Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) [50 Films Older Than Me #35]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #35.

(That means I’m 70% through the list of films. Unfortunately, as I write this I am over 83% of the way through the year. So we’ll see how this goes!)

Spoilers ahead.  

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Directed by Fred Niblo.

Release Year:  1925 (45 years before I was born).

What it is about:  In first century Israel, Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur accidentally injures the new Roman governor in charge of his region. His former friend, the proud Roman tribune Messala refuses to recognize that it was an accident, and has both Judah as well as his mother and sister arrested. Judah is sent to be a galley slave while his family are forgotten deep in a dungeon. Judah eventually is set free and even adopted by the Roman admiral Quintus Arrius. He confronts and defeats Messala in a chariot race, and then intends to raise an army to fight alongside the new Jewish king that has recently emerged in fulfillment of prophesy. However, this king is actually Jesus, and after he is crucified Judah is changed by his message of peace and forgiveness. His family have been released from prison but have become lepers–however they are healed by Jesus shortly before his crucifixion.

Starring Roman Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur, Francis X. Bushman as Messala, Nigel de Brulier as Simonides (the entrusted Hur family servant), May McAvoy as Esther (Simonides’ daughter who falls in love with Judah), Frank Currier as Arrius Quintus, Kathleen Key as Judah’s sister Tirzah, and Claire McDowell as Judah’s mother.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I had a rough idea of the plot, having seen the 1959 Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston (though I didn’t recall much of the details).

Reality: Holy cats, what an impressive piece of work!

I know this should be obvious, but it was only as I was watching this movie that I finally understood that even back in the silent era, Hollywood movie-making from the 1920’s was big business. Somehow, even after watching Lorna Doone and The Sea Hawk and Safety Last and a bunch of Buster Keaton films, I still had the idea in my head that making movies back then was a small-scale operation, a quaint little bit of craftsmanship where a few guys would go out to their locations and cobble a story together that would then show to select audiences who had an appreciation and curiosity about this new art form.

Its all nonsense, of course. None of the films I have watched for this series support this idea. But it’s an impression that I’ve gained somewhere that just sticks–probably because it is how I actually view silent movies much of the time. I look at them like they are quaint relics of a bygone which others might pass over, but which I as a bit of a snooty student of film can recognize the value of. (It’s easy to forget that in a 100 years, audiences might be looking back at the masterpieces of today with the same sort of detachment.) But surely the cinema-goers of 1925 were not thinking that–they were thinking something more like, Wow! What an incredibly dramatic, romantic and heart-pounding adventure! For surely, that is what it was.

I think it was the sets that really woke up me to this. There are multiple enormous sets that this movie is shot on. It’s all incredibly impressive. No doubt building, and then populating, the entry to Jerusalem, the palace of the Hurs, the inner workings of the galley ships, and then especially the stadium of the chariot race would have been an incredibly expansive and expensive project.

(And if people were willing to pay those sorts of prices to make the movie, that would only be because they hoped to earn big money back as a return. A quick glance online says that it did take in a lot of money, although ironically it’s massive production costs meant that it didn’t actually net a profit for MGM.)

So all that to say that the story of the betrayed Jewish prince, based on a popular 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, is brought to life with great authenticity. We are immersed into the film’s environments, and thus the dangers of its world feel very real. This is certainly true with the movie’s chariot race, which is an amazing and influential piece of work. Close-ups of the drivers are blended with wider shots of the race in a way that that is very modern and viscerally brings to life the risks of the sport.

Just as powerful but less widely discussed is the battle at sea, where the ship that Judah is enslaved is attacked by hordes of pirates in sequence far more brutally intense than I was anticipating. There are a few sword strikes which are obviously fake but for the most part the violence is quite confronting–it’s one of those fights that you can’t imagine anyone surviving. There is even a bit where the pirates strap a Roman captive onto the battering ram at the front of their ship and than use it smash right into the side of their latest victim. Yikes.

And then the other visual moment that had me stunned came right at the end, when the giant wall that makes up the outer gate of Jerusalem is seen to suddenly crumble and falls during the earthquake that accompanies Jesus’ crucifixion. The earthquake is biblical though it doesn’t mention anything about a wall falling down in the Bible! Maybe this was the movie’s equivalent of the curtain in the temple being torn.

Actually there is quite a lot of biblically-inspired imagery in the movie–indeed, the first fifteen minutes is basically the Christmas story, albeit told with a timing that flies in the face of most modern understandings. For example, the birth of Jesus is implied to take place on December 25th, and the Magi all show up at the same time as the shepherds, and so on. But those details are easy to overlook thanks to the memorable visual effect that the move provides for the star that guides the Magi to the newborn king–quite an impressive spectacle for an early film. Plus there’s an almost religiously beautiful Mary being played by movie star Betty Bronson.

Later of course Jesus himself shows up numerous times, but always with his face kept off-screen, even when that’s done just by having people stand strategically in the way of seeing him. And unlike the 1959 film (if memory serves), these are not just moments when Judah encounters Jesus, but various other moments of Jesus’ life taken from the gospel accounts. For example, there are cut-aways to the sermon on the mount, the intervention with the adulterous woman who is being stoned, and more. There is even a depiction of the last supper using the famous Da Vinci painting as a visual reference, which is quite cool to see.

The acting in silent films is often the part of the process that takes the most for me to adjust to. Acting without the spoken word often lends itself to a broad sort of physicality that just plays oddly to the modern audience, but I think the performances in Ben-Hur give us the best of all worlds. People are expressive enough to say a lot on the silent stage, but also know how to sometimes just settle down and pull us in with an intense stare.

Of course, this is a function of the directing and editing as much as the acting, but the end result is more powerful feeling of connection with the characters than I’ve had with a lot of films from this era.

Roman Novarro, by the way, acquits himself well as Ben-Hur. He seems like kind of a small guy to my eyes, but maybe that’s just because I’m mentally comparing him to Charlton Heston from the 1959 movie. But he certainly has that burning passion that’s necessary for the part. This especially comes through in the confrontations between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala–the tension between these two before the chariot race is dynamic. I also liked May McAvoy as Esther–particularly toward the end of the movie a lot of the emotional weight for the story ends up on her shoulders.

And overall the story holds up well (although I think I prefer some of the adjustments that were developed for the remake). My biggest disappointment with the emotional flow of this narrative is the fact that Messala disappears completely from the movie following his chariot-race injuries. He was just too big of a presence in the story to not have some sort of closure. Again, the 1959 film Judah and Messala have one final conversation that is significant to locating Judah’s family, before Messala actually dies. It wouldn’t have had to have been the same sort of thing, but something like this would have helped the story feel more complete.

But even without that, there is a great deal to like here–it’s a hard movie to find any real fault with.

Oh, an interesting bit of trivia–some of the film is actually shot in Technicolor. Particularly some of the scenes of Jesus, although it’s not limited to that. It’s surprising to see that in an old silent film.

And a second piece of trivia–if the internet is to be believed then apparently, amongst the extras in the chariot race scene are lots of current and future Hollywood stars, as basically everyone around the MGM lot showed up to watch the filming and were put to work. Amongst those that are reported to have been extra in the scene or in the movie in general are Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Myrna Loy and Lillian Gish. Also John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford–that’s half the cast of Grand Hotel right there!

Plus William Wyler, future director of the 1959 Ben-Hur, was one of the many assistant directors on the race scene.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Loved i! It’s a hefty length (nearly two and a half hours) but never dull, and frequently amazing.

See here for the Master List.

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