nothing less. (Lew Wallace wasn’t so hot on writing chicks.) With shallow character development and wack-a-doodle costuming choices (the white yarn wig and lizard barrette make her look like rave girl circa 1997) Myers’ performance collapses. A shame because I like her a lot as a performer. (Myers herself chose that white wig, by the way, so she has no one to blame but herself.)

Beautiful performance from McDowell.
Beautiful performance from McDowell.

The woman who can lay claim to best female performance in Ben-Hur is veteran actress Claire McDowell, who plays Judah’s mother. With her patrician features and a gravity that made her seem far taller than she really was, McDowell was often cast as mothers and authority figures. Her scenes near the end of the film are particularly good. A leper, she cannot touch the sleeping figure of her son. She has not seen him in years but she must content herself with kissing his shadow. In the hands of a lesser actress, this scene could be maudlin at best and laughable at worst. McDowell gives it the dignity it deserves.

Conclusion

The epic that really is.
The epic that really is.

Is Ben-Hur perfect? No, there were technically better epics made in both the silent and sound eras. However, no movie made before or since can match the sheer scope and ambition of this silent near-disaster. Its sheer size makes the film hypnotic and Novarro’s performance allows it to keep its humanity. This is a must-watch.

Movies Silently’s Score:★★★★½

Where can I see it?

The Photoplay restoration of Ben-Hur was released as an extra on the 2005 four-disc set of the 1959 version. It is a perfectly lovely print but the best part is the orchestral score by Carl Davis. A film like Ben-Hur really could not shine with a mere organ score and the thunderous and swaggering Davis score could not be more perfect. In fact, I like it far better than the famous music for the 1959 film.

silents-vs-talkies-header

It was 1959 and acclaimed film collector and historian William K. Everson was being investigated by the FBI. His crime? Trying to screen the 1925 Ben-Hur as the big budget MGM remake was opening. Rival film collector Raymond Rohauer tattled on him to MGM and the studio bristled at any possibility of an “obsolete” silent version of their do-or-die epic receiving an unauthorized screening. In a case of spectacular overreaction worthy of America’s modern music industry, MGM turned Everson in to the feds.

MGM learned a little too well from the Romans.
MGM learned a little too well from the Romans.

Everson did not go to prison, though his print was seized (he evacuated other hot titles just to be safe). Intervention from Lillian Gish saved him and he was allowed to continue his lawless reign of terror. In The Parade’s Gone By… Kevin Brownlow describes what it was like to see the original Ben-Hur:

“Everson’s point had been made to maximum effect, even though he was projecting a battered 16mm mute copy of the sound reissue—that Ben-Hur (1926) was superior to Ben-Hur (1959)”

He is, as usual, right.

It's either a star or a UFO. In the 1959 film, it's hard to tell.
It’s either a star or a UFO. In the 1959 film, it’s hard to tell.

Everson also felt the silent was superior but was not in favor of a point-by-point comparison of the two versions (I disagree). However, you really must read his notes on the subject. As usual, his quill is dipped in venom and it’s delicious. A sample:

Once one gets used to the fact that the new “Ben Hur” is a long yawn (but not even a restful yawn) one mellows a little. One feels a little like Gloria Swanson in reel seven of “Indiscreet” when she tells the no-good Monroe Owsley: “You’re not really bad – you’re just not very bright”

Everson also wrote that he felt it was unfair that a certain critic based his “resentments on the differences between the two pictures, and the scenes that the first one had and the second one didn’t. After all, however much fun it was for the pirates to use bowls of snakes in 1924, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the pirates have to use snakes in 1959 as well!”

With all due respect to Mr. Everson, I shall be ignoring his admonitions and proceed with a detailed comparison. You see, I object to some of the differences between the versions but there is also plenty of new material to kvetch about.

Drivers, start your kvetching!

The Talkie Challenger: Ben-Hur (1959)

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Blu-ray.

