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?
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?
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?
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.