Let’s talk about the real “Ben-Hur” and answer some burning questions

With a new version of Ben-Hur set to open in the United States in just a few days, I thought I would take this opportunity to answer a few questions that seem to come up a lot regarding the 1925 silent original.

Hey now, Miss Smartypants, I happen to know that the 1925 version is NOT the original. What about the 1907 Kalem production, huh, huh, huh?

The Kalem production is a version of Ben-Hur the same way those lightsaber fail YouTube videos are versions of Star Wars. Director Sidney Olcott admitted that the film was a bald cash grab and that the chariot race was just a fireman’s charity event.

Even though it is not really an adaptation of Ben-Hur, the Kalem film was sued and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, creating copyright law for films adapted from books. So a pretty big deal.

(You can read all about it in my mythbusting article, should you care to indulge your inner film history nerd.)

Were people killed in accidents during the 1925 production?

The most dangerous scene?
The most dangerous scene?

It’s highly likely that there were fatalities. Francis X. Bushman stated that a stuntman was killed during the filming of the chariot race and director Fred Niblo spent many a sleepless night trying to track down Italian extras who went missing during the pirate ship attack scene. Even star Ramon Novarro was imperiled on several occasions.

(I extensively cover the production’s woes in my review of Ben-Hur. It’s super long but I am pretty proud of it. Enjoy!)

Did MGM try to suppress the 1925 version when the 1959 remake was released?

Yes, they did. They even went so far as to seize a collector’s print and threaten to bring him up on charges. Unfortunately, the man they were picking on was film historian William K. Everson and his scathing review of the remake is the best kind of revenge. Delicious venom, yum yum yum! A sample:

The cheap sets and inept matte-shots one has to overlook; nobody makes big stuff in these inflated days when laboratory faking will fool nine out of ten people… What is less forgivable is the unutterable slowness of it all – the long, static takes; the endless conversations where nothing is said; the lack of cutaways, and indeed, the chariot race apart, the lack of any kind of filmic grammar… And 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.”

In the preview for the new film, they show a Roman tied to the pirate ship’s ram. Was this from the novel?

The original scene
The original scene

No, it does not occur in the novel. Frankly, the action scenes in the Ben-Hur novel leave much to be desired and much of the pirate attack occurs when the protagonist is below decks. If the new film does include this detail, it is either a homage to or a ripoff of the silent original.

Where can I see the 1925 version?

ben hur dvd

It’s not heavily advertised but the 1925 version is included as extra in the 2005 four-disc edition of the 1959 film. (I think Mr. Everson would appreciate the irony.) It includes a smashing orchestral score from Carl Davis that, in my humble opinion, blows Miklos Rosza’s overrated soundtrack out of the water.

22 Replies to “Let’s talk about the real “Ben-Hur” and answer some burning questions”

  1. Ha. I’ll bet you an old penny that Everson’s review of the 1959 film’s effects get templated for that 2016 remake.

    I actually saw an article online about a screening (for schools, I gathered) where “educational materials” will be handed out. Eeep. Um. Well, other than the obvious religious stuff, I can’t see anything about this story requiring “educating” anyone (unless it’s “ignore the physics, it’s just CG!” leaflet) 😀

  2. I do love the 1959 version because it’s just so….so epic:) I also love the fact the William Wyler told Stephen Boyd to act a little “gay” towards Heston as an inside joke since Heston would not have appreciated this. I think it adds to their one on one tete et tete. I would love to see the 1925 version as I have seen many bits and pieces of it. I want to see the new film and wondered the same thing about the ramming scene. I know that people died in the 1925 version from watching my Hollywood documentary and speaking to survivors from the film.

  3. I finally saw Ben-Hur (1925) a few weeks ago on DVD. Mine was was the third disc in the Diamond Luxe Blu-Ray set of Ben-Hur (1959). I have not yet watched the latter. The movie was good. The parts with Christ make me want a super-cut of this movie combined with Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings.

  4. The Sydney screening of “Ben Hur” is at the Wesley Mission, founded by the Methodist, now Uniting Church, so whatever Christian message it retained must be OK with them.

  5. My husband is adamant about not being a silent film fan – well, maybe some comedies he says, but I’ve never had him actually watch one with me. To his and my surprise, he LOVED Ben-Hur. Go figure. I still can’t get him to join me on silent movie outings. Guys!

    1. Indeed! It really is funny which silent films will take a non-fans fancy. Of course, Ben-Hur has much for a guy to love, what with the pirate battles and chariot races, etc.

    2. Ha! That’s when you pull a silent movie stereotype and tie HIM to some train tracks (or a couch) and toss on a few classics…

  6. Might be in the minority in this website, but I like both the 1925 and 1959 version. I remember seeing the silent version on TNT when they showed it December 24, 1989 (and 1990) as part of a silent film marathon called ‘Silent Night.’ I was able to get a recording of the film when TNT broadcast it back-to-back with ’59 as part of its monthly MGM marathon for its MGM WHEN THE LION ROARS broadcast in March 1992. Even though I got the blu-ray, I still have my recording (and a MGM/UA VHS) because the DVD/Blu-Ray excises a scene of Jesus’ crucified hand. I became acquainted with the ’59 version in December 1990, and also went from VHS, 35th Anniversary VHS (with the documentary MAKING OF AN EPIC), and Blu-Ray. I watch both films (and the docu) every Christmas.
    Although I love Miklos Rosza, I also love Carl Davis’s score, feeling it integral to BEN-HUR even though the film had a 55- year pre-existence without it. The Magi theme, the Hur family theme, the Chariot Race, etc (Davis also borrows his ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ theme from KING DAVID for the ‘Cave of David’ sequence).
    With the new BH coming out, I’m going to make sure the 1925 version gets its mention in message boards. It’s going to be a tough fight; I’m afraid there’s going to be a major attack by ‘It’s new & relevant’ viewers against the ‘old & dated’ versions.

    1. It’s okay, we forgive you. 😉

      One thing about the “new and relevant” people: time is not on their side. Moviegoers of the 1930s & 1940s scoffed at the creaky silents but now their modern entertainment is lumped with them in the general “old movie” category. The 1925 Ben-Hur has more than stood the test of time. The 2016 version… Well, I guess we shall have to look back in 90 years.

  7. I bought the 2005 DVD release just for the 1925 version and the bonus material. The 1959 movie has its moments, but the silent cannot be beat! The new one looks hilariously over the top though. I kinda want to see it just for the schlock, but after the one-two disappointment of Ghostbusters 2016 and Suicide Squad, I think I’m too jaded on modern blockbusters.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the ’25! Yeah, I’m in “wait for Netflix” mode for most movies this year. Looking at the box office takings, it looks like a lot of people feel the same way.

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