First, here is something that is important to know before I start comparing: I am a bit unusual in that I read the novel Ben-Hur first, then saw the silent movie and only then saw the famous 1959 version. In that order, the 1959 film is even more disappointing than it would be otherwise.

Second, I agree with Mr. Everson. The 1959 film is perfectly awful. If you’re a huge fan of it and are one of those people who takes a negative review as a personal affront (in short, half the internet), stop reading here. I am going to be dissecting this tedious turkey ruthlessly. If you like the film, good for you. I certainly won’t be stopping you and I wish you joy of it. I just seem to be immune to its charms.

They had to drag me in to watch this kicking and screaming.
They had to drag me in to watch this kicking and screaming.

Third, I know a lot of people like or dislike Heston because of his politics. I make a point of staying out of a movie person’s personal life and political views wherever I can and judge them by their films alone. (Obviously, people like Leni Riefenstahl and Bill Cosby are in a whole different category.) My problem with Heston is that every look, gesture and word signals that he is an American man living in the 1950s. I am never able to buy him in costume roles. Never. He doesn’t look ready for a chariot race, he looks ready to change the oil in the Chevy.

Say, Esther, did you want to go and get a swell malted?
Say, Esther, did you want to go and get a swell malted?

So, these three warnings in mind, let us start our post-mortem of the overrated mess that is Ben-Hur ’59.

Dull, dull, dull, dull. And dull. Did I mention dull?

This is a long movie. Three hours and twelve minutes. The silent cut I saw ran about two hours and twenty-three minutes. What does the sound film do with its extra forty-nine minutes? Absolutely nothing.

We are not amused.
We are not amused.

Instead of bringing in more subplots or characters from the novel, everything just gets stretched and stretched and stretched some more until the film is crawling along at a snail’s pace. Americans are in no position to accuse foreign films of being long and dull if this is what they find entertaining.

It’s not just the script and pacing, though. Oh no no. It’s some of the acting as well.

So my skin flakes but only if I use scented detergent. How about you?
So my skin flakes but only if I use scented detergent. How about you?

As mentioned before, I am not a Heston fan and matters are made even worse by Haya Harareet’s Esther. They have all the chemistry of two bored strangers making small talk about their skin condition while waiting for the dermatologist to see them. Their love scenes made my finger itch to press the stop button, let me tell you.

Worse, the sound film does not take me anywhere visually. It’s all very generic Hebrew and Roman surrounding, the sort of thing we’ve all seen dozens of times before in the equally boring Quo Vadis? (fun fact: as a kid, my dad got in trouble at the theater when he cheered for the lions) and the bizarre but entertaining sound version of The Ten Commandments. While the silent version is a visual feast, the sound version of Ben-Hur is a mishmash of dubious special effects, unimaginative set design, feathered bangs and those weird pointed brassieres all the fifties women seemed to like.

Ladies' undergarments have thankfully improved since then.
Ladies’ undergarments have thankfully improved since then.

As Everson said, not bad but not that smart.

I’m the hero of this picture! Carry me! Give me the cheers! Give me one dozen roses!

The biggest problem I have with the 1959 version is its constant need to unnecessarily embroider on the narrative in order to inflate Judah’s heroism.

In the original novel and the 1925 film, it was Judah who accidentally knocked the roof tile onto the Roman governor. The 1959 version (naturally) makes it the act of a woman. Tirzah is crushing so hard on the dreamy Messala that she knocks part of the roof down and her brother has to take the blame. That’ll learn her for openly ogling a man, the tart. (Oh, you fifties.)

Tile dropping strumpet!
Tile dropping strumpet!

In the original novel and the 1925 film, Judah’s betrayal by Messala and the arrest of his family is immediately followed with his brutal trek to the galleys. In the 1959 version, Judah spends some time in a surprisingly light, airy and clean dungeon. As he is being moved from his cell he escapes (aided by the fact that his guards are utterly incompetent) and ends up holding Messala at spearpoint. Messala tells Judah that if he dies, Judah’s mother and sister will die as well. And so Judah… gives up?

