When the trailer for the new Ben-Hur was released, the internet went a little silly. There were people complaining that the classic 1959 version was being remade (scandal!) and then there were people who pointed out that the beloved Charlton Heston flick was itself a remake. (Guess which club I belonged to.)
Then there were the wags who proclaimed that all Ben-Hur films were remakes of the 1907 version. While they were clearly just being silly and having some fun, these remarks inspired me to revisit the 1907 film and clear up the remake misconception. This is one of those half-myths, something that gets spread around because the real story takes a bit longer to tell. However, the true story is really interesting so I thought this would be a good time to share it. Please forgive me for being pedantic but I absolutely love this topic!
You see, the 1907 movie from the Kalem studio is not a proper version of Ben-Hur. Director Sidney Olcott admitted as much to Motion Picture Magazine 1925.
In the wild wild east days of early film, copyrights were interesting suggestions and Olcott spotted a way to cash in on a smash hit novel and its stage adaptation at very little expense. Inspired by Ben-Hur‘s popularity, chariot races were staged all over the country. Firemen especially enjoyed putting them on as it allowed them to show off their ability to steer at high speed. (Fire engines were still predominantly horse-drawn in the United States.) Finding a convenient race would not have been a challenge.
(Kalem did not secure the rights to Ben-Hur and the company was promptly sued by the author’s heirs. The result was a case that defined copyright law for movie adaptations.)
This also leads us to bust another myth. Future western superstar William S. Hart did indeed play Massala on the stage but he was almost certainly not in the Kalem production. A shoddy affair by the admission of the film’s director, it would have been bizarre for Hart to risk his stage career to appear in such a production. He had just finished a successful run with The Squaw Man and was starring in a new play, The Virginian; his finances were quite healthy and his performances were given glowing reviews. In short, he had no reason to enter films. Movies were looked down on already and the chintzy Kalem Ben-Hur would have done little to enhance their reputation. To put things in modern terms, would an award-winning actor quit a prestigious cable series to appear in someone’s ripoff YouTube videos?
(Surviving prints are so poor that the myth of Hart’s involvement will likely never be properly killed. My guess is that Sidney Olcott played Massala but please remember that I am only speculating.)
Was a film called Ben-Hur released in 1907? Yes. Did it attempt to cash in on the popular stage show? Most certainly. Was it a proper adaptation of the novel and play? No. This film can be better compared to an Asylum film. The Asylum is a low budget studio infamous for Sharknado but is also is in the business of releasing so-called mockbusters, movies that are, ahem, rather close in both title and content to major blockbusters. Pirates of Treasure Island, Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls, Transmorphers: Fall of Man, The Day the Earth Stopped, Terminators… you get the idea.
I would definitely place the Kalem production in this class. Viewers unfamiliar with the films of the 1900s may feel that it represents a typical production but to anyone who has seen a few movies from the era… well, it is clearly on the shoddy side. Listless extras wander around and lift their arms a few times. The revolt in Jerusalem looks more like an early morning aerobics class and the city is a painted bedsheet with a few potted houseplants strewn around. Not on par with French, English or even other American productions of the 1900s, that’s for certain. Further, almost no effort is put toward telling a story or even to present a string of vignettes. The attitude is very much “Here’s your chariot race, jerk.” (It’s likely that the “sets” were really backdrops for the race and the Kalem crew had limited time to make use of them.)
And just forget about any trumpeters!
The first Ben-Hur film may have been made in 1907 but were subsequent versions remakes of this film? Not at all! We can consider the 1907 film to be an early mockbuster and say with confidence that the movie lineage of Ben-Hur properly starts with the 1925 film. (By the way, you can read my review of that film here, in which I compare the 1925 and 1959 films.) While the 1925 version continues to influence all screen adaptations (the new film seems to borrow the “tie a Roman soldier to the ship’s ram” scene) the 1907 film is more notable for its influence on copyright law than anything that actually appears on the screen.
Oh, and here’s the trailer to that new Ben-Hur. I’m calling it Inception of the Ben-Hur of the Rings.