What a dolt! He should have stabbed Messala somewhere incapacitating and taken him hostage. The legionnaires had already proven themselves to be idiots, this should have been a cakewalk. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Do I have to think of everything? You’re pushing forty, Judah, use your initiative.

monster-1925-engine-ooity

In the 1925 version, Arrius’ interest in Judah is casual, which is more convincing. After all, Arrius is a busy man and it seems odd for him to fixate on the oar crew. Making his unwitting rescue of Judah (by not having him chained with the rest of the slaves) a whim fits in with the story’s overall theme of small pebbles causing big ripples. On the other hand, both the book and the 1959 movie portray Arrius’ interest in Judah as far more intense and both include a private audience between the men. (Stills seem to indicate that the audience was shot for the 1925 version but cut for release. Good call.)

How dare you come in here, you brute!
How dare you come in here, you brute!

The problem is that in order to create a false moment of suspense, the talkie gives Arrius a case of the galloping dumb-dumbs. In the book, Arrius calls for Judah, he comes, they talk, he goes. Easy. In the talkie, the audience has not been told that Arrius sent for Judah, we just see the Roman napping in his cabin as the menacing galley slave approaches. Arrius wakes up and demands to know what Judah is doing there. Judah explains and then Arrius asks why he didn’t kill him. Umm…

Funny, he seemed to have it together.
Funny, he seemed to have it together.

Is this a habit, Quintis? Calling for presumably dangerous galley slaves and then forgetting that you did so and falling asleep? And not even remembering when you wake up again? Thanks to Jack Hawkins’ skillful acting, we had been led to believe that Arrius is something of a smart cookie. Clearly, we were mistaken. If he wanted to take a nap, why didn’t Arrius just say, “Hey, I could use a little shuteye. Knock before you send in that slave. Cool?” One rather gets the impression that our Roman official is the type of man who goes searching for his glasses while they are sitting on his nose.

Was it worth it, Mr. Wyler, that tiny moment of suspense? Now go to your corner and think about what you’ve done.

Perhaps a stint at the oars is called for.
Perhaps a stint at the oars is called for.

(Both film versions have Judah save Arrius by design while the book has him coincidentally fish the Roman out of the water. I think we can all agree that this change is an improvement over the oh-so-convenient coincidence of our hero accidentally saving the one man who can free him.)

Finally, I did not appreciate Judah butting into Esther’s one cool moment of heroism, that is, fetching Miriam and Tirzah from the Valley of Lepers. Look, Esther’s a bore, we all know this. But taking her one big scene and making her share the glory is just plain obnoxious. (In the book, it was Amrah the maidservant who brought Miriam and Tirzah out but she’s a superfluous character and I am all for giving Esther something, anything, to do.) It’s the whole 1950s John Wayne “step aside, little lady” thing and I hate it.

It's my one big scene but, sure, Judah, you go right ahead and barge in.
It’s my one big scene but, sure, Judah, you go right ahead and barge in.

There’s more but you get the picture. As you can see, all these additional scenes increased the 1959 version’s runtime and slowed its pace to a crawl. Anything that could be said with one scene in the silent was said with three or four in the talkie.

In the silent film, Arrius is grateful to Judah for saving his life and once they return to the Roman ship, Arrius announces that Judah is his son. Brief and to the point. I like it. In the talkie, we get the return to the ship, the longest drink of water ever, a parade, a senate hearing, an incredibly racist dance sequence and finally Arrius announces that Judah is his son. Oh. My. Gravy.

I see no possible way this scene could age badly.
I see no possible way this scene could age badly.

Oh how cute! They brought their little toy boats!

The biggest question: how do the two big set pieces measure up to the silent film? It was an utter route.

Let me be clear: the scenes are well-made, well-directed and fairly good for their time. However, they are marred by the use of miniatures (the silent film used full-size everything except some hanging miniatures), unconvincing rear projection, painted backgrounds and it just lacks the panache of the silent film shoot.

Just look at their dear little toy boats! And next, Godzilla will come and smash them.
Just look at their dear little toy boats! And next, Godzilla will come and smash them.

The utter chaos of the 1925 inadvertently created some incredible shots that would have been impossible (and quite illegal) in 1959. Both ships and chariots wreck spectacularly.

Like I said, both scenes work well enough but watching the 1959 version right on the heels of the 1925 film reveals all the flaws, artificiality and general banality of the talkie. Give me the mad, freewheeling silent film any day of the week.

Wow. I am so convinced he is really on the ocean and in peril. Help. Help.
Wow. I am so convinced he is really on the ocean and in peril. Help. Help.

I’m sorry, Mr. Everson, but I too was disappointed by the utter lack of snakes in glass dishes being hurled at the Roman ships during the pirate attack. There is also no Roman soldier tied to the ram of the pirate ship. Likely, this could not have been done under the censorship of the 1950s but these macabre touches really put the scene over in the silent. Add in some woefully unconvincing painted backdrops and rear projection and we have a rather bland dish.

The chariot race is just flat compared to the silent. The more interesting angles are eliminated and the cuts do not come as fast and furious. While the overall narrative of the race is more cohesive (we are shown how many laps there are to go, for example) a lot of the heart-pounding action is sacrificed.

Meh.
Meh.

Stephen & Jack & Frank

And now some positives. Three actors made the 1959 Ben-Hur at least somewhat bearable for me and they all deserve praise.

Stephen Boyd’s expanded Messala narrative probably gets the most attention so I won’t be delving too far into his work here. It’s already been covered quite thoroughly, I think. I will say what I found most interesting about my Ben-Hur rewatch was how much more I liked Bushman’s take on the character this time around. Yes, Bushman carries on and overacts but it works for the role. Boyd is fun and sly but I preferred the casual cruelty of Bushman to the mustache-twirling villainy of the talkie. Plus, the “nudge, nudge, we’re talking about the Blacklist!” stuff instantly dates the 1959 film.

Judah, you work for the census board. Naming names comes with the territory.
Judah, you work for the census board. Naming names comes with the territory.

Further, Boyd was younger than Charlton Heston and looked it, which is the opposite of what the original novel calls for. Whether you think this is an improvement or not is a matter of taste but I preferred the silent film’s continuation of the mentor-pupil relationship that the book established. It makes Messala’s betrayal that much more painful. I will give Boyd kudos for one thing, though. He managed to completely upstage Heston and trick him into turning his back to the camera whenever they shared a frame.

That's the sneakin' Stephen we know and tolerate!
That’s the sneakin’ Stephen we know and tolerate!

After Judah is sent to the galleys, there is no more Boyd for a while but another actor quickly emerged to save my sanity. I rather like Jack Hawkins in anything and he did not disappoint me as Quintus Arrius. While Boyd performed very broadly indeed, Hawkins played a more subtle game and easily delivered the best performance in the film.

Hortator, speed things up. I wish to go water skiing.
Hortator, speed things up. I wish to go water skiing.

Lonely, vaguely sadistic and not without a bitter sense of humor, Hawkins captures the very essence of a Roman commander. (Well, until he gets the aforementioned case of the galloping dumb-dumbs.) I was annoyed that he was just sort of dropped after the second act and never heard from again except in passing.

Now go away. Your hideous outfit clashes with my sleek purple duds.
Now go away. Your hideous outfit clashes with my sleek purple duds.

Finally, Frank Thring’s urbane and sardonic Pontius Pilate adds a great deal to the final act of the film. He underplays his scenes and allows his suave vocal delivery do most of the work for him.

All those in favor of The Messala/Arrius/Pilate Show raise your hands! (Me! Me! Me!) We could call it When in Rome and make it a sitcom in the style of The Office with the long-suffering Arrius trying to keep his wacky co-workers in line whilst ruling the known world.

P'nawn da! Sut ydych chi? Um, er, I mean, salaam!
P’nawn da! Sut ydych chi? Um, er, I mean, salaam!

In contrast, Hugh Griffith (who took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) chews scenery with the best of ‘em but his character is a veritable textbook case of the clichéd Arab with inexplicably Welsh speech mannerisms. Painful. It would be like giving an Oscar to an actor who plays an Irishmen with corned beef in one hand, a potato in the other, green socks on his feet and a Cambodian accent.

Would you care to find humor in my regional cuisine? Oh, what a good sport I am!
Would you care to find humor in my regional cuisine? Oh, what a good sport I am!

Did you know that sheiks have multiple wives? Guffaw! I’ll bet he never has trouble getting a sandwich made! Har har har! And he belches after he eats! What a savage!

Yep, all so funny I forgot to laught.

Is Judah Ben-Hur a dirty, naughty cheater?

Most of all, I just liked Judah’s character arc in the silent film.

In the sound film, Judah Ben-Hur is a man of action. He and Messala toss spears around for the heck of it. In the silent, Judah is quieter and more bookish. He would kind of like to fight off the Romans and whatnot but he is generally a gentle person. His stint in the galley changes him and turns him into a formidable opponent. The sound film Judah, on the other hand, was kind of always into violence and stuff and so no real character development occurs.

Golly, Messala, violence sure is great!
Golly, Messala, violence sure is great!

And Judah’s no saint in earlier version of the tale. Nosirree! One of the most significant changes between the book, the 1925 film and the 1959 film is who exactly was doing the cheating in the chariot race. Here’s the breakdown:

1959: Judah races clean. Messala has cheated by affixing cheesy spikes to his chariot wheels, which he uses to wreck competitors and he also uses his whip to attack other charioteers. He tries it with Judah but our hero manages to save himself at the last minute and Messala wrecks.

1925: Judah races aggressively. Messala cheats by using his whip on other charioteers. He tries it with Judah but our hero fights back, wrests the whip from Messala and the villain is wrecked in the process.

1880: Judah races dirty. Messala cheats by using his whip on Judah’s horses. Just when the villain seems likely to win, Judah cheats by breaking Messala’s wheel with the spike of his chariot.

Wheel spike? That looks like a blender attachment.
Wheel spike? That looks like a blender attachment.

Quite a difference, isn’t it? The 1925 film splits the difference between Judah being a hero and a giving Messala a dose of his own medicine. Either way, I thought the spike in the 1959 film looked ridiculous. There, I said it.

The Wrap

Still more chemistry than he manages with Esther.
Still more chemistry than he manages with Esther.

My case is this: the 1959 version of Ben-Hur consistently makes its hero and its general story less complicated and less interesting through a series of story tweaks. Further, the look and feel of the film are not as pleasing to me as the 1925 silent. Finally, the 1959 version managed to add an hour to its runtime while adding nothing to the story and actually dropping some plot threads. Three or four scenes were used when only one was needed.

The Academy can eat horse apples!
The Academy can eat horse apples!

I realize that many movie fans and the Academy disagree but I found the 1959 version of Ben-Hur to be a crashing bore. The 1925 film either equals or surpasses it in every way. If you have never seen that version, I urge you to seek it out. I think you will be impressed.

By way of making amends to Mr. Everson for his rather shabby treatment at the hands of MGM, I will give him the last word on the 1959 remake:

The supreme insult of all has nothing to do with the film itself— it’s the gullibility or sheer ignorance of the critics who have been acclaiming it as both a masterpiece of filmic art and the greatest spectacle ever made. One wonders at their fitness for their jobs.

Sources and recommended reading

Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro by Andre Soares

King of the Movies: Francis X. Bushman by Lon Davis and Debra Davis

The Parade’s Gone By… by Kevin Brownlow

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman

Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince by Mark Vieira

Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen by William Drew (interview with May McAvoy)

And a huge thanks to Christopher Bird for sharing his Ben-Hur memorabilia for this review.

25 Replies to “Ben-Hur (1925) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Bravo! This highly-detailed duo-review made my weekend. Congratulations on shaping the research into an entertaining article. Sometime next year in 2016, I hope you’ll provide counterpoint with the new Ben-Hur incarnation coming with all the glory of New Millennium Movie Magic, 3D, and probably Smell-O-Vision in the slave galley scenes. I’m sure it’ll be a hoot, and I’m sure you’ll provide a proper postmortem.

    1. So glad you liked it! The new Ben-Hur… Oh dear lord, it looks like Ben of the Rings, doesn’t it? I’m going to go out on a limb and call the silent film the winner once more. 😉

  2. Happy 200th review – and what a review! You truly bring the silent era to life with its stories, characters and art.
    Really, wouldn’t the making ot the 1925 version make a great novel – or movie, come to think of it? Poor George Walsh, though: one has to feel bad for him.
    Here in Italy, the 1959 version gets airead each year around Easter, and one sort of watches at least chunks of it (usually the race…), mostly in the way of a tradition. Also, I remember reading the novel as a little girl – in what I suspect was a highly abridged translation, that still managed to be a wee tad heavy on the religious side.
    I didn’t even know there was a silent version, until you put it in the poll for the 200th review. Now I’m off to get myself a copy, because you make it sound infinitely more interesting than I ever thought any telling of Ben Hur could be.
    Oh – and I always love your captions, but Judah and Messala wishing each other to step on lego… 😀 Priceless!

    1. Thank you so much! I definitely agree that the troubled shoot for the silent film would make a great novel, miniseries, documentary or biopic. I’m really not telling the half of what happened.

      How interesting that the 1959 version is an Easter tradition in Italy. I’m sure channels play it here too but in the US, it’s the sound version of The Ten Commandments that is always played around that time of year.

      Hope you enjoy the 1925 Ben-Hur. It’s not perfect but is sure is spectacular!

      1. Well, it’s not just Ben Hur. The Greatest Story Ever Told, The King of Kings and The Robe also tend to make an appearance around Easter… Occasionally The Ten Commandments, too – though that seems also to be considered summer fare.

  3. I have to agree with you, and my late best friend would have agreed with you as well. Except for the chariot race, the 1959 Ben Hur is exceedingly dull. It’s one of two beloved classic films that I find it hard to stay away during!

  4. I wrote a well thought out comment, which the internet tells me I took too long to write, and therefore ate it. So pardon my briskness – Lew Wallace was territorial governor of New Mexico when he finished writing Ben Hur, right during the time of the Lincoln County War – I’ve wondered if dealing with that reflected in any way with his final draft…. I liked the comparison of gender roles in the 25 and 59 versions – something that I expect one could find in other comparisons of 20s and 50s films. Based on your review, it looks like I need to re-watch the 59 version before the 25, so that I save the best the last. I’ll do that. Again thanks for the great review (and thanks to the Internet for reminding me to always copy a comment before I try to send it).

    1. Glad you liked it! Yes, I do try to discuss gender roles when I do Silents vs Talkies posts as I find the topic intriguing. More often than not, the silent films feature stronger roles for women and generally more progressive views.

      Yes, the WordPress comment box seems to have been timing out lately. I will have to look into this and see what’s what.

  5. An epic post on two epic movies!! Well done, Ms. Kramer! (Here’s a trivia note: MGM’s first choice to play Judah Ben-Hur in the ’59 version was Italian actor Cesare Danova! I learned this while researching an upcoming piece on “Viva Las Vegas”. Strange indeed are the ways of Hollywood…)

  6. Despite Stephen Boyd and Miklos Rozsa’s score, the 1959 version is way too long and dull for its own good. The 1925 version is much better paced, plus Novarro is great in the lead. The scene where his leper mother kisses his shadow is haunting and reduced me to tears. Not a perfect film, but it is awesome. And thank God I’m not the only one who found Quo Vadis boring. Peter Ustinov’s campy Nero is the only saving grace to that cure for insomnia. Your father was right to cheer on the lions– anything to get us closer to the credits.

    Also love all the Star Wars refs in here. Just a little off-topic question: do you plan on seeing Episode VII?

    1. Yeah, Ustinov is a blast but I wanted to just kill myself every time Robert Taylor and poor Deborah Kerr were in a scene. (She was so good with the right material!)

      I was so burned by the prequels that I am biding my time with Episode VII. However, I am liking the diversity in the cast and I was thrilled at how the official Star Wars account shut down idiots complaining about the armor on Captain Phasma not being “female” enough. (By which they clearly mean boob plates.)
      http://www.themarysue.com/star-wars-female-armor/

  7. I’d say this is one of the best and best researched film reviews I’ve read to date. Although… I only watch both films for the chariot races (and the former for that sea battle as well) because they make me laugh from start to finish while the other half of my brain is wondering how many people got maimed or worse during all that “get that shot!” craziness.

    Also, isn’t it weird how visual effects from some big and small silents outstrip many epic flicks from the wider screen 50’s in nearly every way?

    1. Glad you liked the review! Yes, silent films are consistently the superior visual product. I think part of the decay in visual quality is that 50s audiences just cared about other things and the studios could get away with miniatures because no one would call them out on it. (Well, except William K Everson.) It’s the same way that practical effects of the 80s and 90s often look far better than even the most expensive CGI. Someone needs to do a study on this!

  8. Thank you so much for this. Calling it a review does not do it justice, as it is also a wonderful, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable essay on a slice of film history. I couldn’t agree more that the 1959 version is a dead bore. Most of those 1950s epics feel like they were made with the same cookie cutter of dull scripts, dull acting, dull sets, and garish, over-bright color and lighting. Unlike you, I had seen the 1959 version two or three times before I saw the 1925 version on VHS. I was astonished at how much fun it was. Thank you for reminding people of this film in particular and of the general principle that a (mostly) black and white silent film can be so much better than a technicolor talkie spectacular.

    1. Yay! So glad you enjoyed it. You’re exactly right, the 1950s epics do seem to all come out of the same kit. The silent version has its flaws but there was nothing like it before and there will never be anything like it again.

  9. Congratulations on your 200th silent review! It was brilliantly done, well written. I’ve not been a big fan of the bible epics though I had to sit through them with my parents when I was little. After your review of 1925 silent film I must try to watch it at some point as I try to do with all the films you recommend.

  10. Thanks for your work on this excellent and thorough review! Of the two, I guess I would prefer the ’25 over the ’52 for precisely the reasons you give—though I do like Heston in the latter. From a personal spiritual standpoint, I do like the inclusion of the Christ story, but your point is a good one that plot-wise, it is problematic for the main focus of the film. To be honest, overall I’ve never considered either of these films really my cup of tea. But after reading your analysis, I may have to go back and watch the ’25!

  11. I’ve thought the ’25 Ben Hur was superior since I first saw it on VHS in the ’80s (when I spent a small fortune to buy it back then!). Thanks for illuminating the reasons why this is the case. I’m still laughing about the “cross between Jean Harlow and Raggedy Ann!” Poor Carmel Myers. Also, I’m glad you highlighted the performance of the marvelous Claire McDowell, one of the best actresses of early film. If you’ve seen her work at Biograph, you know what I mean. And I’m sure she took no sh*t from DWG, either! Again, a great essay.

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, McDowell is amazing in her Biographs. Even in her later mom roles, she brings so much to the table. One humorous anecdote: When she was being cast for Ben-Hur, she said that she wouldn’t take the part unless she was given a work guarantee (I think it was six weeks). Fred Niblo was like, “Um, yeah, I think we can promise that.” 😉

  12. Yay! I voted for this film and I’m so glad you reviewed it. The background information about the shooting difficulties in Italy was fascinating. I love all the interested tidbits about It was reading the book recommendation of yours “The Lion of Hollywood” that made me interested in this film. I remember watching the galley scenes in the Charlton Heston film, and having nightmares about being crushed by ships of galley slaves. It was terrifying.

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